While a lot of us homesteaders take pride in making our own food and energy, I take the most pride in making something far more important — my own music. It’s something I taught myself to do, and I'm certain you can too. Playing a musical instrument doesn't require a degree from Juilliard or amazing talent. It just takes some patience, a sense of humor, and good home instructional aids. It's also not a bad way to add some extra income into your homestead. When you invest the time and energy into learning an acoustic instrument you can reclaim that investment over time through teaching others. Something I just started this year at Cold Antler, and it's been one of the most rewarding aspects of my simpler life to date.
After long weekends of working sheep, baking bread, sawing firewood, and mucking coops I put down the pitchforks and buckets and pick up my fiddle. The fiddle is my saving grace, best friend and instant therapist. I am fairly certain that if you were able to see my insides, my heart and mind would be connected by a set of steel strings and coated in rosin. Old time music (specifically southern mountain music) has its claws tight on my heart. The older I get the less likely I am to trust strangers if I find out they can't sing the first verse of “Tennessee Stud” or don't know the chorus “Angel Band.” Somehow, over time this music has changed me, and it's changed me for the better. After a few years of making those old songs mine I found they instantly relaxed me, calmed me down, and made me a solid contribution to any campfire jam. I have more good memories playing those old songs with friends and strangers than I can count.
A few years back, when I lived in Southern Appalachia, my weekends were spent splashing through Smoky Mountain streams on old hiking trails and lapping up that culture like a thirsty sheepdog. I fell in love with its music and I fell hard. I started playing the dulcimer when I lived down in east Tennessee (go Vols), and a few years later in Idaho I could saw out some solid tunes on the fiddle and banjo. Not bad for a gal from the suburbs.
Music is what fills the idle hours here at Cold Antler Farm. Sunday nights the Vermont woods are lit with the songs and squawks of beginner fiddlers. These are people learning hundred year old tunes for the first time. The very same tunes probably plucked and sang by people farming on those same hills a few centuries ago when Vermont was the epicenter of the Merino wool industry. Even though those old shepherds are long gone, I like to think there are a few sheep and fiddle tunes left in one Yankee hollow.
You don't have to be a savant to teach lessons, ’specially beginner lessons. If you can help people pick out an instrument, play a few tunes, and teach them to teach themselves I think you're more than in a good position to offer someone advice and help. I'm not saying you should open a music business on just a few years of experience, but a few beginner banjo lessons in exchange for a bunch of home-canned tomatoes sounds like a harmless trade to me.
If you are interested in getting started along similar lines, I strongly suggest the materials created by Native Ground Music, an Asheville-based publisher that makes the easiest bluegrass and old time lessons you can buy (and cheap at the price — around $20 a book and CD). If you've been putting off playing that fiddle by the fireside or plucking a mountain dulcimer under a canopy of stars, don't wait any longer. Good beginner books like those will hold your hand and get you playing “Old Joe Clark” in no time flat.
Jenna Woginrich is the author of the forthcoming book, Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life, from Storey Publishing. Visit her Web site at coldantlerfarm.blogspot.com.
Photo by Tricia Weill