Clifftop 2010 Appalachian String Band Music Festival
Summary: I spent 5 days at the Clifftop, WV festival of Appalachian String Band Music in 2010. Old Time music is absolutely alive and well among the teens, college crowd and 20-somethings, much to the delight of the 50-, 60- and 70-somethings who were the other half of the crowd!
This festival has been held regularly for many years in a large state park near Beckley, WV. The focus of the festival music is the fiddle tunes and songs of pre-radio-days up to about WW II, There was very little Bluegrass or Nashville music -- heroes here are Uncle Dave Macon, Arthur Smith, Riley Puckett or Ed Haley rather than the Bluegrass greats like Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Tony Rice or Kenny Baker.
This year the official schedule ran from Thursday Aug 5 to Sunday, but hundreds of folks arrived as early as Friday July 30 to camp and play music. By the opening day of the actual program there were well over 2000 campers, the vast majority of them fiddlers, clawhammer banjo, guitar or mandolin folks. The whole atmosphere was friendly, tribal, social, but loud with the sound of scores of jammer groups playing almost around the clock. Not a great scene for sleeping.
This event has a stage and program of contests and concerts, but by far the most important part of the festival is the jamming that happens continuously. People set up elaborate tents and tarps (there is a history of passing thunderstorms which was continued this year!) and then sit down to play music interrupted by communal feasts. Some folks spend the whole time in their camp greeting friends and inviting in new comers. I wandered around more than most and got to meet dozens of new friends from many parts of the country, ate lots of delicious food and played tunes in fifty or sixty different combinations. The level of musicianship in the jams was quite good - pretty much everyone who was carrying a fiddle could pull it out and play a fun tune at dance speed... and of course, there were dozens of really top level fiddlers... a fun part of the festival was, since the players were mostly campers, you could go by a tent and chat with the musicians, ask them to show you a lick or a bowing, play a few tunes and pick up pointers. Most everyone, even the very best, most famous players, were friendly and inviting, and you could sit and listen to hot playing by the hour.
I played 'Soldier's Joy', 'Liberty', 'Nancy Rowland, ' Cumberland Gap' with several groups, no problem. Some Southern players had never heard "St Anne's Reel' and the only Irish tune they knew was "Wind that Shakes the Barley" but there were some players who had learned a series of Irish and Scottish jigs. 'Shove the Pig's Foot' was all over, as was 'Blackberry Blossom', 'Sally Gooden', 'Ebenezer', and several tunes from Art Stampfer, JP Fraley, Buddy Thomas and Rayna Gellert's 'Winders Slide' and 'Booth Shot Lincoln'. Many fiddlers were playing in 'cross-A' (AEAE) or other cross tunings, but definitely not all of the fiddlers were cross tuned. It was pretty much C, D, G and A, though. Not much fooling around with Bb or F or any of that stuff :) The key aspect to all the playing was the groove of the fiddler's bows and the steady banjo chunk of the clawhammer guys. This was not primarily about lovely tone, precision intonation or arpeggio runs... it was about the pulse of the tune -- you could pretty much stand on the hill and look down to see the tents and trees and parked cars of the whole campground expanding and contracting rhythmically like a scene from an old cartoon. It was pretty common for the jammers to sit in a small circle, repeating a tune for the 50th or 100th time, zoned out.
Clifftop is obviously not for everyone... it was a pretty good place for the kids who, at 3:45 AM Friday morning were in the center of our camping area, singing full voice, with great harmony, a series of parodies of country music and excellent imitations of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, etc. It was an excellent place for an intermediate player like me who is pretty fair at picking up tunes on the fly. If you are ready for it, talk to your friends about it -- maybe you should check it out next year....