There is nothing like an Old Time music festival. It’s a much different thing than most music festivals, which are all about watching performances by a line-up of acts doing their thing. I know to some of my Toronto friends, Old Time music is some kind of obscure mystery. They have no idea there is a huge and focused community around it. There are at least a couple people I know who, aware I play banjo, just assume I play Bluegrass. Oh no, no, no no. I’ve never tried playing that Scruggs-style banjo and really have no interest in it at all. I returned last evening from the Rockbridge Mountain Music and Dance Festival, after a very long drive in the rain. This seems like a good time to write about my experience and what it’s all about.
Sure, at Rockbridge there were a couple mini-concerts by the bands playing the square dances (and yes they were great bands, the Earl White Stringband and the Crooked Road Ramblers), and sure there were workshops delivered by fantastic players like Marsha Todd and Kilby Spencer, but the heart of an Old Time music festival is the jamming at the campsites.
It was the jamming that drew me to Rockbridge. I’ve been mostly a front porch player and I know I need to get out and play with others way more often. At a festival like Rockbridge there are many, many strong players. Many are multi-instrumentalists. Some have been playing for 20, 30, even 40 years and some of these folks have been playing with one another in their communities and at festivals for many years. Camped all around me were players who were as good as anyone playing this music. I was very fortunate to make friends, for instance, with a really powerful fiddler (and fabulous person) named Kathleen O’Connell, who was camped next door to me. She told me she’s one of the two Katies in a band called Katie and the Bubbatones. Of course I looked them up on the YouTube cause everything is on the YouTube. Here’s they are playing Hangman’s Reel at the Laurel Bloomery Fiddler’s Convention a few years ago….
Some jams are pretty open and the players don’t mind others sitting in, and some jams will just grow and grow. I saw a couple jams at Rockbridge in which there were 7 or 8 fiddlers, 3 or 4 guitars, a couple bases, banjos galore, and even stray mandolins, dulcimers and what-have-you. Other jams are clearly way more private. I found that I made friends in the area of the festival grounds I was camped in – by the river – and was pretty much welcome in most of the jams going on around there (yes, even after they heard me play – ha ha).
There’s some protocol around a festival jam. Generally, one of the fiddlers is in charge, calls the tune, and decides how long to play it. In some friendly jams though, other players can suggest tunes. For example, in one D-jam I was in, we were chit-chatting between tunes and I guess I had a hankering to play some Arkansas Traveler, so I started noodling it on the banjo. Our fiddle player looked at me and said in his gruffest voice, what’s that? Arkansas Traveler. Can’t he travel any faster than that? So I started in as fast as my stubby fingers would take me. The fiddle jumped in, the guitar was right on it, and off we went. I’d never played it anything like that fast. What fun!
Occasionally a tune at an old time jam will be short, but mostly they go on for a while, and once in a while they go on for long while. The fiddler who starts the tune is responsible for stopping it and there are two ways to do that. One way is by calling out, ONE MORE TIME, after which everybody plays the tune one full time then finishes together. The other way is to raise one leg as a signal to finish up. In one jam they had another interesting protocol. I don’t know if this is common or just among this group of players, who happen to know one another well. The fiddler might raise his or her leg to stop the jam. Then another player vetoes that, by making a V-shape with both feet. That player is then responsible for ending the tune. The first time I saw that happen, I saw the V-shape signal but I didn’t know what it meant and I was confused when everyone kept on playing.
When a tune begins, you know what key it’s going to be in because generally several tunes or even an entire jam will be in a single key. Clawhammer players are typically tuned in a particular way for playing in different keys and fiddle players will often play in cross tuning for “A” tunes, for instance. Often fiddle players will have two fiddles at a jam, one in standard tuning and one in cross tuning. Sometimes the player who starts the tune will call the name of the tune, but often a fiddler will do a one-potato-two-potato and just get right down to business.
Everybody jumps in fairly quickly and the tune is played over and over and over again. All the players react to one another without consciously thinking about it, and the group establishes a nice big groove. In the best jams, as everyone gets deeper into the groove, the various players all become a single unit. It’s a magical, remarkable thing to be part of that. A banjo player I admire suggested to me a couple years ago that when you get deep in the groove it opens up something in your playing and you find yourself contributing to the jam in ways you didn’t know you could. I’ve totally experienced that. I’ve felt almost outside myself (ecstatic?), listening and playing – and thinking, how the hell am I doing this? After I’ve been in a really good jam, I just want to do it again and again.
I do much better in smaller jams than bigger ones. The ones I like best have perhaps 2 fiddles, a banjo player or even 2, and a couple guitars. A stand-up bass player is a great addition and the addition of someone on banjo-uke or mandolin or mountain dulcimer or even harmonica can add texture. The fiddle lays out the high melody and the guitar puts down the changes. I try to concentrate on one fiddle and one guitar as I try to find the tune. Sometimes in big jams I find it difficult to get in the groove, find the melody and really contribute well. I sat in on one really big jam the other night and just couldn’t get my head into it and soon stopped playing and just listened for a while.
There is every kind of camping set-up you can imagine at an old time festival. Some people sleep in their cars. There are lots of tents and a huge array of campers and vans, from old beat-up teardrop campers to giant fancy-pants Airstream units. Many people have “easy-ups” or canopy structures with tarp walls to make outdoor rooms. These can provide shade and protection from rain and at times from cold too.
I really learned the importance of these structures at Rockbridge. I was sitting down in the camp next door with two of my new friends, Kathleen and Bill the other afternoon. I think we were about to play some Julianna Johnson, when all of a sudden a thunderstorm came roaring in. The wind nearly knocked down Kathleen’s table. She jumped up and starting reinforcing the tarps. The rain started with a vengeance. The three of us were trying to keep the shelter together when we realized water was pooling on the ground underfoot. We scrambled to get our instruments in their cases and get them up off the ground. It was a crazy-powerful storm. After the storm, I was happy to see my tent and flimsy screened in shelter were still in place. A couple people weren’t so lucky.
Later that night, a slow steady rain began. It rained all night. By some miracle my tent kept me totally dry. At one point in the night I put my hand on the floor of the tent and could feel pooled-up water underneath the tent. I could hardly believe none of it found its way inside. It was pretty soggy striking camp yesterday morning. Dick and Lisa across the way made sure I had lots of coffee before my long drive back to Canada. As I drove away from Buena Vista Virginia, the steady rain continued and it rained and it rained and it rained and it rained some more until I got close to the Peace Bridge in Buffalo. What a grueling drive. It should have taken me around 10 hours but I did it in 12 and a half. I tried to drive at a slower pace than I normally would for safety because of the rain, but I found there were some transport drivers with little patience for my prudence. These drivers rode my tail, making me very nervous. At one point in Pennsylvania I pulled into a rest area and closed my eyes for 15 minutes, then stopped in the next town for a jumbo coffee. One or the other of these things, or maybe both, gave me a burst of new energy for second half of my drive.
I had a fabulous time at Rockbridge, but I’m happy to be back home with my honey and the dogs and cats. My wet camping stuff is still sitting out in the car, and it’s a problem because the rain I drove through has now found its way up to Toronto, so it will be difficult to dry everything out. For now, I’ll put it in the shed out back until we we a dry day, then I’ll spread everything out and get it well dried before packing everything up.