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Road Trip To The Mountains

Road Trip to the Mountains
The Appalachian String Band Festival
Camp Washington Carver - Clifftop, West Virginia
July 27- August 2, 2004

by Derek Halsey
October 2004

It is everything I can do to get this radio to work. The antenna for the radio in this old pickup truck I am driving is broken off so I am fumbling around with the portable radio I brought, trying to get some sound out of it. Nothing is coming through. It’s not that the sounds of the road alone would hurt me any; I’m just not big on silence. Every once in a while, however, a lack of  man-made stimuli is good for my brain. It lets me realize how many trillions of useless thoughts are scurrying through my skull at any given moment. Unfortunately, letting all of those thoughts sort themselves out can lead to a lack of attention for the task at hand. That will not do on this day, as I find myself behind the wheel driving through the steep, curvy mountains of West Virginia. 

West Virginia is my home state. I was born here and lived here until I was about seven years old. Although my family moved down river to Ohio we kept coming back to see the old folks often. My uncle and I, Wayne Wormy Smith, are headed to the Appalachian String Band Festival outside the small town known as Clifftop. I am driving an old pickup truck that he rebuilt and runs like a top. He is up ahead driving a bigger truck that has all of our camping gear in it. We are going to spend the whole week at the festival, located on top of the beautiful New River Gorge. This festival is based around what is referred to as Old Time music. Old Time is the music that pre-dates country and bluegrass music, and can be traced from the rural mountains of America all the way back to the hills of Scotland and Ireland.

Before we turn off onto US Route 60, known as the Midland Trail that heads into the New River Gorge area, the signs along Interstate Highway 64 let you know that you are in a state where coal is king. One roadside sign says; “Save our mountains—God,” which focuses on the damage that un-reclaimed strip mines do to the environment. Further down the road there is another sign that says:  “Coal, it’s what turns the lights on,” that focuses on the benefits of the industry to the state. Coal mining has been a fact of life in this area for hundreds of years.

I know first hand about coal mining. My grandpa on my mother’s side, William Dick Smith, was a gunsmith who tried mining when he was a young man. On his first day in the mine a roof collapse killed a man in a part of the shaft where he had stood only minutes earlier. That was also his last day on the job. My grandpa on my Dad’s side was not so lucky. Ralph Halsey was a coal miner who lost his whole arm in an accident while working about a mile and a half down. His brother broke his back in a mine, and their dad, my great grandpa, lost part of a leg in a mine. Needless to say, when my Dad’s generation came of age they got out of Pierpoint holler and away from the mines to find work elsewhere. As luck would have it my family reunion is taking place at the end of the week about 60 miles from the festival grounds. I haven’t spent this much time in West Virginia in decades. I am glad that I get to take a deep breath and soak up the air of my ancestors for a while.

I have my uncle’s Harley Davidson motorbike strapped upright in the bed of the truck I am driving. I find myself trying to take in the beauty of the mountains while trying to drive the steep roads at the same time. A beautiful overlook is usually followed by a hairpin curve of some kind, and I am driving distracted. That is not too smart up here in the clouds as I try not to send the motorbike overboard when I hit the near vertical turns too hard. But, after a couple of stern looks from my uncle in his truck mirror up ahead, I figure I will have a week to camp in the woods so I keep my eyes on the road. We pull into Camp Washington Carver and head to a site that Wormy has in mind to pitch our tents.

The festival is put on by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History. Uncle Wormy has been to this event since the first one about 13 years ago. It is Sunday, and even though the official events don’t start until Wednesday there are already a lot of campers and musicians here. We set up camp in a wooded cove where everybody knows everybody else from past festivals. We get the cooking tent up, which will be the center of attention all week, and finally get to relax about sunset. There is no greater feeling than the one you get after your camp is set up and all you have to do is take it easy and unwind. I am introduced to the regulars and soon we are walking around to see what kind of musical collaborations have started. 

