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The Appalachian String Band Festival 2006

An American Diary of a Ukrainian Girl

By Olena Goryelova, Ukraine
September 2006


August 2-6, 2006 - Clifftop, West Virginia -While watching the trees and houses fly past the car window, I lean against the backseat of my American parents’ car and try to imagine what old time American music would sound like. Back in Kiev, the capital of my home country of Ukraine, I remember hearing old Ukrainian folk music being performed by an elderly blind man. Every time I went to Kiev I would see him sitting in the front yard of a church, picking on an ancient Ukrainian stringed instrument known as the bandura, also known as the kobza. The kobzari had a long white beard and played so beautifully that I couldn’t pass by without stopping and listening to the wonderful melodies that filled the air with every touch of the strings. Here, in the summer of 2006, I would now get the chance to hear the older traditional music of America.

The mid-level camps at the 2006 Appalachian String Band Festival.

(David Halsey Photo)

In 2001 I was an exchange student who lived for a year with my host family, Ronald and Peggy Dean, in Hamlin, West Virginia. Five years later, I have come back to America to visit Ron and Peggy again. When I first lived with the Deans as a teenager I had the opportunity to play and sing with the local high school bluegrass band. I fell in love with bluegrass ‘at first sight,’ if you can say such a thing. I like string music. And the most interesting string music event in West Virginia is the Appalachian String Band Festival that takes place every August in the mountains near the small town of Clifftop in Fayette County. Knowing about my love for music, they have planned the date of my arrival so that we can take part in this well-known festival.

Also known simply as ‘Clifftop,’ the festival is known throughout the music world and is centered around what is called old time music, which is the fiddle-based music that even pre-dates bluegrass. In its 17th year, it continues to attract musicians from around the globe who come to spend five days or more under open skies in the authentic atmosphere of American folk music. Old time music fans from more than 20 foreign countries, including yours truly from Ukraine, have participated in this festival since the beginning. Those who have dipped into the friendly atmosphere of Clifftop at least once tend to come back every year, bringing their friends and families with them to enjoy the unforgettable fresh mountain air of West Virginia, and the music that seems to be played non-stop throughout the week.

Festival participants meet at Camp Washington-Carver, which is situated on a picturesque mountain on top of the New River Gorge. Many people come here five days before the festival officially starts in order to find a nice spot in the shade along the forest that surrounds the camp’s grassy fields. This year the camp was opened for the first visitors on the 28th of July, although the organized festivities didn’t start until August 2nd. So, on the Friday of the 28th, Ron took the RV and all our camping equipment up to Clifftop to find us a good camping area. He said that if we waited to set up on Wednesday, it would be impossible to find an empty spot in the shade as the ‘late tourists’ would have the enjoyment of camping in the hot summer sun. After Ron sets up our camp and returns home, we leave as a group for the festival a couple of days later on Sunday morning. The trip from Hamlin to Clifftop takes about 2 hours.

Soon we are entering the territory of Camp Washington-Carver, named in tribute to Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, two important African American leaders and important figures in American history in general. At the camp entrance we are greeted by a very interesting building, the Great Chestnut Lodge. “One of the things that I think is cool about the camp is the Lodge,” says Derek Halsey, a well-known music journalist (Gritz Magazine and Bluegrass Unlimited) who is camped next to us at the festival. “The lodge was made out of the wood from the American Eastern Chestnut tree, a species that was destroyed by a blight in the first half of the 20th century. By the 1950’s virtually all of the Eastern Chestnut trees were destroyed, but enough of the wood was around at the time for the workers to make the lodge with. That wood is worth a lot of money these days. I even bought a candleholder a few years ago in a different part of West Virginia that was made from old Eastern Chestnut wood found as a part of an hundred year old fence line discovered on an old farm. The wood is rare and valuable.”

