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Putting It into Practice

July 31, 2015

DSC_0211This week, I’ve been singing my heart out and playing my heart out, but I’ve barely touched the keyboard, and my notebook and pen have been taking notes on classes all week. This is what I call the “prewriting stage,” (and, no, I didn’t make up the term!)

Here at the Swannanoa Old Time Music and Dance Week, held each July at the Warren Wilson College campus, I am accumulating enough material to write reams of pages. Today, though, I’m going to take you across campus, tuning in to all the senses.

Warren Wilson College is a liberal arts college in rural Black Mountain, NC, nestled in among the mountains. One of the first working colleges, where all students have jobs and complete a required number of service learning hours, it has also been designated as the “greenest” college in the South.

Driving in from the interstate, the scenery becomes more and more pastoral.  The campus has its own working farm, so the eggs and sausage served every morning are homegrown, as is much of the produce, so little yellow “Tommy Toes,” watermelon, beets, parsnips appear on the buffet every morning.  The cafeteria is all windows on one side and most of the opposite, so we look out over trees in which first-timers are surprised to see miniature animals perched.  From what the students have told us, these were placed all over campus by a former student–giraffes in trees, tiny animals atop the bridge that connects one side of campus to the other.  We may not always be looking toward the stars, but our gaze is up.

The campus also gives the illusion of one geographical oddity: every road and path seems to be uphill.  I usually start the week getting up early to take a morning walk or run. How ridiculous.  An extra thirty or forty minutes of sleep would prepare me for the miles and miles I walk every day lugging my instrument case and bag.  The evening dances are another element in my aerobic repertoire here.

This year, I am here with my granddaughter Avery for the first time, and the experience is even richer. She had never square danced before Monday night, but she jumped in for the first dance and never left the floor. Tuesday night she was ready to go again.  (At this point, dear reader, you can channel your own olfactory memory to imagine our post-dance aroma.)

Another interesting detail of campus life–particularly for those of us staying in the dorms–is the absence of air conditioning.  Sure, we’re in the mountains, where it’s generally ten degrees cooler than our home in the foothills. But there’s a warm streak.  After five years here, I finally remembered to pack an oscillating fan, which makes daytime bearable. By evening, especially after some of the sudden summer showers, we’ve had cooler temperatures.  I do know of two brothers here who bring their own window unit air conditioner for the week. Sissies.

While I could say so much about the visual beauty of this place–the wild array of wild flowers, trees, and bushes, the mountains in the background, each sunrise–the dominant impression here is, naturally, sound.  From the first step on campus, one can hear music.  As soon as they check in, many campers migrate to the jam tents or simply find a spot to sit and play.  Some regulars have established jam circles, even though they may only see each other once a year.  Most just move from spot to spot, finding a group that makes the best fit.

Each early evening, we have a “slow jam” session led by some of the faculty, playing recognizable tunes (ideally) in common keys but at a slow enough tempo that even learners can find a place to jump in. Occasionally one of the leaders playing rhythm will even call out the chord progressions. If “Brown-Eyed Girl” is the most played song at beach bars and “Wagon Wheel” at festivals, “Angeline the Baker” is probably the closest parallel. The organizers even send out a list of most common tunes played, so those coming for the first time can start to build an old-time repertoire:  “Mississippi Sawyer,” “Arkansas Traveler,” “Cluck Old Hen,” “Susannah Gal,” to name a few.

Other songs are swapped in the circles though. The Texas musicians have songs that the North Carolinians may not know; the Kentucky musicians teach songs they learned from some of the old masters.  You’d have to try hard not to learn new tunes here.

For a chance of pace–or should I saw tempo?–one could move through the halls of Kittredge and Jensen Halls to listen outside the doors of classrooms.  Imagine for now an entire classroom of students playing upright bass, then down the hall–all banjos.  (One friend described it as “banjo hell” when everyone is tuning and noodling away between songs.)  The autoharps are strumming away in another room, and then the Sacred Harp singers are singing into the hollow square. The ukeleles are back by popular demand.

A full week at SG Old Time Week leaves me with sensory overload–but in a good way.  I have so much more to write about my week, especially having my best roomie ever, Avery. All I need now is time to practice “Crow Creek,” “Nail That Catfish to a Tree,” and “There’s No Place Like Home.”

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One Comment leave one →
  1. sandyyoung75 permalink
    August 2, 2015 6:59 pm

    I wish I knew how to play one of the designated instruments. If I did, I’d ask to be your roommate one year. Actually, I used to know how to play the ukulele back in my college days. It seems as though we all could play to one degree or another. My favorite song was “Mississippi Mud,” and would you believe that when our guests last Sunday began to eat my Mississippi Mud Cake, I — the worst singer in the world — broke out in song and sang MM for them. I don’t think they were much impressed, and when I asked, they verified that I probably shouldn’t give up my day job. Loved your piece, Cuz! Does Avery play one of the instruments? Maybe I missed that part.

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