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Bluff Country Gathering - Celebrating America's old-time music heritage


Fri, May 20th, 2011
Posted in Arts & Culture

Wrangle up your mouth-harps, drag your banjo out,

Tune your old guitarra till she twangs right stout...(from "The Bunk-House Orchestra" by Charles "Badger" Clark)

And don't forget to rosin up your bow and crank up the wires on your old fiddle. It soon will be time for the Bluff Country Gathering in Lanesboro, MN, this year being the thirteenth annual celebration of old time music. It's a great way to start the festival season with terrific music, workshops where you can learn new tunes and techniques, and an old-fashioned barn dance. The dates are May 19-22 with these public events:

Concert Friday, May 20, 8:00 PM at the Lanesboro Community Center; Barn Dance Saturday, May 21, 8:00 PM at the Lanesboro Community Center.

For those wanting to participate in the workshops, the event begins on Thursday evening, May 19, with a potluck supper at the Sons of Norway Hall followed by a staff concert open only to registered students. The show gives the students a chance to hear all the workshop instructors and get an idea what sessions they might like to attend.

Admittedly, a vague and confusing connotation, "old time music" means different things to different people or in different parts of the country. Rather than the old time (or "old-tyme") music of the upper Midwest, a dance music often centered on the accordion and the polka/waltz/schottische, the Bluff Country Gathering celebrates the rural music of this country that was used for organized dance, such as squaredancing and traditional long line dances. Also a part of this music are the ballads (story songs), minstrel numbers, parlor songs, blues and more, all the types of music that are sung and played by ordinary people as part of their everyday lives. What we're talking about here is country music with no electric instruments, no vocal gymnastics, no pretension, a style built on honesty and simplicity, a music still sounding organic and timeless.

The staff for the 2011 Gathering is an outstanding collection of traditional musicians from around the country. Ginny Hawker and Tracy Schwarz have old-time credentials that could fill several pages. A native of Halifax County, Virginia, Ginny grew up in a large extended family of singers and musicians and her father, Ben Hawker, was her mentor growing up. She learned the beautiful old singing of the Primitive Baptist Church from him and she continues to honor his style and grace with her singing and storytelling. When he met Ginny in 1988, Tracy had already spent 26 years as a member of The New Lost City Ramblers, the traditional stringband responsible for introducing urban audiences to southern rural music in the 1960's and 70's. He was also deep into Cajun music, playing accordion, fiddle, guitar, and always singing in such a soulful way that many people worldwide were drawn to the music he represented so well. Tracy and Ginny live in the heart of the Appalachians in West Virginia.

Elizabeth Amos is a native of the Chicago area, currently living in Pennsylvania. Following fiddler Bob Holt and the Ava Dancers home to the Missouri Ozarks from the Bethel Youth Fiddle Camp many years ago, Liz Amos spent five years fiddling and dancing twenty-seven hours a day (according to some). Guided by Bob Holt's principle that "you've gotta give the dancers a place to put their foot down," her fiddling is driven by the enjoyment of building a connection with her dancers over the course of an evening. She has since taught at that same Bethel camp and is the leading exponent of Bob Holt's exciting fiddle style.

The Highwoods String Band sparked the next wave of old time music mania after the New Lost City Ramblers, playing across the U.S. and Europe and on State Department tours to South America. Singer and banjoist Mac Benford was one of the driving forces of that band and several other fine bands over the years: Fat City Stringband, Backwoods Band, Woodshed All-Stars, and Haywire Gang. Now appearing as a solo performer, entertaining audiences across the country with the skill and charm developed in over forty years of performances, Mac has learned the styles of many of the great traditional banjo pickers like Wade Ward, Uncle Dave Macon, Clarence Ashley and Roscoe Holcomb and achieved his own unique approach to old time music.

Bruce Greene is a "fiddler's fiddler," an elegant player with a large and unusual repertoire. Though he's unknown even to most people who listen to traditional style music, Bruce is as respected by dedicated old- time players as any living fiddler. Years spent in collecting tunes from older generations of musicians, especially in Kentucky, a state rich in fiddle music, have resulted in mastery of the styles of that area. Bruce is also a fine ballad singer and banjo player and lives in the mountains of western North Carolina.

There is also wonderful old- time music coming from the mountains out west. Ron Kane and Meghan Merker live on a small primitive sheep ranch in Horse Prairie, Montana. Meghan is also a graphic artist, Ron a retired ski patroller and both are veteran old-time performers who spent years playing in Utah's Deseret String Band. Ron's vocals and fiddle and Meghan's guitar, fiddle, singing and buckdancing provide authentic old -time music with an emphasis on traditional Western/cowboy tunes and songs.

"Dr. Do-Si-Do" is a nickname often applied to Paul Tyler, a Chicago-based fiddler, guitar and mandolin picker, singer and square dance caller with a Ph.D. in folklore. He's a veteran of bands like the Volo Bogtrotters and the Wazo County Warblers and has taught for many years at Chicago's legendary Old Town School of Folk Music. Paul will be conducting workshops and teaching/calling for the Saturday night Barn Dance.

Living in the hills of Wisconsin's "driftless" region, Tim Foss is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist who plays and teaches fiddle, banjo (including the fretless gourd variety), guitar and mandolin. He has performed in the New Bad Habits, Foghorn Stringband and the Star Valley Serenaders. Last year Tim toured Europe with Foghorn and taught at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, WA, and has recently begun broadcasting an old-time music show on WDRT, community radio in Viroqua, WI.

The Friday night concert will feature these performers, and often some surprise guest shows up to do a few numbers. It's bound to be an entertaining show, a lot of refreshing old-time music for the low price of $10.00 per person. The admission for the Saturday night Barn Dance is only $8.00 for an evening of energizing participation in old time square and circle dances, some couples dances, and maybe even some Cajun tunes. Usually over 200 dancers show up for this one, so, as my Uncle Ted used to say, 'It's a great ol' big'n."It's a great chance to experience the traditional music and dance of America, an unforgettable two evenings to enjoy our folk heritage.

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