OLD TIME MUSIC
The title is evocative of a fiddler and a banjo picker sitting on a sagging porch with two hound dogs in the shade underneath. In a more global sense, old time music could be thought of as anything from chants around the first fire to the sixties rock and roll that we grew up with. At Mars Hill University in North Carolina, every June, it means bringing traditional instruments together to celebrate, and pass on, a style of music that is the basis of many current styles.
Fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, bass and even banjo ukelele are taught and played in nearly endless jam sessions. Every level of player is welcome here. The jam sessions run from professional demonstrations of what can be done to very slow jams, where any musician can hone their skills.
The major morning sessions for specific instruments are exhausting two and a half hour marathons. Most students saturate some time before the session is over. Instructors are enthusiastic and present much more than I, for one, can take in. The pieces come back slowly as I practice through the year.
Mini sessions are less stressful and my banjo ukelele hour is actually a wind down from my morning drubbing on banjo or guitar.
A more idyllic setting for this step back in time could not be imagined. Mars Hill University is situated in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. The stately old buildings are mostly of an earlier era. Neatly maintained grounds and an attentive staff add to the immediate feeling of comfort. Even the lack of air conditioning in the dormitories adds to the stepping back feeling of the week.
I have just returned from my third year and look forward to many more. I will, hopefully, do a better job of improving my skills during the year. It is amazing how other activities get in the way.
May, 2012 Mountain Magic and June Apples
I had been home from the other side of the world, touring New Zealand, for three months. It was long past time to be on the road again. Voreata, Payten and I escaped for a grand adventure in the Appalachians. Voreata is my dear friend and hiking partner. Payten is her twelve year old (soon to be thirteen – our condolences Voreata) granddaughter.
We could not wait for the main event at the Mars Hill Old Time Music Week, so we went camping in the mountains for a few days before the weeklong event.
I arrived at Cosby Campground in Smoky Mountains National park first. The smell of the trees relaxed me from the drive. My Banjo Ukulele echoed among the trees as I sang. Curious squirrels scampered to seating higher in the tall pine trees. Other campers took various degrees of casual notice.
Voreata and Payten arrived and approved my choice of campsite. We quickly had tents up. The weather was unsettled and we dislike setting up camp in the rain.
While they set up the kitchen for dinner I went in search of firewood. A little store outside the park provided what we needed for a cheerful evening blaze to accompany our playing and singing. Our shadows danced on the trees. In the distance, the flicker of other campfires and murmur of voices added a warm communal feeling to the evening.
A ranger, and the couple hosting the campground, came by with their puppy. The puppy was soaking up all the attention, going from person to person wiggling all over.
With full stomachs and totally relaxed, partly due to a good bottle of New Zealand wine, we were not disconcerted when a soft rain nudged us off to bed.
Waking at the first grey light of dawn is always special. After a rain, my senses are an inch outside my skin, taking in the feel of the tent flaps near my face, damp from a night of condensed breath. The smell of water soaked evergreen trees outside is the finest perfume. The mosaic of the water drops and tree limb shadows dances on the barely visible tent fabric. The satisfying dry warmth around my body assures me that the flimsy tent fabric has, once again, magically kept the rain outside the tent.
I should go start the coffee. It is so comfortable here. I awake again to the subtle, but unmistakable, whoosh and pop of a propane burner starting. Voreata has gotten to the stove ahead of me. The coffee is ready by the time I dress and crawl out.
While sipping my first cup I packed my very efficient gear. Voreata was fixing breakfast and the mountain air had affected my appetite in the usual way. After breakfast I felt only very mildly guilty when I went for a bike ride while Voreata and Payten cleaned up and packed.
Most of the other campers were still asleep. This is my favorite time of day. Squirrels scolded indignantly as I interrupted their cleanup of meals from last night. A few fires still put out pitiful little wisps of smoke. I always look to see who has ignored the bear safe storage rule. I am never disappointed. Camping in a drive in campground and obeying the common sense rules about storing food should assure a safe night. An army of bears would be tired by the time they rousted only the people who left food out.
Our next camp was only twenty miles away. By road it took us an hour and sixty mile to get there. Cataloochee is a unique valley. We left the freeway and then the pavement. After winding up a twisting mountain road, including some of the first 5 mph corners I have ever seen, suddenly we were back on the pavement. This made me wonder why we had not come in from the paved end. There is no paved end. A very nice paved road runs down the valley and goes nowhere. There is also a new power line that appears to have been built over the mountains to power the maintenance shop for the park. Can anyone say “Pork Barrel”?
