I spent all of last week at the Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camp in the Catskills, playing old-time music. (And not reading much email or checking LJ at all, so apologies to anyone I’ve been ignoring.) This camp is run by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. Jay is a fiddler, and wrote the tune “Ashokan Farewell” which became somewhat famous thanks to its use in Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary. Molly is a multi-instrumentalist who’s also written quite a few tunes.
Old-time music is southern American dance music — fiddles and banjos mainly, playing traditional tunes, usually instrumentally but sometimes with lyrics. (A lot of Cajun players also come to this camp, but I didn’t play much of that, at least not this year.) It’s similar to bluegrass and many people confuse them, particularly since many old-time tunes are also bluegrass tunes, but the main difference is in how the songs are played. Old-time musicians generally play the melody, together, perhaps doing some ornaments and such, but mostly playing as a group. Bluegrass tunes are generally played as a series of breaks, with each player taking one chorus and going all out. I love and play both styles, but I’ll be focusing a lot more on old-time music, which is more about the beauty (and/or the drive) of the melody than on individual feats of musicianship.
Ashokan is different from (and much better than) any other program like this I’ve attended. Not only because the communal approach attracts a different kind of musician, but because it’s run by a couple who love this music and have spent their lives playing it and sharing it.
Like most programs, Ashokan offers a series of workshops and classes during the day, for instruments, singing and dancing, and concerts, dances, and time for jamming at night. The instructors are there for the whole time, so you can play with them at night or sit with them at lunch or corner them for a private lesson.
Unlike other programs, Ashokan seems to attract a friendlier crowd that’s more serious about the music and less interested in showing off or one-upping each other. Workshops were relaxed, jams didn’t get so large as to be out of control, and I didn’t once see anyone disrespected or ostracized for not being able to play “well enough.”
And the food was good. This may sound like a minor issue but it isn’t. At other music weeks I’ve been to, I’d be feeling tired and sick-ish by the fourth or fifth day, thanks to a combination of staying up late (to jam) and getting up early (to get to class) and not eating well. The last is not a problem at Ashokan; the meals are delicious, with lots of fresh vegetables and greens, and the dining hall is open at all hours so you can get coffee, tea or fresh fruit. They even offer a gigantic midnight snack, just what you need to go from a few hours of dancing to a few more hours of singing and playing, or vice versa. (And yes, I danced my first contra and square dances at Ashokan, and had a blast.)
But the real highlight for me was singing, and in particular, the duet harmony class taught by Carl Jones and Beverly Smith. Some of you may remember my Close as Brothers CD mix of country harmony songs a while back; this class focused on the music of the Blue Sky Boys, one of the groups in that collection. They’re achingly beautiful songs, and when you and your partner really hit the harmony right, the feeling is just indescribable. My other classes were great, but exhausting; the duets class was a complete energy charge.
I also took a fingerstyle guitar class, only lasting three days before deciding he’d gone beyond what I could process (and also no longer being able to get to a 9:30 class), a class on waltzes where Jay taught the melody and Molly taught brilliant accompaniment, and another harmony class on four-part gospel singing.
I have in all seriousness been saying this was one of the best weeks of my life, and it’s not hyperbole. Now all I need to do is catch up on sleep.