My friend and I were traveling to an Appalachian music festival in a town called Clifftop. It wasn’t really a town, more like a few scattered houses and a chapel. We had just climbed up out of the narrow Kanawha River valley. The Kanawha River runs a gray brown over shale deposits and the coal is heaped up in train cars lined end to end, waiting to roll on, buddy. Coal is still king here in West Virginia; barges of the black stuff lined the river and we passed more then a couple refineries and coal burning power plants. My friend considered it a dark kind of a scene, with what looked like little company towns crowded into the valley floor and the smell of refinery chemicals. Well, what can you do? I use electricity, too. I think West Virginians have a kind of stubborn pride for their coal industry. Like the song says, “A man must have lust for the lure of the mines.” We saw more then a few “Coal, keep em’ lit.” signs.
From the valley floor the mountain sides look like they are covered in jungle. Lush hardwood forests of white ash, beech, chestnut and oak, here and there the kudzu or some other rampant non-native vine would inundate a few acres. Once we were up in the mountains and away from the industrial valley floor, the air was cooler and our spirits lightened up. We had the feeling we were returning to our “Cabin on the Mountain” to learn more about “How Mountain Girls Can Love”.
I don’t know just what I had anticipated in a traditional music festival, I do less anticipating as I grow older. Things are never what you thought they would be. I had seen pictures of old bluegrass festivals from the 50’s and 60’s, men with brush cuts and women in country dresses. There were the proverbial smiles with missing teeth and the outrageously tall fiddler whose canvas pants hung like drapery from the great circumference of his waistline. What we found though were many kinds of people, all tucked into the mountain forest on a rolling hilltop campground. Fiddlers, banjo pickers, musical instrument stalls, field recordings, fried green tomatoes, beans and cornbread and enough campers to keep a bathroom brigade unplugging toilets 24 hours a day. These festival goers knew what they were doing; some brought oriental rugs and coffee tables and set up living room accommodations outside their campers. At first it was all a bit overwhelming but still it felt homey and comfortable too.
My friend and I play music but we did not bring instruments. Why we did not bring them is a mystery to me. Maybe we thought there would be too much music to hear, to worry about playing anything. For me though, it is agony to watch people play music and not have access to something to play myself. And everyone seemed to be capable of playing an instrument. By the first evening the urge to participate in something drove me to the big hall built of logs that stood at the entrance to the camp. People milled about as light and boisterous music spilled out from the entrance to the hall into the lonesome night. Inside the cavernous space of dark tones, wood beamed ceiling, and great stone fireplace a string band played and everyone seemed willing to give a shot at square dancing. Though the mountains of West Virginia were cooler then the muggy Midwest my friend and I had just come from, the cavernous hall where the square dancers swung emanated a sultry heat. Giant floor fans billowed dresses as couples broke and headed to the doors for a few moments of fresh air between dances. The step caller would talk the dancers through the steps for each dance, giving those on the floor a couple of trial runs, then the band would start. Although it looked a bit chaotic, the grouped couples seemed to be managing the steps, twisting and turning, do-si-do and swinging their partner.
The well-lit space on the bandstand rolled and whooped with the musicians. The fiddler commanded with a fiddler’s stance and his bow fenced with the air above the band. Fiddlers are a band in themselves, melodies and counter melodies, call and response quivering and jostling over each other to get at the listener’s ear. Fiddle music is a marriage of chaos and precision, like a train threatening to derail at any moment, yet staying glued to the tracks; Casey Jones no longer driving the train but being carried along in the wave of excitement that is the Orange Blossom Special or the Wabash Cannonball. Of course, there was also a mandolin player, a banjo picker, a guitarist and even a drummer pounding on a lone snare drum. The step caller teased the band members as they played and lightly harangued the square dance groups that ran afoul.
I watched with fascination as the dancers bounced off each other, sometimes getting it right, sometimes not. Oh sure, I thought, I could do that. I pictured myself swinging my partner round and round like the occasional couple I saw spinning about like a whirling dervish. But first I had to find and ask a partner. Oh, this is the difficult part for me. To step up and ask a fair young maiden if they would like to dance. The sweaty palms, the hesitation… Ah, just ask somebody! I had to barrel ahead. I couldn’t end the night without trying this at least once. Meanwhile, my roving eye had already found a preference. The gal with the auburn hair and black country dress with white lace stood with a couple of her lady friends. They had just come in and already two men had asked her two friends if they’d be partners. The pale blue eyes and the way she chewed on her full lower lip spurred me to action. The pretty mountain girl fantasy in my head had to make room for the fact that this potential dance partner also sported pagan and Celtic tattoos and a ring in her pierced lower lip. Yeah, old-time music festivals aren’t just made of backwoods mountain folk anymore.
“Would you like to be my partner?”
She looked at me with a your-in-for-it-now grin and said, “I’ve never done this before.”