As we pass through the security entrance we are given wrist bands that serve as a festival admission ticket. Although the people who arrive earlier than the official beginning of the festival on Wednesday have to pay for every extra day they camp, many musicians still try to show up a few days ahead of time so they can spend more time visiting and playing music with the other festival goers. For a lot of them it is a rare chance to visit with friends. In fact, after the festival is over, everybody returns to their normal lives, which provides no time for traveling the distances that separate the Clifftop friends from each other during the rest of the year.

As we enter the main camp avenue, we notice several vendors who have lined the road with their tent-covered stores. We turn onto the large grass field where the Washington-Carver stage will be built two days from now and head back to our camp that is in a corner where the tall trees have formed a wall of shade. After we unpack the truck, put up our tents, and get everything prepared so that we can relax and have fun for the next week, we decide to look around. It is late Sunday afternoon and the camp is half full. Many of the campers are busy unpacking and building their own temporary homes while the sunlight lasts. But as evening arrives, Camp Washington-Carver is soon lit up by hundreds of flashlights and lamps, and the camp is filled with the sounds of many fiddles and banjos playing nearby and off in the distance.
As night falls, Clifftop comes to life on the eyes and ears. Musicians wander from tent to tent and join in with the numerous jam sessions that have started. Old acquaintances hurry to find each other and exchange the latest news as well as to adjoin listeners of ancient melodies. Children rush around the camp, glad to be away from their parents, and teenagers slam their guitars and sing rock songs and socialize in their unique way. I don’t know how late the music went on that first night. I can only say that when I left to go to sleep at 3am, the banjo and fiddle duets were still ringing out through the newly formed neighborhoods. And when I wake up the next afternoon, the sounds of instruments being played still accompany me.

The Ukrainian Sting Band playing onstage during the Neo-Traditional Band Contest at the Clifftop Festival. From left to right- Derek Halsey, Ron Dean, Olena Goryelova, and Lew Prichard.
(David Halsey Photo)

The following days attract more and more musicians and visitors to the festival. Tents grow like mushrooms after a rain. By Tuesday evening it becomes difficult to make your way through the camp without a flashlight. All attempts to smoothly pass a tent end in failure as I continually bump into one after another. Darkness threatens with the opportunity to stumble on the many ropes that secure the tents to the ground. The temporary abodes are everywhere, a village has formed.

The official opening of the festival on Wednesday provides many opportunities for fun. There are a lot of workshops to choose from that run from morning until night, and include flatfoot dancing and square-dance instruction, yoga, tie-die classes, ceramics, a “touch the instruments” program for children, a Bird Of Prey demonstration, and more. But the most important of the festival events, the music contests and concerts, start on Thursday.

The music competitions are divided into four categories: individual banjo and fiddle contests, the traditional band contest, and the neo-traditional band contest. Many musicians come to Clifftop to specifically participate in these competitions. Some of them rehearse throughout the year in order to play on the Washington-Carver stage every August. Many go on stage just to perform and have fun, and they don’t worry about winning or losing. But, the majority still dream of making the Finals of the competition.

On that first Sunday I meet some young folks of my age who offer me the chance to play in a band that they are forming to enter the neo-traditional band contest with. But as the days pass by, they don’t take the time to rehearse. Hookah and whisky provide them with better company. On Wednesday evening Ron Dean suggests that, for fun, we put together a band of our own and enter the competition. Ron plays bass in a bluegrass band called The Grass Stains, and I play guitar in a rock band called Anomaliak back in my Ukrianian hometown.. So, I ask myself, why not take this chance to form a Ukrainian-American jam team?

Our friend Derek Halsey agrees to play second guitar, and Lewis Prichard joins us to add some mandolin and professional stage experience to our group, which we named the Ukrainian Sting Band.

