A Magical Journey to Summer Music Camps

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You can find summer music camps all across this great land.

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! You say Aunt Betsy gave you a guitar for Christmas but the darn thing is still sitting in its box waiting for you to learn to play it? You say you’ve been picking out tunes on your banjo for a couple of years but you just can’t seem to get past the basics — and if you hear yourself play “Oh! Susanna” one more time you’ll go bonkers? You say you’re not a half bad fiddle player but you’re having a hard time finding other fiddle players to be not half bad with?

Well then, I have some mighty good news for you: Summer’s on its way, and that means it’s almost time for summer music camps. No matter whether you’re a beginner, an advanced player, or somewhere in between there’s just no better way to polish your musical skills than to get together with folks who are in the same boat, while you all have a chance to learn from some of the best musician-teachers around.

In fact, as a reward to all you poor souls who’ve been blistering your fingers (and ears) trying to learn to play an instrument, I’m giving a magic whirlwind tour of some of the country’s better-known music camps and festivals. You’d better hurry and pack a lunch! The bus leaves in five minutes!

Five Minutes Later …

With the engine groaning and complaining, we pull away from the station. Before the driver can even get out of low gear, the merry passengers start unpacking their instruments. Shifting into second, the driver can see an amazing array of people and guitars, banjos, fiddles, harmonicas, mandolins, hammer dulcimers, and lap dulcimers reflected in his rearview mirror. One fellow even has a hamcan mandolin, and another is carrying a musical saw. Soon the sounds of grinding gears are replaced by strains of “Cripple Creek,” “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” and “Amazing Grace.” People are starting to get to know one another — in fact, it’s getting downright chummy!

Suddenly, the bus screeches to a halt, and we all grab instruments and lunch bags and head for the door. We’re here! But where is here?

As we disembark, we’re overwhelmed by the beauty of Camp Rockmont, the site of the Swannanoa School of Music and Dance, to be held this year May 12 through 19. Located in the magnificent mountains of western North Carolina, the camp has a 20-acre lake, a dining lodge, cabins, and a gym for dancing, all on over 500 beautiful wooded acres. This year’s staff will include the legendary Johnnie Gimble (of the Texas Playboys) teaching fiddle;  none other than Jethro Burns holding workshops on mandolin; Mike Seeger (of the New Lost City Ramblers) teaching old-time clawhammer banjo; and Suzanne Edmundson (of the Hot Mud Family) teaching singing and guitar. Plus, there’ll be Malcolm Dalglish on hammer dulcimer, Don Pedi instructing lap dulcimer, and Carol Elizabeth Jones working with students on southern singing styles. And Fred Armstrong-Park, a nationally known dance caller, will be teaching southern squares, contras, and circles, while the Fourgone Conclusions will be teaching New England contras and couple dances, and members of the Green Grass Cloggers will be giving lessons in that Appalachian step dance.

Whew! And if that’s not enough, the Swannanoa School will culminate in the Black Mountain Spring Festival, May 17 to 19, which will feature concerts by all members of the teaching staff! Admission to the three-day spring festival, including two nights’ camping or bunkhouse lodging, is $25 in advance. Tuition for the Swannanoa School is $235 (including room, board, and admission to the festival) plus an additional $20 each for workshops conducted by Jethro Burns and Johnnie Gimble.

OK, everybody. We’ve all had a chance to stretch our legs and take a glimpse at Camp Rockmont. No more dilly-dallying! It’s time to get back in the bus!

Whew, these mountain roads are twisty devils! Before long, though, we find ourselves down in the southwest corner of North Carolina, almost on the Georgia border and not far from Tennessee. We’re at the John C. Campbell Folk School, which was founded in 1925 and has a long, proud tradition of preserving native Appalachian arts, crafts, music, and dance. Unlike many camps that operate only in the summer, the folk school runs all year long. Among the many workshops is Folk Music Week (August 25-31; tuition, $120), which includes instruction in hammer dulcimer, fiddle, banjo, guitar, and lap dulcimer.

It’s too bad we can’t be here for the school’s Winter Dance Week (December 26-January 1; tuition, $120). They really roll back the carpet then — you’ve never seen so many flying feet in one place! And speaking of feet, we’d better head ours back to the bus. First, though, you might want to jot down the school’s address: John C. Campbell Folk School, Brasstown, NC 28902.

After bouncing along northward awhile, we finally arrive in Elkins, West Virginia. Man! I’m glad to get out of that bus. As the rest of the passengers, looking a bit confused, try to figure out where they are, I boldly step forward and address the crowd with impressive authority:

“This, my friends, is the campus of Davis and Elkins College, the home of the Augusta Heritage Center. Since 1973, Augusta has held increasingly popular summer camps here at the college. From all the activity going on, I suspect we’ve arrived just in time for this year’s workshop (July 14—August 16). But instead of standing here telling you about the classes, perhaps I should take you on a guided tour. Now, first …” Suddenly, I look around and realize that I’m all alone. The other passengers have already started off on their own! Hey, wait for me!

By the time I catch up, the group is in the craft building, observing classes in everything from basketry and bookbinding to guitar construction and whittling. As we’re admiring the crafts, we hear the sounds of “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and “Arkansas Traveler” from nearby. There’s some fiddling going on! Let’s go find it!

Sure enough, scattered around the other side of the campus are musicians of every variety, taking classes in their favorite instruments: banjo, fiddle, Autoharp, guitar, dulcimer, harmonica, and even bagpipe! And in one building with a good stout floor, there’s a whole crowd of people, dancing just about every kind of folk dance you can imagine.

Most of the workshop’s music instruction classes are one week long; tuition varies from about $135 to $160. Plus, the event itself always ends with a terrific festival featuring some of the finest performers in traditional music!

