The staff door popped open as I careened in to work two minutes late with bean skins still stuck in my unbrushed teeth from the drive-through burrito I’d gulped down in the car. I don’t know how I ended up saying yes to organizing this show at a local brewpub just two weeks away. Especially since ten of those fourteen days I’d only have spotty Wi-Fi connections while camping in the bushes at a music festival. Already so very behind with packing for the trip, I was cutting corners pretty thin trying to juggle my regular job and family obligations along with planning this last-minute concert for some old-time musicians on a West Coast tour. I often say yes to helping with events like these even when I really shouldn’t, but I just can’t help myself. These shows are like candy to me. I say yes because I want to share this music with my community, and I want to support the touring musicians who make our lives so much richer. Just this one booking took fifteen emails, seventeen texts, and five phone calls to organize. Then there was also the time it took to create the online event posts, to fill out the maddening online calendar submission forms for the local papers, to hunt down a PA for the band, and to coordinate with the homestay host. Even basic questions can be challenging to find answers to, like, “How many people are in your band?” But, when the show is finally happening, I love to see the audience grooving along with the musicians. When the performers hop back on the road after sharing a home-cooked meal, sleeping in a warm bed, and padding their pockets with a little extra cash, I feel great about the bean skins in my unbrushed teeth.
Of the more than 200 old-time festivals featured on Oldtime Central, each one has a dedicated, committed group of people who do the day-to-day work of organizing and hosting events that support our community of old-time musicians, music lovers and dancers. Only a lucky few are paid for their time. Most organizers are simply passionate volunteers. They are the backbone of what makes music and dance accessible in our communities. Organizers find the venues, connect musicians to homestays and a hot meal while they are on tour, manage jam dynamics, find funding, set up for cozy house concerts and clear out the halls for the square dances. I recently hosted a discussion for current and hopeful community organizers at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, WA, and as a result of my preparation for the workshop, I had a few thoughts about what we do as organizers, why we do it, and maybe even how we can do it better.
My own journey into organizing was born simply out of desperation. When my son turned five and was ready for more independence I knew it was time to get back into music for myself. I’d played just for a few years in middle school and had been carrying around a fiddle for years, but only took it out to play sporadically. I knew I liked to play with other people but didn’t really have a clear idea about what type of music fit best for me. I tried bluegrass, but it seemed too testosterone-laden. I tried Irish, but the music was a bit too persnickety. Finally, like Goldilocks, I found that old-time was “just right” for me. I came to realize that this was the music my dad played in the house as a kid growing up, but I’d just never known what to call it.
In 2006 I went to the Seattle Folklife festival and brought my fiddle. I had heard they had workshops. I was just headed out at the end of the day after a Scandinavian workshop, when I heard a group of jammers playing together on the top of a grassy hill. They were playing a creepy-cool tune I’d never heard before that drew me right in. They said it was called Stillhouse Branch. I sat there listening on the grass with my fiddle in its case, and a friendly man came up and invited me to join them. I said, “Naw, I don’t really know how to play yet.” He said, “That doesn’t matter. Come sit with us, anyway!” Then he slapped a bright yellow “Let’s Pick” sticker on my fiddle case to remind me to go to the Centralia Old-Time Campout in Washington. That’s how I met Ray Leach and fell down the old-time rabbit hole, as did many others who’ve spent time with Ray over the years. After that first visit to the Centralia campout, I began attending other festivals here in the Pacific Northwest. I’d have such a great time learning all these fun tunes, but when I’d return home, I couldn’t find anyone to play with. There were lots of old-time musicians in my area, but most just played with each other in their living rooms. I couldn’t find any open jams playing the type of old-time music I was hearing at the festivals.
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After about three years of playing mostly on my own, I was desperate. While attending the Portland Old-Time Music Gathering in 2009, I got into a conversation with Bill Martin – the main instigator for the thriving Portland old-time scene – and I told him how I was having trouble finding folks to play with in my own community. He said, “Well, you’ll just have to start your own jam, then!” I told him I didn’t know how to host a jam. He said, “That doesn’t matter one bit! You’ll figure it out!” So, I leapt in with both feet. I really wasn’t a strong enough fiddler to lead a jam and had no idea what lay in store for me. It was challenging learning how to maintain the relationship with the venue, to promote the jam, and to keep it from spiraling into John Denver tunes and sea shanties. But, as I kept at it, I got better. Relationships formed over the years and that little jam has now grown into a full-fledged nonprofit, Mud City Old-Time Society. We still host that same open jam, but we now also have a monthly slow jam, house concerts, square dances, workshops, and an annual 4-day music festival each spring:The Willamette Valley Old-Time Social.
Organizing takes patient, steady work and a long-term vision. There are many setbacks along the way, but the benefits are worth it. Some are fortunate to live in communities that already have a thriving and organized scene, but many of us live in old-time deserts and depend on a few folks who are willing to put some time in to get the ball rolling. I started this work purely from a selfish need to find others to play with so I could continue to learn and grow as a musician, but it has blossomed into so much more than I’d ever imagined. From that one little seed of an idea from Bill Martin, we now have a dedicated base of volunteers we can count on to make our festival run smoothly, folks who offer their houses for shows and slow jams, and for travelling musicians to take a hot shower and do some laundry on the road. We have a robust email list and a slew of online followers. We also have big plans to start a string band class to get more farmers and families with kids involved and to build a diverse and welcoming community that fosters excellent old-time music and dance opportunities for us all.
The workshop for community organizers at Fiddle Tunes attracted a nice group of folks. We shared resources for finding grants andsponsorships, and tips for setting up jams, and we all bemoaned the challenges of getting folks to show up for dances consistently. We also discussed the idea of offering facilitated workshops to discuss issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our communities. Traditional music brings people together to dance, drink whiskey, laugh, learn new tunes, share meals, and camp together. What better way to get a roomful of strangers to hold hands and giggle together like kids than an old-time community dance? We sure have fun times with friends playing tunes at festivals, but there are also important issues to address in our community today. These things are not mutually exclusive. The old-time community has been doing some soul searching about a lack of diversity, and we’ve been experiencing some challenging discussions online about the history of our music in relation to racism, sexism, and tolerance. We have lots of work to do in terms of developing a culture of respect and inclusion that would be best served by hiring facilitators at festivals to help us work through these issues together. Community organizers can be instrumental in making sure we have a place to work through these difficult conversations and toward a better understanding of each other. How exactly this will work in practice is still an open question.
You may want to consider lending a hand to support the folks who organize events in your community or to start something new all on your own. This work is important in the world. Lack of meaningful connection to each other is a big challenge in our society today, and old-time music and dance is just one little antidote to the loneliness we’ve created for ourselves in our quest for independence. For our communities to stay strong, we need to find ways to spend real time with each other in person, and old-time organizers are the ones who get us all together. And, if this particular organizer ends up with some bean skins in her unbrushed teeth in the process, well, that’s a price I’m happy to pay.