While traveling, especially when I can stay in one place for a while, the goal is to dig in to the culture as deeply as possible. Some are tougher than others. China, for example, has a culture that’s 6,000 years old. Due to the blanket of communism and their fierce resistance to foreign influence, it’s almost impossible for me to scrape beneath the surface even as a someone fluent in their language. For this trip in Kentucky, the entire purpose of the school I attended was to experience Appalachian culture. So while the classes were important, the extra curricular activities were key.
After class we would drive over to the community center to eat fresh local food. Long tables were set out and everyone ate together. The first afternoon I sat next to the woman running the school, Carol, the sweetest 79 year old I’d ever met. She was beaming with pride when I told her I came from Brooklyn, “I’m so happy that someone from New York is interested in what we’re doing down here.”
Lunch was followed by a daily master’s recital. Musicians I’d heard about through the grape vine, or caught glimpses of on the internet would come through and perform. The best of the best, Bruce Greene, Lee Sexton, George Gibson, Betty Vornbrock.
Then it was an hour long jam session, depending on your skill level, out among the trees and creeks surrounding the community center. What better place than this to learn mountain music.
After the first jam session of the day it was an hour long workshop. Usually you had three choices. On that first day I took Fiddle from Scratch. The fiddle is the most unforgiving instrument. It’s not only fretless but it’s right in your ear. When the horse hair pulls across the strings every minuscule wrong note screams into your head. I survived by borrowing my brother’s intro violin, I continue to milk hand-me-downs into my 30’s, and although I see the fiddle obsession there on the horizon, I don’t think I could put my roommates through another beginner instrument.
I wandered over to a picnic table where I saw a girl playing guitar and singing. This girl had the purest Appalachian face I had ever seen. Small face, blonde hair all the way down her back, pale skin, and light jeans worn high on her waist. Her singing voice was beautiful. Each song, if she wasn’t singing it herself, she would come in with the perfect soft harmony. Suzanne, I later found out her name, played with three other people. One girl stood against a pole and sang, another girl played the upright bass, and a young man in overalls sat with a small harp against his chest. They were playing only Carter Family tunes. I sat there at the picnic table, alone, for the better part of an hour listening. I have a vivid memory of her singing “Jealous hearted me,” one that I never heard before but fell in love with. It made me very happy to wander over to something like that; they played simply because they could.
“We’re exhausting the Carter family,” she said, when someone else wandered over.
Later that night I went to my first square dance and played banjo in the back row, still too shy to play upfront or dance. Suzanne was there, gathering people to come out on the dance floor, in a brownish flower dress with a long braid down her back. Randy, the storyteller guy, called out all the square dance moves and would come over to the musicians to tell us to be quiet while he taught everyone the steps, but all the fiddle players chatted loudly about the next song while warming up. I was in heaven. Although I didn’t know any of the fiddle tunes I played quietly with my head down against the banjo head to hear it. Eventually I would figure out each melody and played louder. The final square dance of the night is usually a waltz. Randy shouted out to bring the lights down, so it was dark over the musicians, and we played the Tennessee waltz, as everyone danced the final song. It was beautiful.
The next day, Tuesday, after class I wandered over to my car to head to dinner. Suzanne was sitting on the ground next to it playing fiddle (that’s three instruments I saw her play within 24 hours), and I leaned on my car listening until she was finished. I told her about learning fiddle from scratch, and she talked about different music festivals and learning different old time songs and instruments.
“You have to become obsessed,” she said. “That’s the only way to really learn, I think.”
For the Tuesday workshop I chose line singing at the Baptist church next door. It was sparsely attended, but three men, much older, sat at the front next to the alter. They were talking about how the Smithsonian institute and Yale came down to record them. I spent a few of my formative years going to a Baptist church, so it always feels a bit strange/shameful to sit in those pews. That is, until I hear the singing, and I remember all the joy it gave me. I never did line singing before. The caller speaks the line for everyone to get the words, then everyone joins in to sing the melody. They were dressed in button down shirts that were tucked in. Carol was there, and smiled when she saw me. At the end we all hugged each other and said thank you. It was nice to know exactly what to do.
John’s band was playing at the local bar that night, so I went with Kris to have a few beers. Kris mentioned that she felt like an old geezer being there, but then some of the older teachers showed up to watch as well. The flow of the show was so free, and many people had instruments with them, so that after 45 minutes it broke down into a jam session. John played a few songs with his eyes open, staring off into the distance, and then he quietly packed up his banjo and slipped out almost unnoticed.
Suzanne sat at my table and Kris, who I had told the night before of my fascination with her, looked at me and closed her eyes to say “calm down, you’re doing fine.” We stayed for two beers and then Kris and I drove back to the winery. After I was in bed I remembered I left something in my car and as I walked past Kris’s cottage I could hear the fiddle tunes coming out.
The classes on Wednesday seemed to drag on a bit. I had a hard time learning a few new techniques, but I pushed through. Lee Sexton came through to play for us and then did a concert after lunch. I couldn’t handle another jam so I went home and relaxed. There was a group dinner that night, and the storytellers got up. Carol, the Grandma leader of the week was joined by seven other women, two of whom were black girls, the first ones I had seen on this trip.
I was so preoccupied with all the instruments that I forgot there was a storytelling class at the school. The theme was Christmas. Each person stood in front and gave a personal story, and then it seamlessly morphed into the group putting that story on the tree as an ornament. The youngest black girl, who stuttered and was nervous, told a short tale about being bullied at school and the happiness she felt being with family during Christmas. Carol shuffled her way to the front and told a story about her and her late husband. They had no money when they first got married 60 years ago but made it through a Christmas in which they all gathered and put that ornament on the imaginary tree in front of them. Broke. My. Heart.