Attention, everyone! Back in the bus! It’s time to head to the Fiddle and Dance Workshop in Ashokan, New York. Started in 1980 by ace fiddler Jay Unger, “Root Camp,” as the event is affectionately called, takes place on 365 beautiful acres in the Catskill Mountains … and here we are now! Just look at that nice little pond for swimming and canoeing. And over there are some trails for hiking. Aand look: a wood-fired sauna for relaxing!

This year, Root Camp will be divided into four sessions: Western Week (July 14-20) will focus on western and southwestern traditions, including square and circle dancing, waltzes, and the Texas two-step. Music classes will encompass western swing and “cowboy” fiddle, mandolin, and guitar. Celtic Week (July 21-26) will focus on Irish, Scottish, Shetland, and British traditional dance and music — there’ll be workshops not only on fiddle and mandolin, but also on flute, penny whistle, and concertina. Northern Week (August 18-24) will feature classes on New England, French Canadian, and Scandinavian traditional dance (including step dancing and polkas) and music (including piano and music theory). And August 25-31 will bring Southern Week, during which there’ll be instruction and concerts on Appalachian and Cajun music and dance (including clogging).

Quite a place, eh? Each workshop costs around $250, including tuition, room, and board.

Our next stop is Pinewoods Camp, located clear up near Plymouth, Massachusetts. Started back in 1933, Pinewoods is run by the Country Dance and Song Society of America. Wow, just look at the place! Ain’t it beautiful? No, you can’t settle into one of those nice little cabins over there under the pines. We still have more places to see.

Pinewoods Camp offers seven related but distinctly different weeks of workshops: There’s Early Music Week (July 13-20), American Dance Music Week (July 20-27), Folk Music Week (July 27-August 3), Family Week (August 3-10), English Dance Week (August 10-17), English and American Dance Week (August 17-24), and Campers’ Week (August 24-31). Now, if that isn’t offering something for everyone, I don’t know what is! Fees for the week-long sessions include room and board, and range from $275 to $300.

OK, back in the bus, and this time be sure to strap on your seat belts because we’re going to sprout wings and fly (I told you this was a magic bus!) all the way across the country to Mendocino, California. Ready, set ….

And here we are! Pardon me while I kiss good ol’ Mother Earth.

Hmm, I notice that the other passengers are all craning their necks skyward. Wow — no wonder! We’re in the middle of a magnificent redwood forest! This is the site of Lark in the Morning’s annual Music Celebration (this year’s event will be held from August 2 to 11). Actually, Lark in the Morning is a music store the likes of which few people have ever seen; its mail-order catalog is packed with all kinds of instruments from around the world. And the once-yearly music camp includes darn near as many different kinds of classes, all held right here — just look at those great little cabins with stone fireplaces! In addition to instruction on all the “usual” folk instruments, there’ll be workshops on Celtic harp, Irish flute, Irish and Scottish bagpipe, Scandinavian fiddle, and button accordion (to name just a few!), plus classes and concerts in Middle Eastern, Balkan, and South American instruments and dance.

Tuition for the ten-day celebration is $150 for adults, $85 for children under 12. Or you can attend just the first or second half of the celebration for $95 ($50 for children).

Now, since we’re here on the West Coast, let’s hop back in the bus and point ourselves north toward … well, you’ll see in a minute. Meanwhile, let’s have lunch. Anybody want to trade for a Limburger and onion sandwich? OK, OK! I’ll put it back in the bag!

After a scenic journey through Oregon and southern Washington, we arrive at Pilgrim Firs Camp, just across Puget Sound from Seattle. This tranquil, wooded setting is the site of the annual Puget Sound Guitar Workshop — there are two six-day sessions (July 21-26 and July 28-August 2). The event focuses mainly on guitar instruction of all kinds (folk, ragtime, blues, Celtic, and more) and at all conceivable levels (from beginner to professional), but this year there will also be classes in banjo, bass, mandolin, and Dobro. The fee for each session, including room and board, is $250.

Our next (and last) stop is just a few miles away, which is a good thing because our driver says we’re getting low on gas. The Festival of American Fiddle Tunes (June 30-July 7), which was started by Bertrum Levy and is now directed by fiddler Frank Ferrel, has become an extremely popular event in the Northwest. Look! Here we are now! As you can see, the camp is held at beautiful Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend, Washington. The series of intensive workshops and evening jam sessions brings together all kinds of musicians from beginners to advanced  with an artist faculty made up of some of the finest fiddle, banjo, guitar, and mandolin players in the United States and Canada.

OK, all aboard for the return trip! Whew, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of all this traveling. I’ll be glad to get home. However, while we’re driving back, I’d like to point out that, although I’ve tried my best, this probably hasn’t been an all-inclusive tour. Chances are, there are a number of other summer music camps scheduled to be held this year that I just haven’t heard about. (Surely the great heartland states will be hosting a few!) So keep an eye out for such events in your area. And by the way, if you do come across a camp or workshop that I haven’t mentioned, drop me a letter. I’d like to hear about it!

Well, gang, we’ve arrived back home. I really enjoyed the trip, and hope you did too. I’ll be looking for you at this summer’s camps, workshops, and festivals. Meanwhile, good luck and keep picking!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Wayne Erbsen is director of the Appalachian Music Program at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina. Mr. Erbsen is also the author of a number of books on playing various instruments and music: Painless Mandolin Melodies ($12.95, with cassette), Clawhammer Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus! ($6.95), Starting Bluegrass Banjo From Scratch ($7.95), Bluegrass Banjo Simplified!! ($1295, with cassette), The Complete & Painless Guide to the Guitar ($6.95), The Backpocket Bluegrass Songbook ($3.95), and The Backpocket Old-Time Songbook ($3.95).