Sunday, June 19, 2011

Memories Like Music: West Virginia State Folk Festival, Day One

We're home again after a weekend that I have difficulty describing. Perhaps a recipe will do it best:

Take 4 parts music, add 2 parts singing, 1 part storytelling, 1 part dancing, 1 part friendly people, 1 part history, 1 part handicrafts. Add one ghost, 4 storytellers, 2 stunning concerts,  2 nights of music under the night sky. Mix well with good food, a little wine, a lot of laughter, a few tears. Sprinkle liberally with new friends, add old friends. Serve with a generous sauce of music, music, and music. That's the West Virginia State Folk Festival.

The festival actually starts Thursday but we were storytelling that day so we arrived Friday. After checking in to our dorm room (a steal at $25 a night if you're not a performer) we moseyed down to the singing tent. We listened to folk singer Mike Morningstar, and then I was on to sing and teach ballads to anyone who wandered into the tent.

We had a nice group of 10-12 people; I brought copies of the lyrics to some ballads I thought would be easy to learn. After a few songs I asked if anyone in the tent was a ballad singer. Two people raised their hands. I asked if they'd like to sing one for us, and the man stood up. I asked him where he was from, meaning which county or state, and his reply shocked me: "England." He sang beautifully; I wish I could remember his first song but its title escapes me; then his wife, who was from Gilmer County, where this festival is held, sang Silver Dagger. Her voice is pure mountain, just heart-rending. We sang a few more, and I cannot tell you what a pleasure it was for me to swap songs with them. Ballad-singers are few and far between, at least in this area, and I rarely get the opportunity to share songs with other singers. Their story  was fascinating too--a chance meeting when he was here on business, a long-distance romance, then marriage. They now live in England but come back to the States annually to visit her family.

After my session we stuck around to listen to Linda Moore and her partner Jack Greathouse. Energy and good voices, both. Following them was the Putnam Family Singers from Roane County. A family group of parents and three children, they sing a lot of gospel but also play some old-time tunes. The littlest son, Andrew, keeps them all hopping to keep him in line, but at 5 or 6 years old he's an amazing singer. Son Isaac plays guitar and mandolin and was a state youth guitar contest winner at Vandalia. Daughter Carolyn was also a Vandalia winner on fiddle. The whole family is just a fine group to listen to, a testament to good parenting and good music.

I was torn in the evening: go "up on the hill" (and it's a steep one for real!) for the evening concert and to hear Phyllis Marks who is one of the few remaining ballad singers of the older generation, and the other wonderful performers in the evening concert, or attend the ghost stories session. We ended up doing both. We raced up the hill to hear Phyllis who was on stage first, after the West Virginia Belles were onstage. These are ladies who are honored by their local homemakers' clubs and they come dressed in period costumes. We stayed for Lester McCumbers and then ran back down the hill to the ghost stories session. My main reason for attending this program was to hear the story of Sis Linn, the ghost who is said to haunt the halls of Glenville State College. After the storytelling session, we went back on the hill to the old cemetery, where storyteller Becky Baldwin told us Sis Linn's story. It's the sad tale of an unsolved murder of an older, single woman--probably a common enough story when the sons of prominent local people were suspect. No wonder the poor woman wanders the campus.

I thought I saw Sis as we walked down the hill...nah. Probably not...

We went back down to listen to the many jam sessions taking place in doorways, bank drive-thrus, on corners, porches, stoops and even in parking lots. The surrounding hills rang with music and laughter and the stomping feet of the square dancers. I got a sudden urge for food so we walked into the local convenience store (notice I said "the"--there is only one in town) and who should be there but Becky Baldwin, the evening's storyteller. We sat in a booth with her and chatted about storytelling, history, and other topics and came to find out her roots are not far from where Larry was raised in southern West Virginia. With a little time to trace it, I'm pretty sure we'd find a family connection!

We wandered around the square dance (look at all the young faces!) and jam sessions one more time before finally heading up to our room about 1:00 am. I didn't want the evening to end, but I also knew the next day would be busy and we needed to get some sleep. As I drifted off the waning moon shone in the window on me, a token of these long summer nights at the Glenville Festival.


Country Whispers said...

Sounds like a fun and interesting weekend!

Granny Sue said...

It sure was, Jessica. And we didn't get to the gospel sing, shapenote singing class, basketmaking, clay workshop, spelling bee, or a bunch of other activities.

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