Chris and I drove up to Cincinnati this past weekend, to attend the 2008 Appalachian Festival, held at Coney Island. It’s about a three hour drive from here, and we were on the festival grounds by 10am Saturday. The weather couldn’t have been better, sunny and dry and in the low 70s.
For once we were members of the audience. Primarily we were there to see Ginny Hawker and Tracy Schwarz perform; if they are playing within three hours of us, it is a given that we will be there. And at this festival they played four sets over the two days, a real treat. Only as the festival approached did we find out that Dan Gellert was also on the schedule. Gellert may not be the best old-time fiddler and banjoist in the world, but he is on the short list, and he is probably our favorite just because his approach to both instruments is unique. So we were particularly excited about seeing him in person for the first time.
We always bring our instruments just in case we’re invited to help out, and we did have the opportunity to play with Ginny and Tracy a couple of times. During one set she introduced us as being from Adair County, Kentucky, and after the set some folks came up to introduce themselves, saying that they were originally from Clementsville, about four miles from our house. We compared notes and learned that they were quite familiar with our particular hollow and the folks who populate it. They encouraged us to see about playing music at the big July 4 celebration in Clementsville, which serves as a sort of reunion for everyone who has ever lived in that tiny little town, and I do plan to ask around about that.
On Saturday we got a few small doses of Dan Gellert, once at a fiddle workshop and again at a banjo workshop. Then late in the afternoon he played an hour-long set, which was just the most astonishing thing. I can’t adequately explain what appeals to us about his playing, except maybe to say that he is rhythmic beyond what anyone expects from either a fiddler or a banjoist. In fact, as he played a particular piece on the banjo it occurred to me that he approached it as a percussion instrument; I could imagine the same sounds coming out of a marimba or a steel drum. Here are some songs he recorded:
- Eph Got a Coon
- Buckdancer’s Choice
- We’ll All Go to Heaven When the Devil Goes Blind
- Black-Eyed Susie
Of these, I think “Black-Eyed Susie” gets closest to what is unique about Gellert; the pulse he creates is irresistable.
After his performance we had just enough time to stop for a quick supper at Camp Washington Chili Parlor; it was our first time eating Cincinnati 5-way Chili in its hometown, so it seemed appropriate to stop at the birthplace. Then we headed over to visit with Matt and Sora Colvin for the evening. We planned on limiting it to a couple of hours but ended up staying twice as long, only breaking off because we were all too tired to continue. The main topic was agrarianism, and we covered a lot of ground.
On Sunday the weather turned nasty—rainy and windy and cold. Attendance at the festival (which is primarily a crafts fair) was way, way down. But the shows went on, and so we were part of a great gospel sing led by Ginny and Tracy, and then later in the afternoon we were at their final set, lightly attended but well done as always. Then we drove home in the wind and the rain.