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Campsite Jam

In search of Old Songs
by Jeff Doran

If you’re looking for an example of how to run a music festival, visit the Old Songs Festival in Altamont, NY – if you can find it. Hundreds of cars from the Northeast made their way to the Altamont Fairgrounds, June 26-28. Maybe they had been there before. I was coming for the first time and was trying to follow directions from the website, I kept a sharp eye out for the crucial intersection at Fuller Road, but never saw it either coming or going. I ended up navigating by the seat of my pants, heading for Voorheesville, mailing address for Old Songs. Finally I stumbled upon a quiet country road which looked as if it might lead to fairgrounds and sure enough it did and I went through the mighty portal of Altamont and straight to the wrong gate. Maybe my confusion had something to do with a marathon 24-hour drive from Nova Scotia through fog, rain, thunder, lightning and bugs.

I had been told about Barbara Holzmarkthe festival by Barbara Holzmark of Nova Scotia (Box 11, La Have, NS B0R 1C0) who has been making custom shoes, boots and sandals at festivals for over 30 years. She assured me this Altamont bore no resemblance to the California speedway. I was disinclined to leave home in the summer until I saw the program for the festival. Right away I started packing dulcimer, banjo, bodhrán and C Melody saxophone.

Workshops began Friday at 3:30. Of the 11 offerings, it was a toss-up for me between Beginning and Continuing Mountain Dulcimer and Participatory Swing Jam. I had arrived at noon, putting up my tent between rain showers in what is called the Quiet-at-Night area (a first for me, welcome relief after my Quiet Campinglast folk festival where nighttime approached a Rolling Stones concert) and had been able to grab a few hours’ sleep before horn sections and dulcimers started tuning up at nearby fairground venues, the open-sided Draft Horse Building and a tent outside the Farm Machinery Museum. I figured I could dash back and forth if I lost interest. I joined the dulcimers and received so much instruction in songs and chords that I was never tempted to slip out for the jam of swing-era tunes. I even stayed after class, almost missing the open mic at the Dutch Barn.

I had two good reasons not to go: there was a drum circle at the Sheep Barn and my last open mic experience had been a fiasco (if you want to cackle over last year’s misfortune, you can relish Camping in Acoustic Heaven on this site). I had only one good reason to go: if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.

As I swapped dulcimer for banjo and puzzled my way through artisans and food vendors, past the main stage where concerts would be held this evening and the first aid station where free ice-water and sunscreen were always available, I was hoping the sign-up sheet for the open mic would be filled and I would have to wait until tomorrow to make more excuses not to go to the next one.

A Dutch Barn Frontsmiling Kate Blain, emcee for the open mic, greeted me at the double-doors of the old barn with a very short list of aspirants. As I entered, the massive beams and rough floor brought back the solace of family barns where I’ve always been comfortable among hay and livestock. Well-managed lighting and sound systems did not intrude upon the relaxed atmosphere. Dutch Barn InteriorWhen my turn came I was still breathing easily, partly due to the fact that I would be singing one of my own creations so if I messed up the words I would have a better chance of creating new words on the spot. Miraculously I heard my voice clear and confident, overriding my feeble frailing style. The sparse audience (mostly participants and their friends) responded warmly, possibly influenced by the introduction which described me as the current record-holder for having driven the farthest to get here. I pulled an encore out of the hat, quitting the banjo and singing an a capella version of “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” to the tune of “Greensleeves” and vice versa. It is a party trick I have done many times and which I give freely to you along with the tip that “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” can be sung to “Hernando’s Hideaway” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to the theme from Gilligan’s Island.

I went out into the early evening with a light heart. I don’t remember if it was raining. It probably was. It rained every day. I didn’t mind. I was too happy.

In my tent I slept through the evening concert, serenaded in the distance by gospel of Lea Gilmore, New England fiddle of Lissa Schneckenburger, finger-picking of Toby Walker, Dutch songs of Nanne & Ankie and the Hudson Crew, East Indian music of Galitcha, bass trombone and spoken word of Asterisk, old-time tunes of the Double Decker Stringband and Québecois reels of Réveillons! (exclamation point theirs). It was just unquiet enough in Quiet-at-Night camping. I was sound asleepOpen Jam by the time the After Concert Contra Dance began and I don’t know when the After Concert Sing in the Dutch Barn ended or how long the After Concert Open Jams in the Sheep Barn lasted. The next thing I knew I was being waked by robins.

I had to get myself in shape. It was going to be a busy weekend. On the program I had circled workshops and performances I wanted to attend, starting at 9:30 and ending just before the main stage concert at 7:00 which I was determined not to sleep through. Many of the time slots were double, triple and quadruple-booked. I have never had so many tough decisions since picking courses at university when I had advisors to help confuse me.

At 10:00 I visited the Open Jam under a tent near my campsite. Then I dashed to the 11:15 workshop on Innovative Banjo Styles taught by Bill Vanaver and Peggy Seeger. Seeger had been the deciding factor in my making this 1,130 km drive (plus three-hour ferry ride). I hoped to learn the secret of clawhammer style. I was so entranced by the ease of Vanaver and Seeger’s technique that all I can remember is the advice “Hold the ball, release the ball.” I must get around to trying it.

