Jam-N-Folks founder’s life a progressive melody

By Judith Richards
Contributing Writer
Gulf Coast Newspapers
Posted 4/8/07

Mary Anne Cieutat, a retired schoolteacher, is the founder of Jam-N-Folks. Music has been a major part of her entire life.

“My mother started me on the ukulele when I was real little,” Cieutat explained. “She played piano, harmonica and …

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Jam-N-Folks founder’s life a progressive melody

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Mary Anne Cieutat, a retired schoolteacher, is the founder of Jam-N-Folks. Music has been a major part of her entire life.

“My mother started me on the ukulele when I was real little,” Cieutat explained. “She played piano, harmonica and banjo. My sister played violin.” Cieutat laughed, “We even played the comb and tissue paper.”

The name Cieutat is French, pronounced see-ah-tat. Her forebears came from France and settled old Mobile in the 1850s. At age 4, Cieutat was enrolled in a Catholic school because public schools wouldn’t allow her to attend at such a young age. She entered Howard College (now Samford University) in Birmingham at age 15, where she concentrated on the study of music.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in music and organ performance, followed by a master’s in religious education and a major in organ performance, a master’s degree in physical education and church recreation. Cieutat taught in Mobile public high schools for 35 years. Every Sunday she played organ for various churches.

When Cieutat retired from teaching she moved to her family’s old summer place on Fish River in Baldwin County. Although she’s been flooded twice in recent years she loves the tranquility and beauty of the river — as she loves music.

Soon after retiring, Cieutat organized a group of musicians who would meet every week and play just for fun.

“At first, we were all dulcimers,” she said. “But we started having other instruments to come in. Somebody brought a violin. A man came with a flute. Guitars came, mandolins and harmonicas. We weren’t just a dulcimer group anymore. We changed to a folk instrument group. And that’s how we became Jam-N-Folks.”

They now number forty-five musicians of mostly retired people. The group ran an ad in the newspaper. “Anyone interested in playing folk instruments should just come and play.”

Some members hadn’t played since high school and others came to learn an instrument. In the meantime, Cieutat arranged for classes teaching people how to build and play the dulcimer.

Such a diverse group needed different music. “I write the arrangements three different ways,” Cieutat explains. “If you read real notes, we put out sheet music. If you don’t play notes, we put the numbers under it so you can read and play dulcimer TABS. Or if they want to play chords, like our guitars or mandolin, then we put chords on the sheet as well. One sheet of music takes care of everybody.”

Asked how Jam-N-Folks evolved from a group playing strictly for their own enjoyment to performing concerts, Cieutat looks thoughtful. “We started playing for other people because they wanted us to come and play. A lot of the senior citizen homes or nursing homes make requests. Some people in nursing homes don’t respond to anything. But when you come in and play, you’ll see their fingers move or their feet move. Somehow that music is reaching them.”

In a book titled “This Is Your Brain On Music,” author Daniel J. Levitin makes the point that music activates some areas of the brain which aren’t stimulated in any other way.

Cieutat tells a story about Jam-N-Folks playing for a church where a family brought in their grandfather in a wheelchair. “He had no movement, no expression,” said Cieutat. “We started playing. The man smiled. He moved his hands and his feet. He became animated, the family said, for the first time in five years. They told us later he was a violinist.”

Anyone can call and request that Jam-N-Folks come and play. “We try to comply,” Cieutat says with a grin. “There is no charge, but we say we play for food. We are often given lunch, and sometimes donations for travel expenses.”

Jam-N-Folks meet every Tuesday at the Nix Center in Fairhope from 9 a.m. until noon. Anyone with a folk instrument, beginner or experienced, is welcome to join in and play.

You can learn more about Jam-N-Folks and their schedule at: rlwalker.gulfweb.net/jamnfolk/jamnfolk/html.

Judith Richards