It’s been a solid week of music. We had our Bring Your Own Guitar session on Wednesday at Empire Ale in Mount Vernon, followed by the Bellingham Folk Festival this past weekend. I had a great time learning new things and meeting other musicians in the area. There were even a few connections with folks from back home. That’s quite a bit for one post, but I’ll try to wrap it all up here.
I learned about the Bellingham Folk Festival last fall. After checking the online schedule I decided that it would be a good thing to attend, so I ordered my weekend ticket right away.
Of course, life tends to get in the way of well-laid plans. The Wednesday before the festival our cat Cosmo got sick and had to be taken to the emergency vet. He had a urinary tract blockage and also had a problem with his eyes. When we got him back we had pills and eye drops to administer. I didn’t want to leave it just for Laura to handle, so I had to cut back on some of the evening activities I might have otherwise attended. (Cosmo’s doing very well and recovering, BTW. He has to be on a special diet from here on out, though.)
The event was held at the Bellingham Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. I found my way to the venue Friday afternoon and got signed in, then awaited the first session.
I was a bit concerned. The “classrooms” listed on the schedule were small Sunday School rooms. I was afraid these would be overcrowded nightmares once everyone arrived. I was glad I had staked out a spot early.
The first session was on fingerstyle guitar, led by Jamie Stillway. From the few riffs she played I could tell that she was a fantastic musician, but she didn’t dwell on her own skills. Rather, she took us through a series of scales and techniques to enhance our own skills. It was a great way to start the festival.
From finger picking I went to flat picking. This workshop was with Eli West, a multi-instrumentalist and singer. As with the previous session, the workshop leader was excellent in his field. However, his workshop felt more like a demonstration than hands-on. Even so, it was still a great experience. So far things were getting off to a great start.
I decided to stay for the evening showcase, to be held in the “upside boat” – the main auditorium of the Fellowship. First up was a trio of young fiddlers that call themselves Crossbow.
They were joined onstage by a guitarist and their teacher, Cayley Schmidt, who runs the Bellingham Folk School and is the driving force behind the festival. They started playing a tune I recognized, a Finnish lullaby called “Venjan.” As they played other fiddlers and musicians filled in and lined the walls of the venue, joining in with Crossbow on the tune. These new musicians were other students of Cayley’s as well as members of the Slug Jam. The effect was quite lovely.
I stayed to hear Eli West perform, but during intermission I called Laura and she really needed some assistance with the cat. Plus, I had somehow missed dinner completely, so I figured it was time to call it an evening.
Knowing how crowded things got in those tiny rooms on Day One, I decided to get an early start. I was at the venue when it opened at 9:00 and in place for my first session at 9:30. I was also more heavily armed, carrying both my guitar and banjo.
First up was a rhythm guitar workshop with Mark Kilianski. This was another excellent workshop. Mark showed us some of the differences between playing rhythm for Bluegrass as opposed to traditional Old Time music.
So far the guitarists had pretty much stuck together and we were getting to know each other. It was great learning about their backgrounds and their goals for this festival. It was also fascinating to see the variety of guitars folks brought along. I have a very nice Martin guitar, but I felt out-classed, like I’d picked up a generic instrument at Best Buy or Sears. There were some high end instruments hand-made by local luthiers from exotic woods and materials like carbon fiber.
So far I felt OK with my skill level and ability to keep up. However, that was all about to change as I headed to my next session. Jack Dwyer was conducting a workshop on fiddle tunes for 3 finger banjo.
I’m primarily a keyboardist and vocalist. I think of scales in a linear fashion. That also carries over for guitar…mostly. However, when it comes to the banjo all bets are off. I can do clawhammer fairly well, but when it comes to picking I get completely confused. I had a terrible time keeping up.
We had a lunch break and I was glad I had brought a sandwich. That gave me the chance to listen to some of the folks jamming in various rooms.
The next session after lunch was the first true disaster of the festival. It was listed as an “Old Time Music Class” led by Janie Rothfield and Nathan Bontrager of Hen’s Teeth. To understand what went wrong versus our expectations it would help to have the description of the session.
[blockquote]Come join Janie and Nathan from Hen’s Teeth and learn to play a song and tune or two from the American Appalachian Old Time Tradition and how to play and sing in an Old Time Stringband setting. Acoustic string instruments (such as fiddle, mandolin, clawhammer banjo, guitar, bass) and singers are welcome. For intermediate level musicians who can play at a moderate tempo.[/blockquote]
First, even though it was in the largest of the “classrooms”, it was jam-packed and overcrowded. I had both my guitar and banjo set up in their stands, hoping to get a chance to play. There were instruments of all varieties, but I think I was the only one with two set up. Even after the session started people kept trying to squeeze in, only to disrupt the proceedings. The upshot was that I couldn’t easily escape, even though I really, really wanted to.
The session was terrible. Nathan Bontrager just had us chant various rhythms to understand the rolls of instruments in a string band. That was all well and good, but could have been done in 10 minutes – not 45 minutes. When we did finally pick up instruments it was to play a single chord while Janie improvised on top of it. We didn’t learn any new tunes, and it was a complete waste of time. Arrgh!