One of the first things that I notice as I walk around is that the pickin’ parlor is king. At almost every camp there is a tarp, or an open tent of some kind, under which folks can play together rain or shine. A lot of these pickin’ parlors are quite unique with many of them decorated with unusual items, from vases of real flowers to hollow plastic swans that have been turned into lanterns. Some have taken the expense of bringing huge fold out Army regulation dome tents that are like small amphitheaters. In these parlors are clawhammer banjo pickers, guitarists, mandolinists, and bass players, but they are outnumbered by the fiddlers in attendance. Old Time is a music that is based on the fiddle. I am somewhat familiar with Old Time music, but I have always focused on bluegrass and country blues more. The first thing I learn about Old Time is that there is no room for improvisation. I keep waiting for somebody to take a solo, but it never happens. I am almost bothered by it. I have to let my mind adjust.

For some reason I think it would be a good idea to break out my guitar, but I am woefully unprepared. Not only do I not know any Old Time songs, but I also get a full-blown blister almost immediately. A blowout on the first night. That is probably a good thing. These Old Time musicians, however, are very talented and flexible. These cats can play anything, and good. It is very late into the night and I joke with some folks about some goofy songs that I liked and mention that hot Louie Prima jam from the original Disney Jungle Book movie called “Wan’na Be Like You.” Sure enough, the musicians around me go right into it;  “Now don’t try to kid me, mancub, I made a deal with you, What I desire is man’s red fire, to make my dream come true.” The next thing I know there is a pink glow in the eastern sky. It is time to go to bed, the week is off to a good start.

The next day finds more and more people showing up to claim some camp space and set up their pickin’ parlors. Wormy introduces me to the musicians and friends that share this wooded cove with us as they come in. A few tents down are the members of the Mando Mafia band and their families from Barboursville, Virginia. They are a unique group to say the least, who mix Old Time with Celtic, reggae and other kinds of acoustic music. Next door is fiddler Joe Mead and his wife Diane from Charlottesville, VA. Behind us are Jim Scott and his lady Becky, from Harrisonburg, Virginia, and to the side of us are Sue and Bob Manester who are here from Toronto, Canada. There are even folks nearby from Germany and England. As the day progresses Wormy’s old friend, Dave Adkins, shows up to hit the festival. We already have a tent set up for him, and soon Wormy is working on making his legendary camp soup. This soup is festival famous, made in a huge pot from scratch, and folks come by to eat it at all times of day and night. 

It is soon apparent that 80 to 85% of the attendees at this festival are musicians. Everybody here plays an instrument, most of them more than one. On this second day I spend some time talking to Rick Friend, a member of the Mando Mafia band, and I ask him straight up about the lack of improvisation in Old Time music. What he tells me is simple, “Bluegrass is about showcasing the individual musician, Old Time is about community.” When I make that mental adjustment it all begins to click. I will always prefer bluegrass, but I am willing to get into the Old Time groove and give it a try. What it all comes down to is Old Time is a music that more people can play together at once, to join in and have fun with while hanging out by the barn.

I will say this, with Old Time you have to know and learn a lot higher number of tunes than with bluegrass, blues or any other kind of music. There are thousands of songs that have been passed down through the centuries, some new compositions, and 50 ways to play the songs that already exist. Bluegrass, after all, is only about 60 years old, and even it has many Old Time songs that have been adapted to its style. Most musicians that I talk to here know about 130 songs that they can call out by name, and another 300 that they can be reminded of. As I sit and relax at our camp I see Joe Mead walking back to his tent. He tells me that he has run into another fiddler elsewhere on the grounds that knows a bunch of songs that he does not know. So, he has come back to get his tape recorder and fiddle so he can go back out to tape the new songs so he can learn them later. He, in return, was asked to take the time to teach the other guy the songs that he does not know. That takes a lot of talking and ciphering, trying to find out which new songs they could trade between them. But, that is how these tunes have been passed around for centuries. 

The ‘community’ aspect of Old Time music comes about this way; if all the musicians in a jam know the songs that are called out, or if they can learn them quickly, then everybody ends up on the same page and the result is a unison of sound that is most impressive. It is Tuesday night and Wormy, Dave, and I are walking around and have come across a jam with six fiddlers playing together beautifully. There are about 14 musicians playing in all. If this was a bluegrass or blues jam it would take an hour and a half for all the musicians to take a solo. What I am learning is that when Old Time music happens right it is as powerful as any other kind of music on the planet.