On Thursday there was a shape note singing workshop at the Baptist Church. The teacher was Ben, a 30 something Jew from Connecticut. Let that sit for a while. I went to about 20 bar/bot mitzvahs growing up so I consider myself an honorary Jew and gave him a thumbs up as I sat down. I confessed that I had never done shape note singing, in fact I had never heard of it. They asked if I’d ever sang before. I said I had. So they put me in the lead/tenor section, right next to the lovely Carol and her fellow grandma friend. For those like me who don’t know what shape note singing is, here is the definition from the Britannica–
Shape-note singing, a musical practice and tradition of social singing from music books printed in shape notes. Shape notes are a variant system of Western musical notation whereby the note heads are printed in distinct shapes to indicate their scale degree and solmization syllable (fa, sol, la, etc.)
Basically, you can follow where you’re supposed sing by looking at the shapes on the page that correspond to your line. It was in a church, in a group of 30 or so people, so I felt like I could sing as loud as I wanted without inhibition. I really let it fly, and Carol and her friend looked at me and put their hands on their hearts. At the end of the first song she reached over her frail hand to pat me on my arm; two pats, which I took as encouragement. I sang even louder. I started rocking side to side as I sang. I hadn’t sang like that in years, maybe since I was in my early teenage days. With these gospel songs, the louder the better.
Ben said that the hour workshop was over, but anyone who wanted could stay and sing some more songs. Five of us stayed: an older woman named Zelda with an intense Knott county Kentucky accent, a tall man in his 60s with a deep voice and button down shirt tucked into his best Sunday pants, another man who looked like if you pissed him off he’d take his truck and run you over – all locals, plus Ben and me. This was their normal shape note singing time, and I felt like I was crashing it, but the trucker guy sat with me in the tenor section and said, “You’ve got a great voice, I’m gonna sit next to you.” Yes, sir. We sang, and I let out all that singing I had pent up since I stopped going to the church. After a few songs the trucker said, “Phew boy! We got to get you to move down here and sing with us.” For another hour, we sat in a circle and sang almost every song in the book.
That night was another faculty concert, and most of the instructors sang political songs. I remember the intermediate guitar teacher introduced a song he wrote by saying, “In a lot of media, the accent of hate is the southern accent, and I don’t think that’s true.” He sang about all the good things he sees in Kentucky but finished the song with the line, “But I don’t like my governor.” (Matt Bevin is the governor of Kentucky, just. . . just look him up.)
After the concert, John invited some people back to his tattoo parlor/art store. He is regarded as a master banjo player but he makes his living as a painter and tattoo artist. He had all his art on the walls. The only way I can describe it is Appalachian gothic. Drooping dark faces playing sad songs on sad instruments. Beautiful colors. Kris came with me, once again stating that she didn’t want to be the old geezer there and no one would recognize her. She would often mention that the school was for people like me, not her.
I brought a few beers and gave most of them away. Some people’s eyes started to glaze over, maybe from the booze, but probably from the weed, and the idea of getting tattooed came up. John called his apprentice and he came over and tatted a few of the other banjo students. My tattoo urge, although massive, was curbed by previous drunk decision making. So I stayed for a bit, stared at the paintings for a while, and then drove home. As I walked by Kris’s cottage I again heard her playing her late night fiddle tunes.
On Friday the whole class was worn out from the banjo-ness, and halfway through we decided on a song to play for the student recital. Almost everyone in the class was going to leave beforehand, so it ended up as three people playing it; Norma-Jean, Abby, and I, with John playing guitar in the background. We decided to play “Jay Gould’s Daughter,” a slower tune about hobos on a train. Most old time music is done clawhammer (another word for frailing/downpicking) and we spent most of our time on that, but this song was up-picking in a low key.
During the normal jam session the four of us got together to practice the song for the recital. Because of the smaller numbers and lack of hipster attitude I felt relaxed. John opened up about some banjo stuff and we felt free to ask him questions. While we were sitting and practicing the song John mentioned that what he wanted out of the class was for us to look at the banjo differently. I certainly have. Not only is it technically impressive, but their style of playing is almost sacred. If I saw or heard someone playing with that style I’d know that they studied in Eastern Kentucky.
Right before the recital they gave out awards, only four or five for the entire school of 150. There was one about fiddle dedication, and they called Kris’s name. She went up and brought it back to where I was standing with some tears in her eyes. Her fiddle mentor was the one who handed it to her.
The recital went well, it was different than the other banjo songs, but that’s what the class was about – Southeast Kentucky Banjo Styles. Finally it was the last square dance. Most people had already left town but I stayed and played until the end.
I went back to the winery and saw Jack and Kris sitting on the front porch. I had only sat down for two minutes when Jack asked if I wanted the bottle of Rose that I brought down for him. He even took a small taste himself. He brought us up to the other rooms on the second floor; along the hallway was a bookshelf stocked full of chemistry books and binders of water sanitation reports. Not papers, not books, but binders. It was now clear to me how the lady of the house spent her time.
Back on the porch, Jack pulled a revolver out of his pocket and put it on the table pointing towards me. He laughed when he saw it made me uncomfortable, so he took it inside and came back with a machine gun which he put on the table pointing at me. Kris looked at me with wide eyes. I picked it up. It was heavier than I imagined. Jack went to bed, leaving Kris and I to finish the wine and talk the night through.
The next morning I awoke to my final breakfast – biscuits, gravy, eggs, bacon, toast and apples. Delicious. Jack then took us up the mountain on his badass 4×4 to explore the natural gas drilling and the old coal mines. We also drove past his first gas station, and when we spoke about it there was more than a bit of pride in his voice. After the drive we went back to the rooms and I started packing up. That’s not true, I just played banjo – the first time I had been able to freely since the beginning of the week. It was lovely. I had gotten better.