My next session was supposed to be a clawhammer workshop and I had been looking forward to it. However, it was taught by the very same Nathan Bontrager who had us chanting interminably. Even though it was the only clawhammer workshop of the weekend and would have probably been different, I wasn’t willing to give him a second chance.
Instead, I had two alternatives. There was a “Slower Than Dirt Beginner Old-Time Jam”, but with the Slug Jam I’d been to enough slow jams. I wound up going to a session entitled Community Gospel Singing, conducted by Louise Ledford and Allegra Ziffle.
Louise Ledford is a singer/song writer based in New Orleans. He led us through mostly African-American spirituals. Everyone participated and sang, and there was step-clap movement with some of the songs.
Overall the workshop was good, certainly better than the previous debacle. Even so, I had to laugh at a couple of things. First there was the frequent mention of the Gullah culture from my home state of South Carolina. The other was this whiter shade of pale audience without a single person of color in sight. To me it seemed that the workshop treaded a fine line between historical information and cultural appropriation.
The last session of the day was another flatpicking guitar workshop, this time with Mark Kilianski. As with his earlier workshop, Mark led us through a variety of styles, encouraging us to try each as he demonstrated them.
This time I didn’t stick around for the evening sessions. There was supposed to be a contra dance, but it had two things going against it. First, I wasn’t sure how well I’d dance having just come out of my boot with a torn Achilles tendon. Secondly, the music was provided by Hen’s Teeth, and I was still a bit irritated with them, enough so to call it a day and head home.
Since the venue would be in use for worship services, Sunday’s sessions started at 1:00 pm. My first was another guitar session. John Hatton demonstrated ways for us to play Old Time Guitar in a string band. The session was similar to others I’d attended, but there were some new tips and tricks. What I liked most about the session was that Mark had brought along a fiddle player to playa tune as we provided the accompaniment. We got to see how these patterns fit into the overall scheme of things.
For the second session there were two more guitar workshops. There was one on finger picking and one on accompanying dance tunes. Since these looked very much like the sessions I’d already attended, I decided to go a different route. I went to a session entitled “Reinventing Pop Songs” led by John Roberts and Margo Murphy.
John and Margo showed us ways of playing older pop songs (in this case songs by Janis Joplin and Sam Cooke) in an acoustic pop style. This was more like our family jam sessions at home. It wasn’t restricted to guitars, either. There were ukuleles, and even a cello and harp. I asked the harpist if she was going to play those power chords in the Janis Joplin piece.
For the last session there wasn’t an instrumental workshop I wanted to attend. There was a guitar workshop for DADGAD tuning, but I just didn’t want to get started with that. Instead I went to a workshop on harmony singing lead by Amy Avery and Mark Kilianski.
Even though I was very familiar with the material, Mark and Amy did an excellent job. First they demonstrated different methods of harmonization, then they introduced us to a short song Mark had written. The attendees were divided first into two, then three groups and asked to provide various harmonies. It was a great session.
I chatted with Mark and Amy after the workshop. As it turns out, they are now living in Asheville and regularly play at Smiley’s Acoustic Cafe in Greenville. We exchanged contact info and said we’d have to look each other up when I get back to the east coast.
Once again I didn’t stick around for the evening showcase. I headed on back home to help Laura with Cosmo’s medicine.
Conclusions and Observations
Despite the one less-than stellar workshop, I had a great time and think it was well worth the money. I learned some knew things and met some great people.
At any activity like this that is somewhat out of the mainstream you get a lot of “intentional” people. They intentionally dress differently to attract attention, make themselves unique, whatever. I jokingly told Laura that I needed a pair of overalls and bowler hat for the festival, but I wasn’t far off the mark. Hats seemed to be the main way folks stood out, but mismatched alternative clothing and hairstyles also abounded.
The venue didn’t seem quite adequate. The small classrooms were overcrowded, there was no room for music cases and little for instruments, and maneuvering was difficult. While I appreciate the Bellingham Unitarians letting us use their facility, I just wish we’d had a bit more room.
Speaking of the Unitarians, I got amusement from a couple of things around the facility. There were signs posted outside of the bathroom encouraging people to use the bathroom where their gender identity is most comfortable. Large signs inside the bathroom declared this to be a fragrance-free facility. (The irony of these being in a bathroom was not lost on me.) Each classroom declared itself a “Nut Free Zone” (which I found to be debatable.)
While I agree with all of these things, but to me it seemed that the signs were meant less for information than to proclaim loudly, “Look how progressive we are!” I was particularly amused at these signs in one of the classrooms. New theology?
Finally, I felt like I’d spent more time hold an instrument than playing one. Some of the workshops were much better about this than others. I wish I had been able to take advantage of more informal meetings and jam sessions. With the tiny classrooms and space constraints I felt like I had to rush to each session to stake out a space so that I wouldn’t be left out. Perhaps having a larger venue might help. Even though I’d just spent a weekend immersed in music, I still went to the Celtic Practice Session at the Littlefield Center in Mount Vernon on Monday just to get my fill of playing.
Those are minor things, though. I know I won’t be back for this festival, but I would like to attend another one in our area like the Swannanoa Gathering or the John Campbell Folk School. We’ll have to see.