Thursday, July 23, 2009

Grey Fox 2K9

The Northeast's premier bluegrass festival, Grey Fox, recently transpired among the rolling Catskills of New York state, and I and my brother were fortunate patrons (or volunteers, rather) of this fine festival that just finished its 32nd year. This was my fourth time going, third time volunteering, and 47th time taking time off of work this summer to do something fun at the expense of saving money for my trip to Europe. Ah, well. I got to work on my tan, and that's all that really matters.

Us staffers were up close
I realize that some of you, at least one of you, have not even heard of bluegrass music. I am appalled, but I'm too lazy here to give a scholarly background of the music, but I'll take a couple sentences to explain. Bluegrass, as a genre, essentially evolved from the old-time musical and vocal traditions of rural America in the early 20th century. Figures such as Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, and others are considered to be the most influential in founding and developing the music, which I like to think of as a cleaner, tighter, more modern version of old-time string band music. Today, bluegrass has taken some routes that have roots in country and jazz, the latter being improvisational solos and complex musical twists and turns that keep the music interesting for the players (but sometimes confusing and disagreeable for the listeners, in my opinion). I go for the real, hard-drivin' original stuff. Anyway, that's bluegrass, and you can imagine that a bluegrass festival attracts some characters. Can't say I'm not one of them, but folks just let it all out for these things. You see plenty of extravagant RVs (loud-as-hell generators included), tattoos, straw hats, beer koozies, facial hair, and yes, white people. Will and I at least made an effort to improve the melanin discrepancy by getting some sun but, alas, the honkies prevailed. Bluegrass, though, is certainly a more progressive music than most, especially its close counterpart country, and several artists including Peter Rowan and Tim O'Brien played political songs. There was even a group, The Maybelles, that boasted a gay female bass player who wrote and played a song with the title of something like "My Little Christian Girlfriend." Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, Ricky Skaggs spent a good amount of time preaching the gospel in the hopes of converting any weak-willed listeners right there at the festival.

Crooked Still

Will and I worked the morning shifts, preparing and serving breakfast to the crew and performers, which meant that we got the whole rest of the days to ourselves. We spent some time exploring the charm of Oak Hills, NY, riding bikes or going for a jog and ending our tours with a few refreshing swims in a nearby creek. Then we'd head back to the festival grounds, slather on some sunblock and prepare for a day of nonstop pickin'. There were too many great performers to list them all, but a few notable shows came from the Kruger Brothers, a Swiss duo who compose beautiful tunes and can play the classics at supersonic speeds (check out this video), Crooked Still, the funky, soulful group of young musicians from up around the Northeast, Mountain Heart, the almost pop superstars of the bluegrass world,

Mountain Heart (this banjo player has no fingers on his left hand)
Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, a quirky and very showy group that is allowed to sport tight leather and frou-frou hairdos because they're f*cking great,
Marty Stuart

and Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, great musicians who play the stuff as it really should be played, most of the time: straightforward and unbelievably crisp.

Old Man Skaggs

And to add icing to the acoustic cake, Will and I had the pleasure of meeting and giving a ride to the Albany train station to two lovely Danes. Sigrid Hasling and her daughter, Marie, were visiting the States for the first time and decided to hop from NYC to Grey Fox for a little vacation within a vacation. We drove them to the station after the festival and shared facts about our respective educational systems and demography; you know, the usual dialogue that's exchanged between Danish tourists and US citizens. Marie is a grad student in Copenhagen, and I'm looking forward to perhaps making a stop in the city if I can find a brewery farm somewhere in the green pastures of Denmark (which may be very likely, actually).

That's it for tonight, ladies and gents. Soon I'll be posting updates about my brewskies and other tantalizing tidbits, so keep your appetite well whetted. Oh, and to clarify about last post's title: I was going to explain it in that post, but I forgot. Must've been a head-scratcher for you all. I was just remarking to Noah, the baker I work for, about the monsoon that we're experiencing this summer, and he replied with, "Yeah, it might be the summer without...", after which I thought he would finish with "a summer" or something. Instead, he said "tomatoes". I didn't ask him why he said tomatoes, but I thought it sounded funny. Maybe tomatoes abhor rain? We will never know...

