Last weekend we attended the Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival, held in a huge campground in Thornton, New Hampshire. The facility provides a few electric sites for those who need or wish them, a standpipe of potable water, no-sewer sites, and almost unlimited room for rough camping.
Along the cool Pemigawasset River, perhaps hundreds of sites in the woods or on a couple of large meadows offer room enough to be alone in the woods or to congregate in small compounds that are ideal for jamming and visiting. On a large plateau at the top of the site, an area called RV City develops into a tightly packed congregation of campers. While standing in the middle of that area, a person can turn 360° and see the surrounding hills with not a house in sight. A small bowl-shaped amphitheater holds a permanent stage, room for seats in the sun, and a long, pleasant shade tent. Somewhere on the site, music can be heard 24 hours a day. Quiet in the morning, perhaps more than a little lubricated after the show each evening.
Pemi Valley Bluegarss Festival is all acoustic — lots of it is bluegrass. Much of the music, though, reflects the pickers’ experiences with folk music, country, blues, rock and roll, and much more. Although there was a threat of rain, and I’m told a few drops fell on one portion of the site on Saturday afternoon, the weather this year remained warm and comfortable all weekend.
The lineup was superb: Gibson Brothers, Rhonda Vincent, the Helen Highwater String Band, the Lonely Heartstring Band, and the New England Gospel Project. The audience ranged in age from infants through folks who are well into their eighties. In other words, it was pure bluegrass heaven.
Our trailer was parked next to Seth and Candi Sawyer, our friends of a little over a dozen years. Candi promotes a superb festival in Vermont called the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival, which she has grown and nurtured since its first inception in 2000, despite the encroaching affliction of multiple sclerosis. Her husband, Seth, once a logger and truck driver and now largely her caretaker, has written a number of songs — some of which have been recorded — and fronts a popular regional bluegrass band at local festivals, in which Candi plays bass. Over the years, we’ve had many conversations about a perennial bluegrass discussion — WIBA (What is Bluegrass Anyway) — and the Sawyers’ conviction that “traditional” bluegrass is dying. It must be preserved!
Bluegrass appears to have a limited appeal except to aging white people who first heard it over the radio or in a pasture somewhere on the edges of the Appalachian chain. It carries with it the stigma — or is it the exaltation and respect? — of hay bales, moonshine, Hee-Haw, The Grand Ole Opry, country schoolhouses, scratchy 78 rpm records, and American rural life during the mid-20th century. The 2010 census indicated, though, that the US population is now roughly 80 percent urban and 20 percent rural, reversing what it was a century ago. The music has a number of iconic names associated with it, and most of its definitive artists used their skills with acoustic instruments, singing, and songwriting to enable them to leave the farm, the mill, and the drudgery of low-paid, often dangerous jobs for a life of performing a style of music that celebrated the life they had chosen to leave. The sweat and toil turned into nostalgia for a life that was fast-disappearing, except in hazy memory.
Our friend Seth maintains that the purity of bluegrass must be preserved. He loves to sing the old songs. He and his friends gather beside their camper, cook and eat together, maybe sip a few beers, play the old songs and new ones they’ve written or heard reminiscent of the ancient tones that are part of their very souls. The Sawyers’ two teenage sons stay home.
The world of bluegrass — re-created in fields, at fairgrounds, and at campgrounds during the summer — moves from place to place, with each festival taking on its own personality. Dozens of national bands tour, covering as much as a couple of thousand miles on a four-day weekend, while local and regional bands, working for little money, fill out a lineup allowing for music from the stage between noon and 10 or 11 in the evening each day. It’s a magical recreation of a past that may never have truly existed.
Another friend, Archie Warnock, a Penn State-educated computer engineer, likes to say, “Bluegrass eats its own!” I think he means that, when bluegrass musicians vary from the template established by the founders, they are shunned as having turned away from bluegrass. They’re viewed as if they’ve rejected the community which nurtured them. Their music becomes something else … not bluegrass. They no longer belong to this exclusive little club seeking to preserve something that glorifies a world that’s fading from living memory.
Increasingly, I believe that such dogged emphasis on preservation tends to freeze this marvelous music in time, keep it static, and will eventually lead to its becoming a museum piece rather than a living musical entity based on a set of powerful values and experiences. George Gershwin heard the noise of the street through his Tin Pan Alley window, creating music that recreated the blare of the taxi and the shouts of the streets. And so we have “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” both of which are now part of the repertoire of many major symphony orchestras. Does that mean that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms are no longer represented? Not at all. Music is additive and unlimited.
We’ve been lucky enough to get to know lots of musicians during our time in the bluegrass world. They range, if you care to characterize them, from quite-traditional to pretty progressive. Some we’ve come to know when they were in early adolescence; others when they were approaching middle age. What do they tell us they listen to when they’re riding those endless miles in the van or bus? They turn to the full range of today’s popular and edgy music: contemporary country, punk, rock, grunge, and even hip-hop. How can the music they play not be influenced by what they they listen to?
Meanwhile, when artists jam on the bus, they often play the good old songs. Those songs are part of our collective musical memory. They keep coming back, no matter where we go musically. They inform our future, just as they built our past. We can’t stop the future — nor should we wish to.
Preservation leads to placing an artifact in a museum, where it inevitably gets covered in dust. To keep the music alive, let it change and remember where it came from.