The modern Old Time scene is a little different from back in the day, however. These days it is about building up a head of steam. The tempos get stronger as the session goes on. Whoever takes the bull by the horns in a jam is the one that calls out the next three to four songs that they will slide into next. And, they go from one song to the next with no pause in-between. Even if they start out with a tune that some players might not be familiar with, by the time they come around to the top of the song again most of the musicians have it figured out. When that happens the Vulcan mind meld starts to kick in and the steamroll starts to build and build. The second and third songs that are called out seem to be familiar ones that everybody knows. That keeps the engine humming along on all cylinders. Man, it is powerful stuff, especially when the better musicians kick it up. They are schooling me, and I am having a blast.

As the night continues on I wander back to our portion of the festival and find a group of folks hanging out by a foldout camper. Bill Hill, a friend of Wormy’s who is camped elsewhere, has brought his mandolin along to join up with Debbie and Jay Blankenship, our hosts for the next half hour, to playing some bluegrass music. As with other encounters, I am new to the group so they can’t wait to tell me some good stories on my uncle. It is all in fun as they welcome me with open arms. The hospitality is wonderful. It starts to rain, but there are so many pickin’ parlors around that you can almost walk the whole way through the grounds by ducking under one after another and not get wet. 

A little later I find myself in the Mando Mafia parlor and in-between songs, when the musicians stop playing and grab up their beverages in unison, I end up talking with someone about the late musician John Hartford, whom I had met a few times. We talk about how his last album ever, Hamilton Ironworks, was full of nothing but Old Time music, and he tells me that John himself showed up at the Appalachian String Band Festival a couple of years before he died in 2001. Apparently, the musicians that were on a break were listening in on the conversation because the next thing I know they start right into John’s song “Steam Powered Aereo Plain.” Soon all the rest of the pickers join in. It is a Hartford song that everybody knows and sings to loudly, and they are playing it with boisterous enthusiasm. All I can think of is that I hope John is looking on from somewhere, maybe even playing his fiddle along with them.

Midway through the week I realize that there is not a night that has ended earlier than 4am. It is easy to lose track of time. You walk around and find some jams to enjoy, then come back to camp to eat or take a nap, and then go back out to see other jams that number in the hundreds all night long. When we do sit around the campsite Wormy and Dave Adkins take to schooling me in the things they think a younger man needs to know. They both worked for the railroad in Huntington, West Virginia starting in the 1950s and were schooled themselves by the old timers of the day. The big thing with them is to not move things more than once, more than you have to. I shuck some corn in the cooking tent and put the shucks in a pile, clean the ears of corn up, and then pick up the shucks to throw away. Of course, they point out that I could have put the shucks directly into the trash bag if I had set it up right and had one less move to make. By the end of the day I am known as “Apprentice Boy” as they test me on my knot skills, and lecture me about the legendary abilities of Benjamin Franklin to seduce the female of the species. There’s some American history for you. I don’t mind though, I need to learn my knots better. I’m getting schooled in more than music.

Finally, it is my turn to cook. It is also when I realize that I brought everything but my trusty Creole seasoning from Louisiana. I then remember that there is a group of Cajun musicians down in another part of the campground, so I wander down there and sure enough they have an extra batch of seasoning. These folks have the largest tent on the grounds and at dark they break out the accordions and washboards and have a nightly community dance of their own. It is nothing but pure Louisiana fun. It turns out to be the place where the other musicians put down their instruments and quit worrying about playing somewhere and just have a blast dancing the night away. 

Wednesday night is the first evening of official happenings. On the grounds of Camp Washington Carver is the Great Chestnut Lodge, a large hall made of the wood from very old eastern chestnut trees. I know the wood is old because a blight killed off all of the eastern chestnut trees in the first half of the last century. However, the builders of the camp found enough chestnut wood laying around to build the various structures that have stood since. The camp was originally a 4-H camp where local African American kids spent the summer in the 1940s and '50s, hence the name. Tonight is the first square dance of the week. Folks of all ages are dancing away, with the beginners taught as they go. Wormy, Dave, and I take a seat and watch for a while before heading out to walk around and listen to the nighttime jams yet again. 

On most nights, however, we end up at the same tent at the back of our wooded cove. That is where fiddlers Mike Williams and Jim Scott hold court with banjo players like Dan Rubulee and Fred Levine playing with them well into the early morning hours. Many other musicians inevitably meander into the tent to add their talents, pickers such as Steve Park and Vince Farsetta, who was the National Old Time Banjo champion in 1987 and 1996. Because of the near constant influx of pickers wandering in and out the musical combinations change frequently as the time passes by.