As at Big South Fork, some of the buildings and the history have been maintained. Is it worse to have a big company buy up your land and destroy everything, or have the government do it and make your personal history into a museum? For the rest of us, this window into the past is enlightening and sadly beautiful. A barn, which teamed with life and living, and a house, where you can almost smell breakfast cooking, is frozen in time. All painted and mowed, but just as dead as the people buried among the trees up on the hill.
The Palmers gathered on the grass by the house. The food and activity were like family reunions anywhere. On the hill lie; the baby who died before learning to walk, the casualties of the Civil War, the patriarch who survived to the grand old age of 62. They finished their hot dogs and loaded up to travel forward in time a hundred years. In a few moments all they left behind was a few wild daisies laid on the stones of their ancestors on the hill.
Turkeys wander, unconcerned, through the trees. Three bull elk, their horns in soft velvet, ignore our passing bicycles. A cow elk leaves her newborn “hidden” in the grass a few feet from the road. She grazes contentedly while we wonder over, and photograph, this little miracle. We joked that she seemed to have left him there for us to babysit while she went out to eat. Somewhere out there the red wolves are back, as if they had never been annihilated. I think that I can live with a community being uprooted in the name of nature when this is the result. Only change is constant.
Voreata’s son Shawn, and forty or so friends, had reserved the entire group camping area. Our level tent pads ringed a two acre green space. This was what was left of a larger field now mostly returned to second growth forest. The broad shallow stream polished the rocks a few feet from my tent.
Payten and I made a game of memorizing names. We did fairly well up to thirty and then lost track. My memory for names has never been stellar. I am counting this as a new activity to keep my mind sharp (or sharpen it, depending on the assessment of my current condition).
I went on a solo bicycle ride up a 1200 foot climb. I am certainly out of shape for bicycle riding. The gravel road snaked up the mountain. Sun had replaced the clouds and rain. It was still cool enough to make riding pleasant. Eventually the rough gravel road met with the paved road that had surprised me on the way in. I coasted for three miles, evaporating the sweat from my clothes.
I slept soundly both nights with the stream murmuring in my ears.
It was not far to Mars Hill College for our week of studying Old Time Music. We spent the morning having a leisurely breakfast and taking a bicycle ride before starting out on our next adventure.
We were all trying something new. We were only incidentally familiar with the Old Time Music genre. Voreata plays violin so she took intermediate lessons. Payten has training in singing so took a singing class. I had worked from a DVD with the banjo for a few weeks so I took Advance Beginner Banjo. Each of these classes ran intensively from nine until eleven thirty. My brain was usually fried at about two hours.
In the afternoon we each had another one hour class. Voreata and Payten took beginning guitar. It made me feel a little less klutzy on the banjo to see them struggle with chords. I took Banjo Ukulele. This was a pure unwind hour. The instrument is so easy, loud and fun to play. There were 28 of us and our sessions rocked the auditorium.
Erynn Marshall provided us a melody on fiddle to our rhythm. She was amazing. She also taught Advanced Fiddle. There should be some way to bottle the joy she radiates when she picks up a fiddle.
WAVES OF JOY
Mars Hill 2012
Rich red singer in velvet case
Tall white haired partner frozen in place
Hands lift the pair in tender embrace
Waves of joy light her happy face
Three are one from first sweet note.
Fiddle, bow and musician float
Freed now from silence’s prison
Waves of joy upon happy mission
Long hair smooths the lively beat
In sinuous motion to tapping feet
Vibrations lightly through the floor
Waves of joy call out for more
Hungry senses reach out and reel
More than sound and sight and feel
Captured by the mountain magic
Waves of joy, how we love her music
Meals seemed to come every hour. We were so busy that time flew. The food was good and the variety would make it difficult for anyone to be dissatisfied.
Lobbies, and any other space large enough, had chairs for jam sessions. Temporary pavilions and porches were always ready for spontaneous music. As you wandered the campus you could hear everything from a group of beginning mountain dulcimer players to fiddle virtuosos trying to outdo each other. Often all instruments were represented in groups as large as twenty. This jamming went on from after breakfast at six thirty to midnight. I never actually made it until midnight, but that is what I heard.
The week flew by. The concert on friday, by all students who were so inclined, provided performances by twenty two different groups in two and half hours. The performances ranged from virtuoso performances by a fiddle soloist to our twenty plus banjo ukeleles. I had been braced for hours of music when I saw the list of groups. The concert finished exactly on time and the party and more jam sessions followed.
I went home completely spent and slept for two days. I pledged to myself that I would practice the banjo every day. I will leave it to all of you how long that lasted.