Hey, this blog isn't all hot air

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Summer Without Tomatoes

Got some loose ends to tie up before I head off yet again to do more summery stuff and avoid responsibilities at home. The Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival is a-croonin' my name, so my brother Will and I will be driving the three hours to upstate New Yawhk for four days of some mandolin-chopping, banjo-busting, gospel-yowling goodness. I don't play bluegrass, and I'm not really sure how I got into it (I believe my dad went through a big bluegrass phase, influenced by his brother), but summer just feels empty without a hot few hot summer days of raw, live bluegrass. And sharing those days with crowds of tank-topped, straw-hatted, lobsterbacked sun soakers makes it known I'm not alone. Mmm... I can smell the bloomin' onions right now...

Lessee, last weekend was the 4th. I spent some quality "bro-time" then, too, when Will visited and helped me brew a Belgian Dubbel for his wedding celebration in August. He likes roastier, maltier dark beers like stouts and porters, but since I'm having a great time exploring Belgians I compromised with him and chose the darker-colored dubbel. They're typically heavier on the alcohol than most beers and have flavor profiles that include notes of raisins, figs, or other dark, dried fruits. I threw in an extra quarter-pound of chocolate wheat malt mostly for color, though I'm hoping it might add a touch of coffee to go with the fruitiness. On the eve of that national holiday we got quite a special show. At least three of our neighbors had their own private fireworks displays, which meant that we also had three private fireworks displays. One was right next door, another over Lake Warren, and another through some trees over yonder. It made me wonder... if I can see three fireworks shows with my feet planted in East Alstead, of all places, how many friggin' shows are there across the country? How much money do people spend on this stuff?? I'd blow a couple thou' on Louis Vuitton instead...

Speaking of designer products, I just opened my first Belgian golden ale and, boy, slap a Sean John label on that stuff! It's been conditioning for only a week, but I couldn't wait. It's certainly not carbonated enough (not sure if it ever will get the carbonation it needs; we skimped out on priming sugar since I thought the beer wasn't fermented enough when we bottled and I didn't want the bottles to explode), but it's the best tasting beer I've brewed. A couple more weeks in the bottle and some slight green-appley flavors should mellow out, the fizziness should improve, and I'm hoping a bit of the "hot", fusel alcohol bite will disappear. I'll be brewing the second commissioned wedding batch today. It'll be an India Pale Ale, but I think I'll call it a WePA in honor of the espousal.

Couple more things on the beer front. First, if you have even the slightest inkling to start homebrewing yourself (... er... not... I mean... don't jump into the brewpot) and are up in the New Hampshire region at all, you should check out the Kettle To Keg homebrew shop in Pembroke. Jason, the owner, is a real nice guy and has also offered to contact some brewers across the pond as possible stops during my trip. Also, last night I stopped by the public zoning and planning board meetings for East Alstead's future microbrewery. Tim Roettiger is the man with the plan, and the plan was approved with only a couple changes that need to be made to the design. He's planning on building a small shelter to house the equipment and will brew less than 500 barrels (15,500 gallons) per year and switch the operation to maple syrup production in the spring. Congratulations Tim, can't wait!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Mom's Wanderyear

Life's been busy. Didn't mean to keep you hanging. This week I've got a morsel of leftovers to serve up, but it's a good 'un. Piping hot. Below is a reprint of a reflection my mom wrote on her travels to Scotland back in the day. She wrote the piece some 25 years ago or so and traveled to Scotland during college, where she worked for her lodging and spent most of her leisure studying the music and song of the area. The timing and era is different for the two of us, of course, but many of her sentiments and concerns mirror my own as I prepare for and daydream about my own post-graduation "wanderyear." I'm trying to make mine less of a stumbleyear and more of a looselyguidedstrollyear. I admire what I see as her maturity in confronting the realities of traveling and impressing oneself upon another culture; it's not always a smooth exchange between cultures and personalities but there's always some insight that can be gleaned from such an experience. And we tend to generally forget the knotty times and look back on our travels with fondness. Anyway, here's mom:

