I am happy to tell you that Midwest Banjo Camp was a smashing success. The campus of Olivet College in Olivet, Michigan, was lush and green and the food in the dining hall was more than edible and at times even good. (Okay, maybe I was just hungry!) The accommodations for the staff were new, four-bedroom, two-bath student townhouses with a kitchen, which we didn’t actually use except to chill our bottled water in the fridge. (Thank you, Stan Werbin, for that!) The temperature in the bedroom seemed quite hot the first night, but when I figured out that the air conditioning vent was under my bed and slid the frame over, all was cool from there on out. So, those are the things that matter to an instructor!
The classes? Oh, those were good, too. Camp directors Ken Perlman and Stan Werbin (of Elderly Instruments) had assembled a mighty team of bluegrass instructors including Bill Evans, Bill Keith, Jens Kruger, Ned Luberecki, Pete Wernick, Dave Talbot, Ryan Cavanaugh (jazz banjo), James McKinney, Mike Sumner, and moi (the lone female).
One of my favorite classes teamed me up with three of the old-time banjo players—Mac Benford, Michael Miles, and Brad Leftwich—to demonstrate singing while playing the banjo. Having never workshopped with those guys (to coin a verb), I didn’t know what to expect and thought we might all do some playing together, trading breaks bluegrass style, but instead we each took a turn singing a song of our choice while playing the banjo. Normally, I have a full bluegrass band backing me up when I sing, or at the very least Red on guitar, so this was something new for me. Nevertheless, I gave it my best shot and for my first number sang "I’m Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" ("Lonesome Road Blues") because it has lots of verses and the old-time guys were all singing these mournful ballads with interminable story lines. Singing while sitting down, I seemed to be channeling Uncle Dave Macon (or at least Leroy Troy) and started stomping one or both feet exuberantly as the spirit began to move me. I only wished I had known how to spin my banjo around!
For my second number I chose "East Virginia Blues" (seven verses), which, as I told the folks, “sounds exactly like "Lonesome Road Blues" except for the words.” (I only realized the chord pattern was the same as I was introducing it.) Then for my third number I gave ‘em a little "White Dove", “just to show you I can sing something besides Lonesome Road Blues.” They all thought that was funny and laughed so I felt loved. Which is all I wanted anyhow.
What was really cool on "White Dove" was that by the third chorus folks were starting to sing along, so we had sort of a Morman Tabernacle Choir effect with some marvelous, rumbley bass voices. At the end I had them double back and sing the chorus one more time saying, “I think you’ve just about got it!”
Perhaps that gospel number was what inspired Michael Miles to trot out "I’ll Fly Away". He was playing a fretless banjo, which was tuned low, maybe in F, and he sang the song fairly slow (not bluegrass tempo) and asked everyone to sing along on the “I’ll fly away’s” and the choruses. Once again, there were those throbbing bass voices, not too loud, perhaps a bit tentative even, but resonant and....well, comforting. I think now, as I’m writing this, that that sound probably reminded me of my granddaddy’s bass singing in church when I was little. So hearing everyone joining voices together sparked one of those special moments for me, when I felt all this emotion welling up inside and I was aware enough to pay attention to it, to feel it, and to think, “This is what I like about this music.” As Brad Paisley says in a current country song, “I live for little moments like that.” Those are the ones that keep you going. And that one has certainly kept me going.
I’m looking forward to experiencing and perhaps creating some more “magic moments” at Kaufman Kamp which commences in only ten short days. Hope to see you there!