It is Thursday morning and I am about to hit the road. While the Halsey family reunion is not until Saturday, I find out that three of my aunts are to arrive early at my grandma Dot’s house to help her get ready. Dot is my grandpa Ralph’s widow and stays in the house that has been in the family for many, many years. The house is in Pierpoint holler, which is a gap in the guardrail on a mountain road just outside of Mullens, West Virginia. I take the long way from Clifftop and follow the road that dives deep into the gorge, crosses the New River, and then heads to where I am going on the other side of the town of Beckley. I drive through town and briefly find myself in the middle of civilization. I feel like an alien. My mind isn’t into it.

As I pull down the road to my grandpa’s house the memories always come back right away. Because the house is down in a holler the sun comes up about 10am and sets about 4pm behind the mountains. I was the first grandbaby in the family, so my memories go back to a time when Papa Halsey would have to get up at 4am to shovel coal into the heating furnace, when you only picked the phone up if it was a three-ring pattern because it was a party line, and when the guests would get first crack at the fresh bathwater on a Saturday night. Biscuits and gravy of a morning, Papa’s old dog Lassie, crawfish in the creek behind the house, the sounds of a train blowing its whistle as it rumbles through the mountain tracks, and trying to not get in trouble and have to face Mama Halsey’s switch. Papa would always be good about telling me stories of growing up in the mountains, including the first time that he saw an airplane flying overhead. He said that he thought the bi-plane looked like a fish with its head stuck in a ladder. I sure had a lot of fun exploring these hillsides. I still do climb them on occasion.

My aunts are glad to see me. Aunt Margaret, Aunt Edna, and Aunt Helen are relaxing, stomping around the old haunts, and helping grandma Dot get ready for the reunion a couple of days from now. But today the visit is mellow and fun. I break out some of my uncle Wormy’s camp soup for all to share. A few houses down I see James out front. He is about as old as I am and has been living in this holler ever since I can remember. I reckon I have known him most of my life. Soon we are in his pickup truck and driving around, talking to local folk, running errands, and seeing what is going on. It reminds me of when my grandpa ran for elected office as a constable after he lost his arm in the mines. He knew everybody, it seemed, just as James does, and he would take me with him when he would campaign a little. I still have a pack of matches that he had printed up with his name on them. It is funny what you keep over the years. 

I get the idea to borrow a portable tape player to take back with me so I can capture some of this great festival music. James has an idea where I can find one and takes me farther up the hill in Pierpoint Holler to Ruth Stover’s house, who grew up with my dad. When they find out I am Dave Halsey’s boy they give me some stories of the old days hanging out with my kin to take with me. Ruth’s son, Bugs Stover, comes up with a small tape recorder and doesn’t hesitate to let me borrow it. Once again, the hospitality is real and welcomed. After a while I am back to eat dinner with Dot and my aunts before I head back to the festival. After almost five days of constant music the quiet sounds of Pierpoint Holler are most welcome, as is the time spent with my relatives back where it all begins.

Back at the festival the individual instrument contests have started up. Folks sign up and get up on stage and try to win the competitions for fiddle and banjo. I watch the contest for a while, and then wander around a little before calling it a night. Friday morning I feel rested and rejuvenated and I sit around and listen to the Mando Mafia band get ready for one of the most popular events of the week, the non-traditional band contest. This is where bands get up and play anything they want, and I mean crazy stuff. We grab some chairs and set up in front of the outdoor stage and watch bands play everything from acoustic reggae to Hawaiian Hula to just about any kind of obscure music you can think of. There are bands with names like Cuttin’ Up Gumby, the Hoover Uprights, and the Gypsy Chix, a group of lovely and talented ladies who bring the gypsy tradition of string music into the mix. It is a blast, and a break from the Old Time music, which will be contested hotly the next day. As the contest plays out Mando Mafia and the southwestern sounds of the Sandia Hots band from Denver, Colorado battle each other for the title. Eventually the judges make their decision and the Mando Mafia take first prize, playing songs from their Get Up In The Cool album. They play an encore and then the stage lights dim as the crowd folds up their chairs and retreat back into the woods.

