Southern Harmony

Heavenly Sounds

By Andrea Brown Ross | Photography courtesy of June Caldwell

The sounds of a harp are heavenly, but in the hands of storyteller and harpist June Caldwell the music becomes magical – especially for weddings.

As a storyteller with the Mississippi Arts Commission for the past 20 years, June Caldwell had an impressive repertoire of musical instruments she could play including the piano, guitar, dulcimer, hammered dulcimer, and Native American flute. But when an opportunity presented itself nine years ago to learn how to play the harp, Caldwell couldn’t pass it up. Her music now provides the soundtrack for couples walking down the aisle and opening the next chapter in their love story.
“I’ve always loved the sound of a harp. It’s just magical,” she explains. “When I had a chance to buy one locally, I couldn’t resist.”
She began to teach herself how to play by using a book. After six months, Caldwell traveled to North Carolina from her home in Pontotoc, Mississippi, to take a weeklong instructional class. She would later take a follow-up class.
“From there,” Caldwell elaborates,” I actually skyped lessons from a well-known harpist in Seattle, Washington.”
Crediting her parents’ love of music, she has always been immersed in some type of music.
“My mother was musical,” remembers Caldwell. “She played piano and sang in the church choir. She must have taken us to every concert within a 50-mile radius growing up.
“And my father…he couldn’t sing very well, but he loved music, too. Our parents really nurtured and encouraged us to play music.”
As a child, Caldwell dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer or writer. Proclaiming she didn’t have the talent to pursue those dreams professionally, she does compose her own music.
“I’ve released one CD, and another one is forthcoming,” shares Caldwell.
She finds inspiration from spending time outdoors, walking the trail behind her house, and working in her herb garden.
When not composing or performing her own music, she enjoys playing a variety of other genres.
“I love to play the blues on a harp, and I also play contemporary,” she says. “I really enjoy all types of music. I love Celtic and the folk music revival in the 1960s and 1970s, and Child ballads.” [Child ballads are 305 traditional English and Scottish ballads, anthologized by folklorist Francis James Child during the late 19th century.] It typically takes Caldwell a day or two to learn a new piece of music. More complicated pieces can take up a week. She credits harpists Laurie Riley and Lisa Lynne as two of her musical influences.
The Rev. Milton Whatley, pastor of Como United Methodist Church, shares his impression of Caldwell’s music:

“I’ve known June for several years through church functions and the festival in her hometown. Her talent has been a blessing to me. When our church began thinking of hosting a community Christmas concert of seasonal and sacred hymns, she was the first person to come to mind,” he says. “The concert was a success and members of the Como community loved it.”
Caldwell has performed at a variety of events and venues since meeting another Mississippi Arts Commission storyteller 20 years ago.
“I ended up performing with her and the rest is history,” Caldwell says.
Her personal highlights include playing at Celtic festivals, the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina, the Mississippi State University Conference on Oral Traditions, and the Mississippi Humanities Council 40th Anniversary Celebration.
Although she has enjoyed a myriad of performing experiences, weddings are her favorite events to play.
“Weddings are such happy days and a fun time. I take specific requests from brides,” says Caldwell. “I try to match the music to the audience and reach people through music.”
Caldwell also reaches out to others indirectly through her music. She often donates a portion of her proceeds to Operation Smile, her favorite charity.
Retired now from more than 25 years of full-time teaching, she enjoys making enameled jewelry, painting, gardening and cooking. Music, though, has been the constant in her life. In fact, she has passed on her musical genes to her children.
“My daughter plays the piano, and my son plays the guitar. He’s the executive director of the Songbird Foundation in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They provide instruments and music lessons to underprivileged children and children with cancer.”
Caldwell encourages those who are interested in learning to play an instrument to pick one up and get started.
“I’ve worked as an assistant instructor with the hammered dulcimer in North Carolina. Adults, even elderly adults, can learn how to play. Age is not a factor,” she shares.
“I hope my music makes a difference in someone’s life. I hope it makes them feel good or feel better when they listen to it,” says Caldwell.
To listen to a sampling of her music, visit her You Tube channel, June Caldwell harp.

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.