Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Traditional Music in Richmond and Ashland, Virginia

Traditional Fiddle Tunes Sound Better Than They Sound!

Richmond, VA seems like a likely place for the nexus of old-time fiddle music and Irish trad.  It's not far from the mountains of Appalachia - a few hours drive to many of the major old-time festivals, such as Clifftop, Galax, Rockbridge and Mt. Airy, where hillbilly music thrives.  Richmond is also a fairly large, urban environment with Washington DC just 2 hours up I-95 North.  Another 40 miles gets you to Baltimore, then beyond that is Philadelphia, New York and Boston.  Celtic traditional music is strong all along this Mid-Atlantic and Northeast region.  Richmond also has its own annual Folk Festival taking place over 3 days each October with attendance around 200,000, making it the biggest folk festival in the country...even bigger than the national one!
Richmond, Virginia
The Richmond Folk Festival certainly hasn't hurt the participation in folk music by regular folks at a local level, and the fiddle music of Appalachia as well as the traditional jigs and reels of Ireland are now very well represented here.  The best examples being the Sunday afternoon old-time jam at Cary St. Cafe near Carytown and the 2nd and 4th Wednesday Irish Session at Rosie Connolly's in the city's Shockoe Bottom district. When combined the music covered between Cary St. and Rosie's is exactly the kind of stuff I want to be playing.  Strangely, (or not surprisingly?), only a couple other folkies besides me attend both of these meetups.  It seems most traditional and roots musicians, while aware of both the Celtic and Appalachian traditions, are either/or.

The reasons a person might voice for not liking Irish or Old-Time music are also the reasons for liking them:  Old-time with its crooked, repetitive, stand-alone tunes, open-tunings, regional quirks, and syncopation.  Irish with its multiple time signatures (4/4, 6/8, 9/8) and tune types (jig, reel, hornpipe, slide), noteyness, tendency toward "unusual" tonal centers like E-dorian, and tune sets of constantly changing keys.  These characteristics are what make each of them great, and what makes them an either/or for the majority of players.

I came to both styles of music at the same time, as a complete outsider, with no family connection, no personal history, and no familiarity with either idiom.  As a result I like both musics almost equally and see more similarities than differences.  I would consider both to be musically complete - containing all the melody and rhythm required when played by a solo instrument, but also conducive to an ensemble format where 20+ players can all play together.
The Blue Ridge Mountains - just west of Charlottesville, VA
Irish and Old-Time each come from aural traditions where you learn by ear and play by heart, forgoing classical training and scales and exercises in favor of simply learning the tunes.  There really aren't any other music communities happening in Richmond where large groups of amateur musicians get together simply for fun to play instrumental folk music in unison without taking "breaks" or solos.  Not blues, not jazz, not bluegrass, not acoustic guitar jams, not ukulele clubs.  Nope - in that respect Old-time and Irish are pretty similar...and valuable.

I cherish both the Cary Street Old-time jam and the Irish session at Rosie's as places to hear each type of music in a pure form from experienced musicians.  Cary St. is like a mini festival jam, where you get to go into a hypnotic, zen-like state for 3+ hours in a Deadhead bar on a Sunday afternoon while the music passes right through you at breakneck speeds.  Meanwhile, the Rosie's session takes place in Richmond's best and most authentic Irish pub, where the craic and the Guinness both flow freely.  Mad amounts of tunes come and go during the course of an evening.  As an ancillary member and newcomer to each of these gatherings, at this point I observe as much as I participate, although with each passing week I hope to understand more.

Call me naive, but I enjoy taking the music that I'm hearing at both of these sessions and introducing it to Ashland, the small town about 15 miles north of Richmond where I live, as part of the Ashland Old-Time Jam and Irish Session, 10am-1pm every 1st and 3rd Saturday in the listening room of Ashland Coffee and Tea, which I helped start earlier this year and continue to host.  I wish I had a better name for this friendly hootenanny.  The terms "Irish" and "Old-Time" seem so narrow and cliche.  Maybe Trad Festival Jam is another way of naming it.  It's that sound you hear at 11pm while walking the grounds of the Rockbrige Mountain Music Festival, combined with energy of the Tuesday night session at Brogan's Pub in Ennis (County Clare) Ireland.  That's what we're searching for and hoping to emulate.
Ashland, Virginia
Anyway, you can think of Ashland as an old-time jam that includes tunes in 6/8 time, and/or as an Irish session where individual tunes are played multiple times through.  The way I see it, both styles cover the tonal center/modes/keys of D, G and A pretty well.  It's not that much to ask of musicians from one tradition or another to come together and open their (beginner's) mind all over again.  Old-time might venture into C while Irish might venture into Eminor and other places.  I play tenor banjo/tenor guitar and I don't re-tune out of standard GDAE tuning, so in that way I suppose I lean slightly Celtic although I find old-time to be a little easier to pick up, for some reason.  Half and half.

I also see the Ashland session as kind of like the minor leagues of jamming.  A welcoming training ground, if you will.  While Cary St. and Rosie's are both open jams and excellent places to familiarize yourself with the nuances of the pure drop, there is a certain level of competence that's expected of the participants.  In Ashland I recognize that not all 5-string banjo players are Bela Fleck or Ken Perlman who can churn out jigs with ease, and also that not all flute players are well versed in obscure Kentucky and West Virginia tunes.  Neither am I for that matter.  But we make it work, and do so with a casual, anything goes type atmosphere:  mixing and matching, favoring repertory over style, but still treating these tunes with sensitivity they deserve.

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