Bob Smakula's Banjo Wares

Aaron Searcy — Sow it on the Mountain

Posted on February 9, 2015

Aaron Searcy sends a Postcard from Fayette County, West Virginia.

The four-hour drive from East Tennessee to Clifftop, West Virginia begins with I-81 — a scenic hurtle of traffic that curves northeasterly through the Great Valley of the Appalachian Mountain chain. Riding along the western back of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the four-lane highway traces a deep green trough of lowlands some 1,200 miles (1,900 km) long, following the same logic of the ancient Seneca Trail networks once used by the local Catawba, Cherokee, Creek, and Algonquian tribes. It’s the path of least resistance — now paved and painted — that just happens to terminate near my hometown of Dandridge, Tennessee.

Once through the northeastern anvil tip of Tennessee and into Virginia’s stretching western panhandle, I-81 branches left into I-71, heading true north, crossing up and over yet another series of ridges through the Jefferson National Forest to eventually make its way out of the valley and onto the Appalachian Plateau. Now in West Virginia, passing Rocky Gap, Bluefield, and Ghent, the deciduous and broadleaf trees give way to higher elevation forests of spruce and fir. There’s a high piney sort of smell in the air, and the hint of a chill even in late July and early August — a sensation more than welcome if you’ve spent the last couple of weeks sweating with everyone else in another impossibly humid Tennessee summer. The road here gets fairly curvy, and if you haven’t rolled the windows down just yet, I’d certainly recommend it. You might even throw on a long-sleeve shirt just for fun.

At the toll stops along the way, you might find yourself somehow happy to pay — partly on account of the meager sums of 40 cents or so required at each stop, but probably more so due to appreciation for the sheer implausibility of the road itself. Nearing Fayette County and Clifftop at last, the road winds its way through two or three more impressive and deep tunnels that bore directly into the mountainside, eventually making its way across one of the world’s longest steel single-span arch bridges, over the New River Gorge. Pulling off the exit and onto a winding gravel back road, the festival site emerges through layers of leafy green.

Clifftop, West Virginia is the home of Camp Washington-Carver — the Mountain Cultural Arts Center of West Virginia and, more importantly to many, the annual home of the Appalachian String Band Music Festival. Most often referred to simply as ‘Clifftop’, the festival averages a yearly draw of some 4,000 enthusiasts and musicians through the first weekend of August. Held on the grounds of what was once a 4-H agricultural extension camp set aside for West Virginia’s African-American youth, the most noticeable landmarks include an aging water tower presiding over a ridge to the left of the main entrance, a much more recent-looking outdoor stage adorned with an enormous “Camp Washington-Carver” banner, and the central Great Chestnut Lodge, one of the largest structures of its kind built using stone and native chestnut found onsite. Though more than modest in overall size and infrastructure — weighing in at less than a tenth of the size of some of the more conventional rock mega-festivals — Clifftop is unlike any other music gathering in the world.

For starters, the vast majority of ticket buyers are musicians themselves. In the backseat of almost every pickup truck and station wagon that passes through the loosely guarded entryway is at least one instrument case nestled amidst the food and camping supplies: banjos, fiddles, guitars, and upright basses. Every now and then a mandolin, mando-banjo, or a banjo-ukulele. Once these vehicles are parked and satisfied with a reasonably flat campsite, instruments are among the first items to find their way out of the crowded backseats and truck beds with perhaps a moment taken to pitch a tent or sling a hammock. Though the official dates for the festival this year are set for July 29 through August 2, campsites begin popping up about a full week in advance to secure some of the
better strategic positions.

