Swannanoa Old-Time Week

Having been learning to play the banjo for five years, and reached some kind of musical plateau, I decided it was about time I upped the ante, and headed for the Appalachians for some genuine old-time American music tuition. Yes folks, I was heading to band camp! Or should that be string-band camp? I’m not sure.

Door to door, it was a meagre eighteen-hour trip from London to the small town of Marshall, NC, where I stayed with the lovely Lucy Ray of the Kittyhawks, to acclimatize prior to the ‘Swannanoa Old-time Music Week’. And with 30 degree heat in the shade, nights that throbbed with the buzz of cicadas, and a bunch of people who thought my posh London accent to be tantamount to a speech impediment, there was plenty of acclimatizing to do.

Arriving a few days later on the campus of Swannanoa’s Warren Wilson College, a private, liberal-arts university about 20 minutes outside of the mountain city of Asheville, I was however, no better prepared for the lost and lonely feeling that comes with being the new girl at school. Fortunately, a few people milling around with instruments let me join in their jam for a short while before directing me to the cafeteria where a bountiful array of caffeinated drinks and ice cream – free with the all-inclusive meal deal option – made me feel more like I might begin to enjoy my vacation.

This was the 20th anniversary of old-time week at Swannanoa, and in honour of that several of the original tutors were invited back to teach again, including the illustrious Dirk Powell, who made time between his hectic recording and touring commitments with Joan Baez to teach advanced fiddle and banjo classes. Other well-known headliners were Alice Gerrard and Paul Brown.

Just a bit too young to have been teaching back in ’91 were a host of the world’s leading old-time music masters filling the core teaching schedule and initiating extra-curricular jamming activities. Focussed around the nucleus of the supremely talented brothers Trevor and Travis Stuart, who taught classes in banjo and fiddle, and chipped into the square dance bands and sessions on guitar and double bass, were the wonderful Jesse Wells who taught fiddle and mandolin, and top-class banjo picker Brett Ratliff who having taught last year was had come along to brush up on his fiddle-playing. Forming a string band super-group alongside Dirk, these guys were unstoppable, literally. Having taught all day, they played for the evening square dance, stepped off the pavilion stage and onto the grassy campus slopes and continued the session and sing-along into the wee small hours. They advise you to pace yourself, but no one goes to bed early when the music is this rocking.

Guests performers are also invited to perform throughout the week – this year Kentucky fiddler Paul David Smith performed a Monday afternoon concert and ended up staying for the whole week, jamming with other such luminaries as Rayna Gellert, John Herman and Bruce Greene. One of the youngest among the staff was Anna Roberts-Gevalt, a powerhouse of enthusiasm especially working with the kids, who entranced young and old with her home made “Crankies” – story and song illustrations sewn into cloth and wound between two handles to make a mini, mobile movie theatre.

Of course, it wasn’t all about the partying. As I alluded to, there was a bit of tuition going on too. And that’s perhaps where my only criticism of Swannanoa lies. Not that you are forced to stop the fun to take lessons, but that the sign-up process is not entirely transparent. When you sign up for classes in the months ahead and pay a not insubstantial, and non-refundable deposit, you are not actually guaranteed a place on the class of your choice. I was in the disadvantageous position of having not “pre-registered” which is the registration process for a select group of people in the know somehow, to register before the normal registration opens. And unfortunately, although I registered in the first days of open registration, two of the three classes I had paid my non-refundable (did I mention that already?) £80 deposit to attend had already, unbeknownst to me, been filled at pre-registration.

This made things a little awkward to say the least. I was given my second choice classes, but to be honest I never really anticipated that I would be doing these back-up options having registered “so early”. Neither of these were banjo classes, the only instrument I can actually play. And after a somewhat unhelpful email exchange I actually considered losing my money and not going at all.

However, having spoken to a few alumni, I was reassured I would still have lots of fun at Swannanoa and may well be allowed into my preferred classes if there were cancellations. So I took the plunge, forking out the remaining course fees and £750 for a flight. Sadly, there weren’t any cancellations. So when it came to Monday morning lessons I had a choice whether to obey the rules and do a class I didn’t really want to, or to politely inquire whether Dirk Powell has space in his classroom for a small and quiet girl who’d come all the way from England and would pretend to be invisible at the back. Reassuringly I discovered I was not the only person taking matters into their own hands, and my guilt subsided after a few days as trespassing became the norm. Finally, course co-ordinator, general all round good-guy, trouble-shooter, and new best friend Phil Jamieson, gave me his blessing after I confessed my sin on the dance floor. Thank you personally to Phil for a wonderful time.

So, for anyone considering a trip next year I would offer these suggestions:
pre-register; choose second choice classes carefully; drink beer, stay up late, and sleep as little as possible. Old-time music this good is enlivening, enriching and a rarity, so absorb it while you can and let it sink into your skin. Then go home and practice, practice, practice.

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