"I started having a dream of being out there in the world instead of being in college studying. My first two years had been years of exploration, and I was getting interested in music and in folk arts. I had a dream of seeing the folk world, of being in a place that still had a living folk tradition. But at that time I just wanted to take a year off, too, because I didn’t know what I wanted to study and I felt I was spending a lot of my parents’ money being in a sort of muddle. That was definitely part of the decision to go.
The reason I started out by going to the inner Hebrides Islands in Scotland was because of an opportunity that came up through friends of my grandmother’s. Every year my grandmother would get fascinating letters from a couple who lived on the island of Canna. The description of the place! It sounded exactly like my dreams. I also needed to find some way of earning money in order to travel for part of the year, and I knew these people always had two girls from New Zealand to help out with the cooking and housekeeping. There were always a lot of visitors staying at their home since there was no inn on the island. When I wrote them, the Campbells agreed that I could come. I ended up staying there several months, and I went on to the Outer Hebrides, too, and eventually I traveled around Europe.
It turned out that learning about the music wasn’t as simple as I thought. I arrived at the Campbells saying that I wanted to learn about the folk music, and I didn’t even know Gaelic. They were both authorities in folk music and Gaelic, and they told me that the genuine folk music is found in the old walking songs, or the songs that went with things like the shrinking of cloth. They’re in Gaelic, and there’s a certain pattern to them. The best way to learn them was to go to South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, where more of the old music had endured, and to try to learn a little Gaelic.
When I went to South Uist, I lived with a family farming and living on a croft, a piece of land that had come down through the generations. For the two months I was there my job was to help care for the father, who was nearly blind and had had a slight heart attack. He loved to sing, and had written songs, so when he got his strength back, he sang a lot of songs for me.
There were other singers I got to know on those islands, and I began to see how the songs themselves had been affected by the changes in the society there. Originally, when people were actually doing the work while they sang, they remembered more verses, and they were continually making up new verses. The songs were always sung with one person and a chorus. Now they are no longer used for work. They’re remembered only by a few old people in isolated places, so they’ve been slowed down and are sung in a more melodic and less rhythmic way.
I taped an old woman singing, and when I played it for the mother of the family I was staying with, she said, “Oh, we don’t want to hear that old cow mooing!” The woman who was saying that was a singer and had enjoyed songs all her life, but she was scornful of all these old ladies who sang old fashioned songs; they weren’t tuneful.
I went to the Hebrides with a lot of ideals. I was looking for a place where tradition was still alive and where a lot of the old customs were still going on. It was like heaven to me to be in a place where there were still thatched roofs, a place that was still so in touch with the earth and had beautiful songs. So it came as a real shock to see that people were turning away from the old things – they liked the acrylic stuff they could order out of catalogues instead of the old tweeds.
It seemed to me that the young people were unsure where they should give their loyalties, and that I was valuing the old ways much more than they were. Maybe that was why I found it so hard to get close to them. The very old people, though, really loved to talk to someone who was interested in the old ways. They wanted to tell about them, and they were lonely.
The ones in between, in my mother’s generation, have seen really hard times. They had to work too hard, and in their minds the old things went along with that. They wouldn’t touch a spinning wheel because when they were young, when they came home from school they had to spin and spin and spin; that’s all they could do, they couldn’t have fun. They had to card for their mothers, and they couldn’t go anywhere without the sock to knit. So they just didn’t even want to see any more of it, or else they were being sort of super modern about it. They’d gild the old spinning wheel and put it in the hall as a decoration, or put plants in it. In a way they were saying, “We don’t need to do this work anymore.”
You could understand all that when you got to know them. I learned a lot about the complexities of it, and that it wasn’t easy to say: this is good and that is bad. But I think I ran into a lot of difficulty because of my idealism. You might call it being naïve, but I got very wrapped up in those people. I would throw myself into something, and then be devastated when it didn’t work out. And yet, because of those extremes of emotion, I think I learned more. I fell in love with that place the way I couldn’t now. Now I might not let myself see it as deeply or feel it as deeply. I guess you learn to hold back a little so that you won’t get hurt. It was hard living right in the middle of the family on South Uist. There were clashes of culture, and I didn’t fit any mold that they could figure out.
That’s part of what happened that year: I was free of stereotypes about myself, and free of my own culture, while not being exactly in the other culture, either. I was very lonely because I couldn’t find any people my own age to help me figure out all the things I was experiencing. I was depressed at times, especially during the winter when there was so little day light; I could have used a little more support. I found that I would write to friends back in the United States and share my feelings with them, and that became very important to me.
But then, I had gone away for the experience of being in a different culture, and I think it was good to have that loneliness because it made me think through a lot of things on my own. I was able to get a freedom of thought by having that lonely period.
When I traveled on to other places, I discovered that I liked traveling alone. I enjoyed staying with friends in the Basque country of France, at a folk festival in Switzerland, in London, and in Italy, but I came to look forward to the feeling of adventure I had in between places when I was really on my own. My favorite picture is one of me standing on the top of Ben Nevis looking wonderfully independent.
I also discovered that I learn the most when I am traveling and come in contact with people who have a lot of skill or knowledge in their own fields, like the Campbells, the old folk singers, or the farmers on the farm where I worked for a month. They taught me how to drive a tractor one day, and on the next day I was pulling the trailer with tractor, carrying the silage and dumping it in the barn. I was pleased they had so much trust in me.
Sometimes now I have to laugh a bit at the way people reacted when I came back to school, as if I were a heroine because I had done such an adventurous thing. I knew that it wasn’t as amazing as they thought, but it did give me a status I hadn’t had before. I actually had accumulated expertise in the field of Scottish music, so that I had something to share with other people. This was an important way that that year changed my life. I now had the confidence to start calling contra dances, and as a result of my being more active and of my knowledge, I gained a reputation in my area of New England. I started to direct most of my energy outside of school to the people and events that had to do with folk music.
I graduated two years later with a concentration in environmental education and not in music. It was on the island of Canna that I came to terms with what I wanted to do in the music field. When I was there I felt that I wanted to prove to Mrs. Campbell that I was serious about my interest in Scottish folk music, but I know that I disappointed her in some respects because she had expected me to have more formal knowledge of music than I had, and to have a more scholarly disposition. I discovered that although I like to be with scholars and to learn, I am not the kind of person who is able to go into the depth required for true scholarship. I found that my own strengths lay more in the social context of music – music and people using it. I came out of that year with even more interest in traditional songs of all cultures, and with a stronger interest in singing.
It strengthened my desire to live close to the land, teaching and working with children, with music and folk lore and old people being an on-going part of my life."