There’s good reason for this. What brings people to Clifftop isn’t the chance to witness a favorite band play from afar, but rather to play right along with them, learning tunes firsthand, by ear, from friends and strangers both. Spending time with others in folding chairs under a tarp in the woods is actually the principle objective in this setting, as opposed to a secondary downtime activity — after nightfall, literally hundreds of simultaneous jam sessions can be parsed from among the deepest pockets of trees under strands of Christmas lights or the soft haloes of hanging kerosene lanterns. With the heart of the official festival schedule revolving around the music itself, daytime workshops and events are also offered in those early social dance traditions to which traditional Appalachian music is functionally and developmentally tied — namely, flatfoot dancing, square dancing, and square dance calling with additional sessions in storytelling, basket-making, morning yoga and even “Stretching for Musicians and Dancers.” To add to the idiosyncrasy, no feature artist is promised to headline Clifftop in advance, and no advertised artist lineup exists other than the three ‘Master’s Showcases’ which are drawn from the previous year’s contest winners. This year — which happens to be the 25th annual Clifftop — those masters will be John Harrod, Frank George, and Tyler Andal, 2013’s Grand Master Fiddler.

If you think you should somehow recognise these names, you shouldn’t. The most publicity this festival gets is, like the handful of other old time festivals across America, restricted to a small write-up in the local paper or a brief recorded piece on public radio. As a musical genre, very, very few old time musicians can actually support themselves entirely through the standard template of touring, recording, and merchandising that seems to work out for more mainstream musical acts, and the realm of even remotely well-known upper tier traditional players remains a very small pond indeed. Very little effort is spent on advertising or canvassing, and the official Clifftop website is essentially a single-page branch of the main West Virginia parks and culture government site that looks like it hasn’t changed since 1990 — which is fairly likely, given this is the first year Clifftop came into existence.

Regardless, even amidst the awe-inspiring level of obscurity surrounding this sort of festival, let us bear witness to those who consistently bring about the miracle of yearly attendance.

This year, entry polls tallied attendants hailing from 44 American states and international visitors from Australia, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, and Sweden among others, despite overall attendance being largely down compared to the last several years. Racially the group skews vastly Caucasian with fairly few but consistent exceptions, and males tend to have a small but noticeable hedge over females in terms of players, the reverse is true for dancers. Politically — using an entirely unscientific barometer of “Coexist,” “Support Local Food,” “Stop Mountain Top Removal,” and “Obama Biden 2008” bumper stickers, mind you — Clifftop attracts a left-leaning demographic. Remember those yoga classes? This is a fact often taken as somewhat of a surprise to outsiders, particularly given the more pernicious and lingering connotations of isolation-borne backwardness and stubborn conservativism tied to Appalachian culture as a whole. In any case, this leftist tendency is seemingly true for most every other old time festival across the board. Interestingly enough to the subculture neophyte, this is not at all the case for bluegrass gatherings, which tend to pull a conservative-leaning demographic, despite being a much more recent musical phenomenon altogether. Go figure.

As for age, the crowd is a thorough mix — from long-time West Virginia fiddlers and patriarchs like Lester McCumbers, possibly closest to the genre’s 1920s canonization and now in their 90s, to ‘second-generationers’ mostly in their 50s like Mike Seeger, Bruce Molsky, or Rafe Stefanini, to a fairly large number of new players now in their early-to-mid 20s. From what I can gather from my own observations and personal experience, at least half of this younger group seem to have at least one family member firmly rooted within the aforementioned middle group — likely latent products of the folk revival of the 60s and early 70s. This connection for me is my father, who persuaded me at sixteen to learn claw-hammer banjo, himself being a contest-winning banjo player at Uncle Dave Macon Days (another old time gathering) from way back in 1981. We drove here together.

