What is old-time music? My husband and I recently learned that it is a special genre of music, centering on a combination of fiddle and plucked string instruments and there
are summer camps devoted to teaching this music. “ Aw haw,” my husband thought. “Maybe there’s help for me in learning to play the fiddle.” It was his Christmas gift, and it was proving to be not as simple to learn as the dulcimer, ukulele, accordion, harmonica and other instruments he already plays. A little more research and we turned up an old-time music camp to be held in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina at Mars Hill University. We enrolled for a week’s training at the school. Yes, me, too!.
I think you are already aware that over twenty years ago, my husband built me a
dulcimer. It was time for me to learn to play it. Burl was set for fiddle classes and I enrolled in dulcimer classes. The first week in June, we packed up our bedding and clothes, put the instruments in the car, and headed for Mars Hill, North Carolina. We loved traveling through the Blue Ridge Mountains, and appreciated their beauty and the town of Mars Hill captured our hearts. If it weren’t for the college, the town probably wouldn’t be there. There was only a short Main Street and the college book store claimed much of the retail space.
Mars Hill University, a liberal-arts college, was founded in 1856. During the American Civil War it closed for two years. It started as the French Broad Baptist Institute, sharing
a name with the nearby French Broad River. In 1859, however, it changed its name to Mars Hill, in honor of the hill in ancient Athens on which the Apostle Paul debated Christianity with the city’s leading philosophers. Through the years, the college has struggled with financial and physical growth, but that is not so now. The campus boasts of a new dormitory, science building, upgraded athletic facilities and a school of nursing is under construction. It was these beautiful facilities at which Blue Ridge Old-Time Week would be held and we would be there, staying in a dormitory.
We were assigned our room which held two single beds, a desk and a closet.
We expected to share the bath facilities, just outside our room’s door, but this dormitory building was set up as suites. Each suite had bedrooms at each end, with kitchen, living facilities between. Only one bedroom at each end was assigned students, meaning the bath facilities were our own. The first thing we did, was make a trip to Wal-Mart to buy a foam top for each bed. We slept like “bugs in a rug.” The dorm was air conditioned, too, another surprise. And yet another, was the delicious food we were served in the cafeteria.
Each morning we’d say goodbye as my husband headed to his class and I to mine.
Classes were held in the college classrooms and each student walked through well-cared-for grounds to reach his class. Lunch time and we’d meet again, then on to harmony singing class, in which we both participated. Night time featured jamming sessions which were our choice. Some of the world’s best musicians served as teachers here, and were featured at evening concerts.
So here we were in an environment rather new to us. We are seniors, but so were many of the others. Camaraderie was enjoyed by everyone and it was so much fun. Old-time music represents perhaps the oldest form of North American traditional music, other than Native American music. It centered around the fiddle and banjo and these instruments were prominent at the event.
Did we return home accomplished musicians? No, it takes years to play any instrument well. We did learn new tunes. Such songs ( such as “Soldier’s Joy”) is found in most old time repertoires and sure enough I found it among my dulcimer music. Both of us were beginners at our instruments but we do believe our skills have improved.
Playing by ear or rote were the methods of learning promoted here, the very way the old
time musicians played. This requires much repetition, better known as practice. At fiddle class end, Burl’s arm was about ready to drop off, or so it felt. He still hears his teacher saying “saw, stroke, saw, stroke, up and down and saw stroke,” over and over again and an admonition that went like this, “Burl look at me, you’re not looking at me.” We may not have quite developed a passion for old time music. But, this may come before this summer ends. We have scheduled another trip, in August, to a music camp in Maine. This time, accommodations are more primitive, in bunk houses with no running water, heat or lights. (we’ll be in our camper). Maybe this time, “we’ve bite off more than we can chew.” I’ll let you know! In the meantime, I encourage you to try something new, this summer.