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Songs of Yore

After last weekend's debauchery, I found it fitting to spend this past weekend at a mellow folk festival filled with fun-loving fifty-somethings. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were spent at the Old Songs Festival in Voorheesville, NY, just a hop over the Green Mountains and through a couple of tired upstate New York towns. The festival is attended by a small but close-knit community of folk music lovers and features a variety of performers from all over the country (and world). My family and a handful of other southwestern NH friends have been going since my hair was peculiarly, youthfully blond (well, actually, before I even had hair). It's a great time: there are enough performers that anyone even remotely appreciative of traditional music (Irish, American, African, Indian, etc.) could find something of interest, and the atmosphere is relaxed, convivial, and usually humid.

I was particularly excited for Bua, a group of Midwesterners who play traditional Irish music. Their sound is rich, even, smooth, and joyous for the tunes; Brían O'hAírt's (Brian Hart) sean-nós singing is breathtakingly delicate and gorgeous. Sean-nós is the traditional, "old-style" of Irish singing, usually done in the Gaelic language, and Brian has mastered the language both for speech and song. I was able to attend a brief workshop on Irish flute playing with a couple members of Bua and though I contributed mostly toots and screeches I was inspired by their playing and encouragement. When I get a little better, I'll post a recording of a tune or two. Here's a blurry photo of the guys at a show during which the power went out, so they played acoustically:

Another highlight was the Saturday and Sunday morning Sacred Harp, or shape note, sings. Shape note is a style of singing popularized in the mid-1800s. I don't know too much about its history, but the lyrical matter is suffocatingly religious (albeit pleasingly poetic). That, however, is its only drawback. The name refers to the method of transcribing the notes in the music as shapes: triangle for fa, circle for sol, square for la, and diamond for mi. This system was developed to make music reading easier for those who, well, didn't know how to read music. I think it was developed in the South, probably in rural areas as a church and social activity, and thus it picked up a lot of emotion and southern punch. Many songs are hard-driving (for folk music) while others are beautifully subtle and full, but all are sung with a certain power that makes singing them infinitely gratifying and, sadly, much more interesting when you're singing than when you're listening as a by-stander. Most shape note sings these days involve large groups and conventions (maybe because of its scarcity as a form of singing), but this makes the experience quite powerful. Shape note is sung in four-part harmony and I belt out my shiny pearls of vibrations as a bass. Go men. Here's a snapshot of our morning sing, being lead by Peter Amidon:

Well, that about does 'er. Wraps 'er all up. Camping was, eh, fun I suppose. I still consider a warm, dry, soft bed as one of the greater things in life, and the weather was wholly uncooperative. Drizzle, downpour, drizzle, blistering sun, downpour, goosebumply wind. Cool clouds, though:

Tune in soon for a bit about the bakery I'm working at and a story from my mom's traveling experience that resonates with my own feelings and expectations.