2013 June, Once More From the Top
Here the three of us were again. Our adjoining rooms, with common bath, were identical to the year before. I was repeating the same banjo class. Voreata had progressed further on the fiddle. I had enjoyed the banjo ukelele so much that I had convinced them to take the class with me.
We will forever blame Voreata for our other mini class. Buck Dancing is roughly associated with clogging. Watching it done by an expert makes it look easy. Learning the steps was exhausting. Voreata felt challenged and dove all the way in. Payten and I were a little less enthusiastic. There is a U-tube video out there somewhere of me repeatedly checking my watch and showing it to Payten during a session.
A NEW DANCE
She wondered if I'd like to take a chance.
go to school with her and learn a new dance
The lady knew the waltz, the rumba and the tango
so when she asked, I couldn't really say no
I pondered when I had time to think a bit.
Why had her husband not thrown a fit?
The need for preparation being clear
I pelvic thrust before a full length mirror
Entering the class, I quickly zipped my pants
My friend had signed us up to learn to BUCK dance.
Once again the week slipped by before we had gotten settled. Banjo was still not coming easy but I was pleased to be able to chord along at the friday concert. I was as spent as the year before, and just as determined to follow through with practice. The results, unfortunately were similar to the year before.
2014 June — What do You do if You Find a Chicken?
The tidy old college building separated by generous swards of lawn were unchanged. A woman from Montana waited in the shade of a tree with me for registration to open. I had not thought about the heavy humid air until she mentioned it. I remembered the crisp air of western Montana. Even when it was hot, the air did not have to be forced into your lungs.
Voreata and Payton arrived before registration opened. They had been camping and to a birthday party for another granddaughter.
"Hey Gator!" I announced loudly enough to give the line of musicians, who were waiting with us to register something to wonder about. Payten only blushed very slightly. She was resigned to my teasing. Her new trail name had been hard won, from swimming with a twelve foot gator, but that is another story.
The line could easily have been mistaken for meal time at the Union Mission in some inner city. Long unkempt beards were the norm on the men. The women mostly showed signs of the road trips they had finished. Like us, I am sure that they were all anxious to check in, get to their rooms and freshen up.
Even with only one lady handing out badges and welcome packages, the wait was not long. My first trip to the room on the third floor of the Fox dormitory was with my fan. I opened the window and set the fan to high. By the time I had rolled the large cooler and two more trips for guitar, banjo uke and clothes, the room was a few degrees cooler. Air conditioning is a good thing.
Voreata and Payten were soon settled in the adjacent room. Payten is excelling in school and in her extracurricular activities; clarinet and tennis.
Her story of an audition for a city band was somewhere between a bad dream and an effective episode of a sitcom: The audition was very strictly controlled with little explanation of what would be happening. Payten told the story expertly. I will try to capture the essence when I have more time. Better yet I will task Payten with writing it down.
The modern cafeteria had the usual array of meal choices. Without some restraint I could put on ten pounds in the week here. We saw a few people that we recognized. I will try to do better at recording the interesting ones for future reference. Most of them spend a lot more time on their music than I do.
More pleasant conversation, over our smuggled in libations, brought us to what we now considered time to sleep. Voreata had missed her siesta for several days.
I started coffee at five and Voreata was up to bring me a cup before I could take her one at the prearranged five twenty.
Coward that I am, I had abandoned the banjo in favor of intermediate guitar.
We took a long walk at six because no one had arrived at the fitness center. Voreata and Payten's fiddle classes were only a few doors down from my guitar class. Kellie Allen and her husband Pete Peterson both taught the class. They had a band and gave performances during the week.
My preparation was not enough for what we were doing but I would have been very lost without it. I progressed rapidly on new bass runs. The real problem was when to use them. I was constantly early or late. I could do the runs and change chords with the group, but not both at the same time. Practice, practice, practice.
Our song writing after lunch was quite interesting. Carl Jones is an accomplished song writer. The class was mostly a discussion session with suggested exercises. Several of the attendees are already adept at putting a song together. The critical element is what is missing but in a five day class being too critical would probably just make everyone hate you.
I composed a song while we talked and Voreata and Payten were very impressed when I had the song on paper and set to music when I returned from my uke class. A line from one of Carl’s songs gave me the idea. This was a true story from our Chicago Basin hike, well we were supposed to go to Chicago basin, but again that is another story.
Keep the River on Your Right
That backpack was eighty pounds. Abner walked slow and far behind
Climb and wait, climb and wait, in any shade that we could find
F G C
Abner don't overload your pack and keep the river on your right.
When we all finally passed the top. That downhill undid our panting friend
A loose rock rolled under his foot and that was Abner's end.
