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.

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