This week I’m going to camp.
With my mother.
Yes, I am a full-grown adult.
We go to old-time music camp, her with her banjo and me with my fiddle. My sister and her banjo came with us last year and will again this year. This is our family vacation – getting up early every morning to grab breakfast and get to class by 9, spending hours in classes, jamming or dancing or just listening to others play at night, and not getting enough sleep before doing it again.
I decided to learn to play the fiddle a few years ago, an early step in my ongoing effort to get closer to my Appalachian heritage. I grew up with piano lessons and the marching band, and with bluegrass and flatfooting just about every time we visited Mom’s people. My mother’s family was into bluegrass – my papaw still has his old collection of records, Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe and Ricky Skaggs and one or two old records, definitely out of print, that my uncle Larry’s band put out, all of them in late-70’s denim suits on the front. For years an old Bluebird school bus sat at the bottom of Larry’s driveway, used to take the band to gigs. They played little local shows and when we were visiting we would go. My mother and grandmother would get up and flatfoot and I would imitate them. I loved to dance.
But then I got older, more self-conscious. I didn’t get up and dance much. I listened more to the pop music my friends liked. As an adult, I’d still listen to bluegrass sometimes. But it took a while before I got the itch to combine music and heritage.
I don’t know what exactly sparked me to pick up the fiddle. Maybe I had lived away for a few years and was getting a bit homesick. Maybe I was getting older and thinking more about my roots.
Mom bought me a fiddle and a “How to Play the Violin” DVD. I tried to learn with the DVD and it sounded like I was killing a cat. So I found a teacher. He asked what style of fiddling I wanted to learn. I said bluegrass, I guessed. I didn’t know much then about the differences in bluegrass and old-time.
It was Mom who suggested we look for a camp. She and my dad had met in the Country Dance Society at Berea College in Kentucky, and one summer they both worked at Pinewoods dance camp up in Massachusetts. If there was a folk camp for dancing, she thought, there was probably one for music.
It turns out there are many. Augusta, Swannanoa, Ashokan, Mars Hill – those are just a few that we looked at, on the east coast, and there are many more. We chose Ashokan that first time, even though it meant a 13-hour, two-day drive up to New York state. We liked how it looked outdoorsy.
That week at Ashokan was a revelation to us. A week of nothing but music, of people who were so into it, who could play so well, who knew so much. People who studied Appalachian music. It’s hard to believe now, but even though we’re born and raised in Southwest Virginia, we had no real idea about the background of old-time music, beyond bluegrass music. We knew of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, but we’d never heard of Benton Flippen or John Salyer or Tommy Jarrell. People talked about “West Virginia tunes” and “Kentucky tunes” and we were clueless.
But we left so excited to learn.
Old-time music is, of course, not for everyone. Not everyone wants to listen to scratchy old fiddle recordings over and over again. Not everyone is “eat up with it,” as one friend called it.
But for me, playing old-time fiddle has really strengthened the connection I feel to home. It makes me feel closer to a unique musical heritage. I like that it is such a distinct music that folklorists came into the mountains to record it (and I’m glad they did). I love that many tunes have a family tree a geneaologist would envy – we can trace them back a hundred, two hundred years. We can see where they split, where one community plays a tune a bit differently than another. Learning to play Appalachian old-time fiddle isn’t just learning music. It’s learning Appalachian history. If you spend much time around mountain music, you’ve heard tunes like “Pretty Polly” – originally an English murder ballad. You’ve heard, perhaps, of “Camp Chase” – allegedly composed and played by a mountaineer soldier in a Civil War prison to save his life. The banjo arrived as an African instrument. The history of people in the Appalachian mountains can be traced through the history of the tunes. I love that history, and how evocative the sounds are, at least to me. I suppose we all hear what we want to hear, but to me the dark, crooked, modal tunes just sound like a lonely place in the mountains.
Playing the fiddle has also strengthened my connections in the present. Until I picked up the fiddle, I’d never really asked my grandfather about his music-playing days, before World War II, when he and some friends would play Saturday night dances, picking out tunes they’d grown up hearing or had learned off the Grand Ole Opry on someone’s radio. He played the fiddle and the banjo, back in his youth, but he says they’ve left him now. I never saw him play or heard of him playing until just a few years ago. He essentially gave it up during his working years.
Now I ask for stories about those days. I ask about how he first learned to play, how he got the money to buy an instrument, how he learned tunes, who he played with, where he played. Every answer enriches my understanding of his story and our family story, and it enriches my picture of life in his corner of the mountains 70, 80 years ago. When I find a new-to-me fiddler I think he’ll like, I give him a CD. He still likes to listen, and he still likes to talk.
That’s my grandfather above, with the fiddle.
So we talk to Papaw about music.
And we go to camp.
Spending a week each summer with my mom, having new experiences and learning new things, has been great. We had never done anything like this and we neither one of us played very well that first year, but we went and did something new and brave together. It was an adventure.
These camps aren’t for everyone. It’s definitely a more formal way of learning a music that was traditionally passed down informally. Could you learn more in a week at Clifftop? Probably. Would it be better to spend the year sitting with an old fiddler and learning his tunes? Possibly.
But that isn’t accessible to everyone. I don’t currently live in Southwest Virginia — my access to old-time fiddle mentors is limited. I go to festivals, but Clifftop isn’t my mother’s scene. Mom spent her career as a teacher. She’s more comfortable with classrooms than festival camping. So camp works for us. I can learn informally the other 51 weeks of the year, but I view camp like an immersion class for old-time. Anything that preserves and passes on the heritage and the history is good by me. Augusta does a great job of that.
After our first year at Ashokan, where for the first time I played in front of people who weren’t my mother or my teacher, I came home with the courage to brave a jam. Now I go to the local old-time jam every week. I go to festivals with those folks. Camp changed my life.
Fiddle changed my life.
So this weekend we’re packing up and heading to Augusta’s old-time week at Davis and Elkins College in Elkins, WV. (We loved Ashokan but it was a long drive.) We’ll learn some new tunes, maybe some better techniques (I always need to work on bowing). We’ll come away with notes to look up old fiddlers and banjo players who we hadn’t heard of before. We’ll hear some great music, we’ll stay up too late and get up too early for people who are supposed to be on vacation. We’ll develop some new family inside jokes. We’ll have a good old time.