F G C
Abner, watch where you put your feet and keep the river on your right
We scattered Abner's heavy pack and wondered at what we found
To ease the load on his broken foot we passed his gear around
F G C
Abner, never let em see inside your pack and keep the river on the right
It pained us all to the core to dump out ten pounds of good red wine
When we share the hundred dollar scotch you should have heard him whine.
F G C
Abner, don't drink more than you can carry and keep the river on your right
The last morning, we sent Abner ahead, skipped rocks and picked meadow flowers
Following the trail that Abner took when he'd been gone for hours
F G C
Abner, hurry every chance you get and keep the river on your right.
We met old Abner trudging determinedly up the winding track
The river roaring on his left, he'd got lost and doubled back
F G C
Abner, for the rest of your life we'll prod, keep the river on your right
The Uke class is the same as last year but Charlie Hartness and his wife, who teach it, are so entertaining that it does not matter. Being able to relax and bang out tunes for an hour relaxes some of the tension from the two and half hour guitar marathon. Some of the instruction was a repeat of the year before. We did go into variations a lot more and the fiddler and dulcimer players, who sat in, helped with timing. This was great for me. Years of playing solo have resulted in my setting and changing tempo as I pleased.
Charlie had written a song “What do you do if you find a chicken?” Voreata was not as discouraged about her songwriting after I sang this one to her. Various libations after evening practice and the fan in the window helped me sleep, in spite of the heat.
By thursday I had burned the candle down to a puddle in the saucer. All three of my classes had been excellent. The guitar was challenging and very well taught. My progress was much better than on the banjo. I did start from a better level of skill. It would take months of daily work to perfect what had been presented. In the middle of guitar class on Thursday I had been hit by lightning. I started being able to follow the tablature on the board and even find my place again when I got lost. With this breakthrough I can now do bass runs almost in time, if they go slow enough. The surprising part was how sudden it was.
One of the guitar class members was taking the class for the sixth time. He was getting the hang of it. The levels of expertise were equally divided, above and below mine. Some others were progressing faster, but none seemed to have the epiphany that I did. Kellie commented that I had a really good right hand. I had been trying desperately not to add my own up and down strokes while we were practicing.
Song writing was more fun than I had expected. Hearing how other people approach writing a song was very rewarding. The Uke was a blast, as usual. Anyone could just sit in the corner of that class and listen and love the comic presentation.
After working on it all spring, my book “Raven” was released on tuesday. This distracted me but I did not want to wait to get the word out. I added some basics to the website, promising to finish up at home. All this meant that I spent a lot of “sleep” time working on the computer.
Wow! Friday the thirteenth. What a last day of school. Voreata and Payten stayed for the concert for the first time.. Progress was excellent in classes. Food was good and we spent time talking with new friends.
The show case, where each class could present a song was the best. Velma runs the show. She is an “over the top” mountain woman from Kentucky. She has a radio program and does a perfect job of keeping things moving. The auditorium and sound system seem custom made for the two hundred musicians. It was heartwarming to see how supportive the audience was of all the participants.
Payten first did Bonaparte with her group. It is fantastic how beginning intermediate students can play such beautiful music. Payten has mastered many instruments and is coming along toward being a fine fiddler.
Voreata's group was more advanced and demonstrated how powerful a dozen fiddles playing together can be. Sorry Voreata, but I really preferred the piece played at the showcase to the practicing that you did in the room. I did try to play guitar along with Voreata’s practice a few times. I was not quite there yet.
My guitar group did a very impressive rendition of Piney Woods Gal. It helped that a bass, banjo and fiddle joined us on stage. Predictably, my wild Hawaiian shirt got more comments than my guitar playing. I followed the chord changes well and even got in basic bass runs. I was very pleased.
My Uke group had fun with the tune that Charlie wrote "What do you do if you find a chicken?" A member of our uke group also did a beautiful bit of the theme of the old TV series "Paladin". The Uke class had also been invited to sit in with the dulcimers, but I did not want to rush from that slot to guitar, although I could have made it.
The tequila made it through the week but we had to make a trip to the store for wine and ice. It was still very warm, but I had adjusted. Next year I will heed Chris' advice and bring the air conditioner and hope that it does not blow fuses.
The " After Party" was at our dorm. We socialized briefly then loaded plates with snacks and retired to the room to combine the snacks with more interesting libations. We thought that we had stayed up very late talking until 1130. When I went to bed I heard banjos out the window at one of the jams that were still in full swing.
The week was only a flash and a puff of smoke and I was so pleased to have the book actually available and be able to follow a fiddle tune on my guitar. They say to stay sharp you must keep trying something new, and this is always something new. It don't get no better than this!!