"Hey, Ruthie! When you going to learn how to play the blues?"
When young Ruth Wyand went to her weekly guitar lesson in downtown Atlantic City she would walk from her home through the Lagoon section of the Venice Park neighborhood to the bus stop, and each time she would hear the same question.
The curious neighbor turned out to be Mac Elder. Every week in the warmer months, when Elder was outside washing his car, his music – Elmore James, Robert Johnson, Billie Holiday and Motown – would slow Wyand's pace as she approached with her ears open wide. "Hey Ruthie, when you going to learn how to play the blues?"
Wyand was 12 and one of nine children who were listening to a great variety of music at home, just about anything but the blues. When the music bug bit there were only three guitars in her school's music program and boys got them first. The rule was that if someone quit their lessons, the instrument would be passed on to another student. So Wyand played the flute, then the clarinet through fifth grade, until one year later a guitar finally became available. To this day, she still hasn't given it back.
One day Elder showed her a Hound Dog Taylor album cover and on it she saw a six-fingered black man holding a guitar with a slide on one of his fingers. Wyand thought that because she was white, a girl and had only five fingers, she would never be able to play the slide guitar.
Living in such a large household, Wyand had to carve out practice time in a bedroom she shared with three sisters. She played every chance she got. When everyone else was watching "The Carol Burnett Show" she would practice in her room. Both her mother, a home economics teacher, and father, a police officer, were very supportive, and at 15 she began playing in clubs around Atlantic City, catching rides from older band mates or in her father's squad car.
Wyand went to college on an athletic scholarship for field hockey, but when the desire to play and study music surpassed as else she transferred to Stockton College, graduating with a degree in music theory. It was there that she started playing slide guitar and where the seed planted by Elder blossomed and bloomed.
A Life Based on Music
In her early years, Wyand traveled in various bands and was constantly on the road. She married Chris Creighton, her husband of 34 years, and took a job as a technical stage hand in Atlantic City so she could be home more and concentrate on song writing.
During these years, she and Creighton would leave the Jersey Shore to vacation in Avon. There she forged a friendship with the owner of the Froggy Dog, Sid, who after Wyand, invited her to play at the legendary music venue in Avon. Every summer the two would head back to Avon for a few weeks of vacation and every year there was another place to play music. Wyand's finger-picking, Piedmont style of playing and clever, original blues songs like "Blame Yourself Blues" and "Been in the Storm so Long" quickly grew her a loyal following.
Eventually, the need to retreat to a more creative place became too strong to ignore.
"The money was good in Atlantic City, and it was fun for awhile running the spotlight for Janet Jackson and The Miss America Pageant and working as a costume assistant for the Moscow Ballet," Wyand recalls, "but with a 60-hour work week, I didn't write at all."
Creighton found a job with the post office in Kill Devil Hills, so they pulled up their New Jersey stakes and mad e new nest. The slower pace and creative lifestyle on the Outer Banks gave Wyand wings to fly.
It was Wyand's realtor, Gary Rader, who found them a home in Colington Harbour and introduced Wyand to the local music community and scene. Wyand worked her way up from the open mic night at Kelly's to regular solo gigs, which led to teaching and small concerts. Together, she and Creighton created a simply life, with music playing the starring role.
Last summer, Wyand decided to enter a Blues Challenge competition in Virginia Beach. Without ever having taken part in one before, she walked away with second place, a cash award and the know-how to figure out just what it would take to win the next time.
She went on to compete in the North Carolina Blues Challenge, where she won first place in the solo/duo category, prize money and advancement into the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn. While in Tennessee in February 2017 she made it into the semi-finals and became one of eight musical acts selected from 120 to play The Orpheum Theater. She was the only woman to make it into the finals since 2003 and the only woman in her category.
That's a fitting distinction because Wyand has dedicated a great amount of her time to researching and honoring women pioneers who broke down the barriers of the male dominated music profession.
For the N.C. Humanities Council, Wyand created a multimedia presentation about the first documented women musicians in North Carolina In the show, which she titles "Through Their Voices," Wyand gives voice to artists like Ella May Wiggins, Nina Simone, Samantha Baumgardner (the first banjo player ever to record in 1922), Etta Baker and Cherokee and Lumbee Indian women musicians. She takes listeners on a journey through original stories, songs and images to bring forward this forgotten history.
"Ella May Wiggins was a Gastonia textile mill worker and mother of nine before the age of 34," Wyand said. "Four of her children died of whooping cough and her husband left her. She was an advocate who sang for folks living in tent city camps during the Luray mill strike of 1929. No wonder she had the blues. She left a big impact on North Carolina history."
Another of Wyand's multimedia presentations was inspired because of a regular gig at the Avon Village Theatre, a tiny 40-seat space adjacent to a gas station in Avon. Offered a weekly gig at the theater, she discovered there was a movie screen behind the stage. Not wanting to play in front of a big white screen, she created "A Journey Down an American Music Highway" about the history of American Music from the Civil War to the present, making full use of the screen with images and information.
At one of her performances, a woman on vacation from the U.S. Embassy Kuwait saw the show and asked Wyand if she would be interested in presenting it in Kuwait.
"That's how I ended up becoming a musical ambassador for the U.S. Embassy's Cultural Exchange Program; from a little gas station theater in Avon," Wyand said.
Passing it On
As much as she is known for her music, one of the biggest impacts she has made in this small community is by nurturing young musicians.
The local Mustang Music Outreach Program, which partners regional and national musicians with students in Dare and Currituck counties, was developed in 2014 from a summer band camp that Wyand created. When Mike Dianna, founder of the Mustang Music Festival, was looking for a program to support with proceeds from the annual music festival, he saw a perfect opportunity with Wyand.
There are currently 25 students in the program, ranging from third grade through high school and making up four bands, one of which plays only original material. The bands showcase their talents at community events and some of the older students are even hired out for private parties using Wyand's sound system and her advice on how to act like a professional musician.
"The Mustang Outreach Program is incredibly grateful to be led by such an amazingly talented, world-class musician and person like Ruth Wyand," Dianna said.
This model is also being explored by Dare2Care, an organization that works to build awareness for veterans and encourages inclusion for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities within the Outer Banks community. Wyand plans to work with Dare2Care to form bands and teach music to the people it serves.
"Thanks to Ruth, our house is full of music and happier because of it," said Stephanie Willis, mother of young Mustang Outreach musicians Sam and Jonah. "Through Ruth's patience and guidance Sam and Jonah have grown to love music. It is a huge part of their lives."
When Mac Elder died in 1994, Wyand played at her surrogate blues father's funeral. His encouragement to a young Wyand is living on in a new generation. Whether her students end up studying music further or not, the impact Wyand has had on their young lives will, like the melody, linger on.
Catch a listen for yourself on Saturday, Nov. 11, as Wyand performs at Joslyn Hall on the campus of Carteret Community College as part of the Down East Folk Art Society's annual music series. General admission is $16; members, $13; and students, $10. Doors open at 6:30pm. Learn more at www.downeastfolkarts.org.