“Neither have I,” I replied and we headed out on the floor. We eventually found three other couples willing to bounce off of us as we attempted to hoedown. It became apparent we were in for a calamity when our group stumbled around and constantly scattered in confusion during the instructions. But there was no waiting for us to catch up and the square dance music flared up.
“Now first couples come on up,” the step caller announced in rhythm. “And now go on out and around two.”
We had only figured out we were the first couple by the time we were supposed to be on opposite sides joined with the couples on either side of us and coming up together as a line. The more we tried to catch up the worse it got.
“Now swing your partner round and round”, came the call.
I looked up to see that I was not only about to swing somebody else’s partner but they also had a mustache. I don’t think I was supposed to be swinging a man, at least not at this square dance, so I broke that off and looked for my partner.
“Now make a circle, go around two times.”
The band played like barnstormers and seemed to speed up just as we thought we could pull it together by forming a circle, a move we all recognized. Our circle bowed and pinched like an oil bubble in a lava lamp. It was all so bad I couldn’t help but feel guilty. At times I felt like the main culprit, the head monkey wrench and distinctly remember somebody in my dance group yell, “You’re going the wrong way, fool,” as we were supposed to weave through the circle and back to our partner. Well, my subconscious probably added the word “fool.” I actually considered turning and walking away in the middle of the square dance like a dejected child losing a board game. It would have been more out of absolute embarrassment then dejection. But I am an adult and I must reap what I have sowed. It didn’t occur to me that I could have properly “prepared my soil” with a square dance tutorial given earlier in the day between the morning yoga and lunch. But still, I wasn’t the only one in our group that was completely befuddled. We all sprawled out in every direction trying to follow the steps. I held on desperately hoping it would all end. As it was my partner seemed to take it better then I did. She grabbed me with some sense of vigor as we attempted to do-si-do or dance with our partners. Near the end of the dance the step caller must have recognized how badly our group was doing and showed some pity by telling the dancers to break, move toward the stage and clap along with the music.
After it was all finished my partner smiled at me and said, “Whatever could go wrong, did go wrong.”
Road trips tend to throw off my peristaltic rhythm and that dance triggered it back into action, so I bolted from the dance hall and headed for the bathroom. The speed at which I moved increased by the distance I wanted to make between me and that square dance scene. I couldn’t bare to return just then to the square dance hall, after using the bathroom, so I wandered out into the cool night amongst the crowded campsites aglow with lamps and musicians alighting into Appalachian melodies of joy and sorrow. As I listened to the music some part of me still reeled from the fiasco on the dance floor. As it was, I should have returned to the dance floor and made amends with my partner and maybe had a good laugh. It would have been a kind of assurance that in another time and space, maybe in a galaxy far, far away, we would have surely met with some knowledge of the steps and performed like candidates for the Grand Ole Opry. I saw her the next day on the festival grounds and gave her a sheepish smile. She looked the other way with what seemed to me a frown. Now there is a gone goose, I thought. Oh well, I’m a musician not a dancer. Maybe I’ll breakdown and buy that mandolin with the crack along the f-hole I saw at one of the instrument stalls. I could linger on the edge of the forest blending the jangled sound of a couple of mandolin chords with the crickets. It’d keep me away from square dance floors anyway.
It probably wasn’t as ridiculous as it all seemed. Shades of mild self-deprecation flowed through the place right along with the music and gathering joys. Old-timey songs ring of unrequited love, rejected lovers drowning their sorrows (and sometimes their lovers), highways of regret, and men of constant sorrow. It’s natural to humble yourself in the thick green mountains of West Virginia.
The morning after the fiddle competition I greeted our camping neighbor Skip. “Congratulations on placing with your fiddle playing!”
“Ah, the judges musta bayn tone deaf,” he scoffed with a laugh.
Skip owned a small farm in northern Virginia and was an old timer himself. He told us how the crowds get thicker every year here and the bizarre antics of some of the competitors in the non-traditional band contest. Having learned my friend and I were from California he told us of adventures he has had out west and of his recent visit with his son stationed at Vandenburg Air Force base on the California coast. Talking to folks like Skip gave me an understanding that even though these Appalachians and people of the surrounding areas have a regional style and manner they are well versed Americans. They know their country and have been to all parts of it. Staying the few days we did back in these West Virginia mountains with these people, sharing a love of traditional string band music, made a person feel as though they had discovered long lost kinfolk and an ancestral home. It was as if all the regional differences and modern trappings were stripped away with the historical reach of the music. A participant like me was not so much a time traveling visitor, but became one with the mountain people, playing and dancing to the music. As I lay in my tent on the last night before we left, I could hear – against the background whir of crickets and cicadas from the forest – the high lonesome sounds and joyous melodies of musicians gathered in all corners of the camp. I decided I would have to return to this home in the mountains, where there were no visitors or rank strangers, but only family welcoming you back home to join in the song and stomp your feet – even if your feet are a bit clumsy. Christian Layow