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Ashokan - Riffs and Licks

Originally uploaded by kenf225
I spent all of last week at the Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camp in the Catskills, playing old-time music. (And not reading much email or checking LJ at all, so apologies to anyone I've been ignoring.) This camp is run by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. Jay is a fiddler, and wrote the tune "Ashokan Farewell" which became somewhat famous thanks to its use in Ken Burns' Civil War documentary. Molly is a multi-instrumentalist who's also written quite a few tunes.

Old-time music is southern American dance music -- fiddles and banjos mainly, playing traditional tunes, usually instrumentally but sometimes with lyrics. (A lot of Cajun players also come to this camp, but I didn't play much of that, at least not this year.) It's similar to bluegrass and many people confuse them, particularly since many old-time tunes are also bluegrass tunes, but the main difference is in how the songs are played. Old-time musicians generally play the melody, together, perhaps doing some ornaments and such, but mostly playing as a group. Bluegrass tunes are generally played as a series of breaks, with each player taking one chorus and going all out. I love and play both styles, but I'll be focusing a lot more on old-time music, which is more about the beauty (and/or the drive) of the melody than on individual feats of musicianship.

Ashokan is different from (and much better than) any other program like this I've attended. Not only because the communal approach attracts a different kind of musician, but because it's run by a couple who love this music and have spent their lives playing it and sharing it.

Like most programs, Ashokan offers a series of workshops and classes during the day, for instruments, singing and dancing, and concerts, dances, and time for jamming at night. The instructors are there for the whole time, so you can play with them at night or sit with them at lunch or corner them for a private lesson.

Unlike other programs, Ashokan seems to attract a friendlier crowd that's more serious about the music and less interested in showing off or one-upping each other. Workshops were relaxed, jams didn't get so large as to be out of control, and I didn't once see anyone disrespected or ostracized for not being able to play "well enough."

And the food was good. This may sound like a minor issue but it isn't. At other music weeks I've been to, I'd be feeling tired and sick-ish by the fourth or fifth day, thanks to a combination of staying up late (to jam) and getting up early (to get to class) and not eating well. The last is not a problem at Ashokan; the meals are delicious, with lots of fresh vegetables and greens, and the dining hall is open at all hours so you can get coffee, tea or fresh fruit. They even offer a gigantic midnight snack, just what you need to go from a few hours of dancing to a few more hours of singing and playing, or vice versa. (And yes, I danced my first contra and square dances at Ashokan, and had a blast.)

But the real highlight for me was singing, and in particular, the duet harmony class taught by Carl Jones and Beverly Smith. Some of you may remember my Close as Brothers CD mix of country harmony songs a while back; this class focused on the music of the Blue Sky Boys, one of the groups in that collection. They're achingly beautiful songs, and when you and your partner really hit the harmony right, the feeling is just indescribable. My other classes were great, but exhausting; the duets class was a complete energy charge.

I also took a fingerstyle guitar class, only lasting three days before deciding he'd gone beyond what I could process (and also no longer being able to get to a 9:30 class), a class on waltzes where Jay taught the melody and Molly taught brilliant accompaniment, and another harmony class on four-part gospel singing.

I have in all seriousness been saying this was one of the best weeks of my life, and it's not hyperbole. Now all I need to do is catch up on sleep.

View complete photo set.

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8 comments or Leave a comment
harrietbrown From: harrietbrown Date: August 25th, 2007 04:30 am (UTC) (Link)
It sounds like you had a really great time there and really enjoyed yourself. The classes sound delightful, and I like that there was no one-up-manship regarding playing ability. That can sometimes be a serious pain in the ass when you get a bunch of musicians together. The scenery looks beautiful, too.

It was like a little mini-vacation for me, too, seeing the photos!
harrietbrown From: harrietbrown Date: August 25th, 2007 04:34 am (UTC) (Link)
I see you have "god is not great" on your reading list. How do you find the book? Is it an interesting read or is it very dry? I'm thinking of buying it, but I don't want to get in over my head.
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: August 29th, 2007 02:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
It's not dry, not at all, and less angry and irritating than the Richard Dawkins book. I'm enjoying it, although to a great extent I'm just reading along with things I already believed.
harrietbrown From: harrietbrown Date: August 30th, 2007 01:50 am (UTC) (Link)
Love the icon. I named my guitar after John Lennon's mother, Julia.

Anyway, I'm a theist, if only because I have acknowledged that I need something greater, a higher power, if you will, to believe in for my own security. However, I find the level of fervent religiosity I frequently encounter to be downright offensive. Everyone assumes we all believe in the same god. I work in a state institution and MSM and I couldn't do a presentation on Wicca because it's a religion and it would be a conflict with separation of church and state. Yet, I find references to god everywhere: in group materials, in people's conversations about their beliefs, which take on the color of sermons and in church-style references to materials we use for groups ("litanies"). As a non-judeo-christian, I'm offended. And yet if I say anything, I'm just being a boring PITA and wacky witch.

I realize I just ranted all over your journal. It just gets to me. Who is this god guy, anyway, and why is he so important?
steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: August 30th, 2007 02:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
He also wrote "Whatever Gets You Through the Night," which kinda sums up my feelings about religion. That was my biggest problem with the Dawkins book -- he's basically a fundamentalist atheist and won't be satisfied until everyone admits he's right. Hitchens is a little more rational (or a little less ratoinal?) and just wants to be let alone, to have religious people stop stomping all over the rest of us.
harrietbrown From: harrietbrown Date: August 31st, 2007 03:54 am (UTC) (Link)
I can dig that, man!
elissaann From: elissaann Date: August 29th, 2007 01:55 pm (UTC) (Link)

I got to this post by clicking on your name from a comment on NewYorkers.

Some of us who go to Western/Swing Week at Ashokan get together to jam occasionally. Everybody brings music to share. All styles are welcome.

If you're interested in knowing about these sessions, please send me the best email address. You can write to me at elissaann@aol.com

I'm pretty sure that I either know you, or that we have friends in common, since I have several friends who went to Southern Week. I'm a longtime Ashokanite. (14 summers?)

steelbrassnwood From: steelbrassnwood Date: August 29th, 2007 02:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
Thanks! I'll drop you an email now.
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