Clifftop, like old time music itself then, straddles a balance between being intimately tied to place, perpetuated by strong familial connections and local Appalachian traditions, e.g. West Virginia’s Hammons family, while at the same time being deeply reliant upon much broader influences for both its birth as well as its future. Claw-hammer style banjo for instance, the predominate Appalachian banjo right-hand technique, comes directly from much earlier West African styles of gourd-based playing brought and spread throughout the region by slaves. This lower-register, deeply rhythmic banjo playing would eventually intermingle and accompany the higher, more melodic ranges of English, Scotch-Irish traditional ballads and fiddle playing to create a distinctly North American hybrid by the early 19th century, or traditional Appalachian music as it is known today. Functioning originally as dance accompaniment, the music played at Clifftop reveals the same basic structure that preceded it two centuries ago — the fiddle beginning and carrying the melodic center of each tune, followed by the banjo, guitar, and bass in repetitive building blocks of two, three, or four parts. Using this old time, “A-B” structure, players are generally able to learn, comprehend, and repeat tunes exceptionally fast, while song lengths can also be stretched ad infinitum or ad nauseum, depending on your perspective. For the sake of practicality, this means tunes can be tailored to accompany just the right length for any given square dance, buck dance, or contra dance — the fiddler’s universal sign for the end of which simply being a raised leg.

Though written music certainly does exist for some of the most popular and beginner-friendly tunes like “Soldier’s Joy,” “Old Joe Clark,” “Ida Red,” “Angeline the Baker,” or “Forked Deer,” paper notation is almost entirely eschewed in favor of picking out melodies out by ear, which remains the standard means of melody learning and transfer today. I assume a large part of this comes from the early rural status quos of traditional Appalachian music’s inception, but I’ve also heard it convincingly argued that Appalachian fiddle styles simply cannot be effectively translated given the inborn complications of fiddle cross-tuning, droning, sliding, improvising, and playing “crooked” within irregular time signatures. (See “Tennessee Mountain Fox Chase,” “Elzic’s Farewell,” “Lost Indian,” “Yew Piney Mountain,” or Eck Robertson’s “Say Old Man Can You Play the Fiddle?”). My last guess is this lack of notation could now simply be a point of subcultural pride. More classically bent violinists are referred to as being ‘paper-trained’ within trad purist circles, the phrase more often than not parenthetically wedged between knowing chuckles, sidelong grins, and maybe a soft elbow to the ribs. Yes, old time musicians can be cliquey, at times rivaling middle-school tier precedents.

As a result, the more subtle parts of countless tunes are ever-evolving right along with any given individual’s take — a combination of tradition and personal flair. Thus, festivals like Clifftop serve a practical and irreplaceable role in perpetuating this deeply social form of music, a music which sits atop the precarious perches of both “Art” and “Tradition.” Though notably boosted with the advent of internet mediums like YouTube, which has become an enormous learning tool in its own right, in-person group playing remains the most preferred and effective pedagogy. On any given stroll through the campgrounds, you’ll notice a number of younger musicians with an instrument case in one hand and a small, battery-powered audio recorder in the other to play back later. This combination of self-directed YouTube exploration, with the occasional in-town weekly jam and collaborative festival gathering, appears to be the most common paradigm by which players progress here at Clifftop.

This helps explain why such a small festival in West Virginia attracts musicians from all over the world. Though contest winners tend to reflect the festival judges’ regional biases and playing styles more often than not, international players do also manage to creep their way into the rankings year to year. In 2013, that player was Burguiere Polo of Ardeche, France who took home second in the Senior Fiddle contest, wedged right between Pete Vigour of Virginia in first and Elmer Rich of West Virginia in third. This year, just after I arrived and managed to stake out an empty camping spot, Ian Alexander became the first Australian ever to place in a contest at Clifftop and the only international ranking of 2014, claiming a yellow ribbon and taking home third place in the Senior Banjo contest with “Shortenin’ Bread.” He also happens to be a Melbourne doctor.

Later when I found Ian and the contingent of Melbournians around his tent, I discovered that not only does Melbourne have an old time scene of its own, well-represented yearly in West Virginia, but that Ian himself has been serving as a musical ambassador of sorts between Australia and Appalachia. Since 1999, Ian has been sponsoring trips for Melbourne musicians to attend summer workshops and festivals here in the States, while bringing some of the biggest names of Appalachian string band music to Australia twice a year for the Harrietville Festival and the National Folk Festival in Canberra. Some of these names include Adam Hurt, Bobby Taylor, Kim Johnson, and Joseph Decosimo, whose band would go on to take first place this year.