Saturday morning finds me going back to Pierpoint holler to see the rest of my family that have come in for the reunion. I take full advantage of my journey by taking a nice warm shower and doing a load of laundry. When I leave to go back to Clifftop I am feeling good and wearing clean clothes. I make a point of getting back to Clifftop by the early afternoon, as this is when the yearly cocktail party happens at our camp. The festivalgoers in the home cove put on this end-of-the-week cocktail party every year. Folks from all over bring food to set out and share, and bring their instruments along as well. By this time everyone knows each other so the fellowship is real and fun.     

Everyone has talked up a harmonica player all week named John Murphy. I have yet to hear him blow, but Joe Mead says that he will be playing with him later in the evening. As night falls I find them down by the basketball courts. Joe has his fiddle ready, and with guitarist Sheriff Chris Leva, bass player Jason Sypher, banjo player Mark Olitsky, and John Murphy on the harp beside him they start into a rather hot session. All of these cats are good, and John Murphy is amazing. I have heard few harp players that can do what he does. He is one of those cats that can play any harp in any key. It is a wonderful thing to see and hear him play what are nothing short of blistering riffs. Apparently these guys play together often around the Charlottesville area billing themselves as the Faster Than Walking band. 

After they are done playing I wander around on my own for a while. Most of the people will be leaving tomorrow, so I want to see every jam that I can on this last big night. I run into a fiddler called Two Gun Terry. He has taught Old Time fiddle a long time in the Harrisonburg Virginia area. Two Gun is walking around with fiddler Mike Williams when they walk into a tent where they had played earlier in the week that is dimly lit. The host is tired and about to call it an evening. Of course, all that means is that within minutes they have picked up their instruments again and are jamming one more time. Sleep is put off for a little while longer.

Sunday morning finds everyone packing up and getting ready to go home. Wormy decides to stay until Monday morning so we take the time to help everyone else load their gear and take down their pickin’ parlors. By late afternoon the place is about 90% cleared out. Later in the day the few of us left behind find each other and get a reggae jam going on the grass where there was nothing but tents a few hours earlier. With Sheriff Chris Leva on guitar, and a fellow named Slinky who breaks out a bag filled with all kinds of percussion instruments imaginable, we all have a good time trading jokes and songs. As night falls Leva and I walk around to see if anyone is left in this eerily quiet and abandoned campground. We find a lantern-lit camp with a couple of folks stretched out on some comfortable chairs. They look worn out but relaxed. Once again, within minutes the hosts grab up their instruments and yet another “one last jam” is on. 

It is now really late on Sunday night and it seems that I am the last one standing. No one else is up but me. Nevertheless, I can’t help but to walk around the festival grounds one last time. Everywhere I go there is no life to be stirred up. There are no lanterns burning, no light of any kind glowing anywhere. It is intensely quiet, and the only noise I hear are the sounds of the bugs and critters that have their woods back. As I walk down around the lower area of the pitch-black grounds I think I hear music off in the distance. I can’t pin it down, as even the sound of myself walking drowns it out. Then again, I could be hearing things. I walk further and stop, and I swear I hear faint music. I walk in that direction until it is obvious that someone is playing a fiddle. 

I come around the side of a tent, letting the folks inside know I am coming so as to not scare anyone, and introduce myself. There are three people with instruments in hand, playing in low candlelight. One of them is playing a mandolin, one is playing a guitar, and one is playing a fiddle. As we talk I learn that the fiddler, a blind man named Rich Hartness of Greensboro, N.C, came in fifth in the individual fiddle contest three nights ago. I ask them if I can stay for a while and listen, and they are most gracious. They are playing Old Time music in the slower tempo the songs were originally written in all those years ago, as opposed to the high-powered steamroll tempo that I heard all week. They are the only remaining folks to play music here on Clifftop. Three fine musicians playing late into the night. And, I am the only audience member in the world lucky enough to hear it. I thank them for letting me visit, and they thank me for hanging out with them for a while. I start walking back to my tent feeling completely satisfied. I stop along the way and look up at the stars and say a prayer for my kin. Then, I’m off to bed for one last time in the mountains.

On Monday we pack and clean up the camp. Within a few hours we are back in civilization. Hot sun, hot air, hot pavement. But, I leave with a whole week of mountain breezes and hospitality soaked into my brain, and a new respect for the ancient tones. 

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