Olena Goryelova and Ron Dean receive their certificate for placing fifth in the Clifftop Festival Neo-Traditional Band Contest as members of the Ukrainian Sting Band. (Peggy Dean Photo)


This year a funny thing happened at the festival. Somehow, every souvenir t-shirt that was made with the “Appalachian String Band Festival” name on it was printed without the ‘r’ in the word ‘string.’ Therefore, all the shirts said “Appalachian Sting Band Festival,” hence the name of our band. We agree to form our group and then start to rehearse on Thursday, though our practice isn’t very long. Derek came to the festival out of playing shape and developed blisters on his fingertips while playing in a blues jam a couple of nights earlier on a guitar with thicker strings than he was used to. Still our quartet works together on an unusual arrangement of the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night.” We trade ideas, add some solo breaks, pump up the rhythm, and translate the first verse into Ukrainian to try to create something unique.

At 11 a.m. on Friday we register our Ukrainian Sting Band with the officials. There are almost 50 bands in the competition, and all will get to play one song in the preliminary round of the contest in front of the judges. We draw the number 28, which means that we will go onstage around 2pm in the afternoon. The only thing to do is wait. We are all nervous, but when we sit next to each other on the back of the stage while waiting our turn, we look each other in the eye and know that we will be fine. We just decide to play together as a group, stay within ourselves, and have fun. Here we are on a stage, playing an unusual and international arrangement of a famous song by the Liverpool Four, while in the mountains of West Virginia. When the song comes to an end, I say, “Thanks all,” and as I go down the steps to leave the stage I hear a "thanks" in Russian from a visitor at the festival who is obviously glad to hear the native language.
The competition soon comes to an end for the first round, and the judges have been sent away to confer. We are glad that we decided to enter the contest, but as for winning, we did not harbor any hopes. “There were about 48 bands in the contest, and about 20 of those bands had a better set of musicians in them than we did,” says Halsey. “There were bands in the contest that featured accomplished musicians like Matt Combs, the Mando Mafia, John Murphy, Mike Olitsky, Jason Sypher, John Herrman, and the Lonesome Sisters. But, we played good together, and we were different. Still, I was in shock when I heard them announce the Finals list, the names of the top five bands that would duke it out later in the night on the main stage. When I hear the announcer say, ‘Band number five is the Ukrainian Sting Band,’ I am stunned. I walk out from behind the backstage area, with people congratulating me left and right, and find Lew sitting in a chair by himself in front of the stage looking like he is in shock as well.”

When I hear our name called, I run from the campsite to find Derek, Lewis and Ronald walking my way. I am yelling and running and I still can’t believe we made it. Not trusting the ears, I keep asking Peggy if it is true, until I reach the other band members who still have an excited look on their faces. But, then it hits us that we have a little over an hour to try and perfect the other two tunes that we had barely worked on earlier, and that we are about to play.

Before the Finals begin, we draw numbers to decide what order the bands will play in. Each band is given the opportunity to play two songs to impress the judges with. We draw the number five, which means that we will be the last band to perform. The two songs that we choose to play are “Nothing At All” by Alison Krauss, and a song written by the high school bluegrass band that I was a part of in Hamlin called “Back Home To West Virginia.” “The blisters on my fingers were hurting a lot,” says Halsey. “So, we practice the two songs a few times, and then I had to stop and add another layer of Super Glue to my blistered up fingers. But, we got it done, and I had many musicians that I respect a lot come up to me and say that we did a good job in the Finals.”

The winners of the contest were- 1. Polecat Creek, 2. Billy Goat Gruff, 3. Open Door Mission, 4. Tanglewood, and 5. Ukrainian Sting Band. In the end we place 5th, for which we receive a certificate, a ribbon, and 100 dollars, which we evenly divide amongst ourselves. But no certificates or ribbons can compare to the feelings we shared while living out this unexpected experience. It is an evening that I shall never forget.

The morning of Sunday, August 6th, reminds me that it is time to return to real life. Clifftop is falling asleep for another year, so that it can wake up again on August 1, 2007 to the cheerful sounds of musical instruments being played. Then, the mountain will come alive with a stream of visitors from all over the globe who will renew old friendships, make new ones, and maybe even form a band with someone from another part of the world.

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