Now playing regularly in Victoria and touring with his band Appalachian Heaven, Ian’s introduction to Appalachian music came about not through family influences or regional folkways but through another route just as common — he just heard it one day and liked it. A lot. Originally an orchestral chamber music clarinet player, Ian happened upon a late night circle of old time musicians within a much larger and more diverse Australian folk festival after his fellow classical players had long since called it a night. The rowdiness and energy of the stringband musicians left an impression on Ian, who would buy his first aluminum pot banjo later that year along with his first instructional book. Now some 25 years later, Ian has not only become an accomplished claw-hammer player himself, but has actively fostered the Appalachian music tradition right in the heart
of Melbourne for two decades.

Ian’s path to old time along with his active participation in both Australian and American summer music gatherings is one particularly apt example of the modern face of old time — of a regionally-borne music tradition no longer exclusively tied to its original people or place. For a few weeks in the summer, amidst the campers and hammocks of festivals like Clifftop, a new sort of community is briefly gathered to collaboratively recreate and ultimately reimagine the music of a place and time now gone.

While it’s inherently steeped in this collective past, old time in the last century continues to undergo enormous change in its own right. For one, the gradual stylistic polishes and influences of generations of contemporary musicians has resulted in an audible evolutionary trend within the music itself towards a smoother and more “note-ier” fiddle playing as opposed to the earliest recordings of “scratchier,” rhythm-centric fiddling. If you listen closely, the scratches aren’t just coming from the vinyl itself. (Compare first generation fiddler and North Carolina hero Tommy Jarrell to the second generation Bruce Molsky). To many, the assumption is that fiddling is simply getting better, albeit changed, and the majority of younger players under the trees at Clifftop seem to play more contemporary, smoother renditions of centuries-old tunes that were likely once very different.

A second, and possibly more profound revolution is one of choice. For many in early rural Appalachian communities, what is now called “old time music” was simply called “music,” as it encompassed almost every form of music available. Ian’s decision to dive directly into the culture of traditional Appalachian-style banjo as a modern Australian citizen may come across as somewhat eccentric, underpinned with a level of willful intention that tends to provoke some good hearted skepticism. But let us also note that even those born right here in the heart of the good ole Geographical Appalachia must inevitably make the same conscious decision to play old time in the 21st century, when just about everyone — and I mean everyone — has contact with countless musical genres, influences, and subcultures through the many, many streams of modern media. As the son of a banjo-playing peach farmer, raised in rural East Tennessee with at least five family generations of Tennessee farmers in my blood, I can say with authority that I knew the words to every Weezer and Blink 182 song years long before I could actually name a single fiddle tune with confidence. Ideals of cultural authenticity be damned. Or muddled severely. Take your pick.

Old time has been a music of convergence since its inception — that strange conglomeration of New World and Old World, British Isles and West Africa, banjo and fiddle that took root not so long ago atop the backbone of the Appalachian Mountain chain. Perpetuating a unique regional musical tradition while also being deeply entwined with technology through its earliest 1920s canonising recordings and modern global media sharing networks today, Appalachian music epitomises the very heart of disparate forces brought to collusion, right down to its very musical structure and DNA. Past and present, improvisation and tradition, rural West Virginia and Melbourne, Australia.

By the time Sunday morning rolls around to Clifftop 2014, with all the ribbons and prizes given away, the vendors packing up their wares, and the campsites gradually being dismantling by the early-risers or the up-all-nighters, you’ll notice a quiet hum — that of telephone numbers, emails addresses, and zip codes being exchanged right along with handshakes, hugs, and well-wishes. It’s my favorite part — the true lifeblood of modern Appalachian music. All occurring just before the mountainous descent, the drive down the plateau and into the valley, and just before you leave the campground for good, the inevitable “see you next year.”

Aaron Searcy studied at the University of Tennessee.

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