I skipped lunch for the French Canadian Jam, partly out of patriotic pride and partly because Réveillons! would be there.Reveillons! The last thing I remembered from last night was hearing them announced and telling myself not to miss them today. I brought my bodhrán in hopes it would fit in and as it turned out the drummer for Réveillons! played much of the percussion with his shoes so I was not overloading the bodhrán section. I raised two good blisters on my fingers, a healthy sign that I was enjoying myself.

I confess I took a break to heat up some beans, but I was at the main stage for the 3:00 performance by the Irish quintet Bua with Jackie Moran (who is actually from Ireland) on bodhrán. Moran would be leading the bodhrán workshop tomorrow morning by which time I would be sure to have found some band-aids.

At 4:15 I had conflicts between a main stage performance by Réveillons!, All Banjo All the Time at the Draft Horse Building, Irish Tin Whistle in the Fire Museum and Musical Reflections on War and Peace with Peggy Seeger, Bill Vanaver and Josh White, Jr. By now I knew I would love any of them too much to scoot back and forth for a pot-pourri. It was painful to give anyone up, but I was truly hooked on Réveillons! and hadn’t had enough. Besides, I knew there are really no bad seats at the main stage.
Another thing the Old Songs Festival does right is make allowance for low and high seating. The lowest, blankets, are right in front.  Behind them are folding chairs with stubby legs. Behind them are folding chairs with normal legs. Staking out places begins early in the morning. Each night after the concert the place-markers must be removed. Those which aren’t, Saving Placesare delivered to the Chairs Graveyard beside the information booth. Some enterprising veterans staked their claims with tarps pegged to the ground (1 tarp = X chairs). Even in the back with my normal legs, I never had trouble finding a sight-line between tree-trunks. Published festival etiquette prohibited smoking in concert or workshop areas (observed), prescribed cell-phones be set to “vibrate” and conversations be limited to non-performance areas (seldom observed), requested talking and socializing be kept to a minimum during performances (minimally observed), advised remaining seated during workshops and concerts (ignored) and forbid flash photography or audio and video recording during concerts without permission of Old Songs and the performers (you’d have to ask Old Songs and the performers if all those flashes and camcorders had permission). The only boors I encountered were those with cell phones and those with loud mouths who stood at the back gabbing through music as if it (and life) were just background noise. Defying shushes and steely glares, they maintained their pathetic, self-centered, oafish babble. I hope they are reading this. Next time I won’t be so polite.

I had to skip the first two acts of the 7:00 concert because I realized I needed to finish the Canadian beer I had brought since I couldn’t take it home with me considering I intended to pick up my 1.1 litre duty-free allotment of liquor on the way back as a souvenir of New Hampshire. By the time I got to the concert, Josh White, Jr. was performing with (to my taste) a little too much reference to “Dad” Peggy Seegerand not enough standing on his own. Peggy Seeger played banjo and keyboard, treating us to an original which she called her “F-word song” about combatting obnoxious smokers with strategic farts. The Caravan led by Bill Vanaver interpreted the songs of Pete Seeger in dance and music. This was for me one of the high-points of the weekend. The young dancers performed in a style all their own, a sort of mix of Martha Graham, Agnes De Mille and “Stomp.” In shoes, they were percussive and precise.  Barefoot, they were silent and fluid. Their version of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” had tears streaming down my cheeks.  Bua finished the evening for me. I went back to the tent and crashed through the next three acts, after-concert contra-dancing, singing, jamming and what was left of the night.

Did I mention it rained every day? Still the audiences were not deterred.  Most of them had come prepared with umbrellas and ponchos. Sometimes it rained so hard the tin roofs of the indoor venues drowned out performers.  The website warned of bad weather. Apparently it has happened before (this is the festival’s 29th year). Yet never was heard a discouraging word. My antique canvas tent admitted a fine mist which prompted me to spend more time elsewhere.

Buildings with displays of 19th century rural life were interesting enough to explore even without the attraction of traditional music and dance. Booths of vendors and artisans gave the grounds the look of a carnival midway, especially after dark, except that instead of cotton candy and Whack-a-Mole your choices were cappuccino, Pad Thai, fresh-cut potato chips, enamel jewelry, homemade shoes and hammered dulcimers. Instead of tattoos and tank-tops, the uniform seemed to be gray hair and Tilley hats, although there were enough youngsters to fill the Children’s Corral for events such as juggling, mime, Percussion for Beginners and the Festival Jug Band, yet another example of what Old Songs does right.

You wouldn’t think a bodhrán workshop would attract many people at 9:30 Sunday morning after a late night of jamming and contra-dancing, but it was standing-room only when Bua’s Jackie Concert SundayMoran started right on time. The first item of business was correct pronunciation: bow-ron (“The easiest way to remember it is to tell some guy named Ron to bow.”). Then it was quickly hands-on. Most of us had brought our own drums. Moran played banjo while we accompanied with rhythms he taught. It was over much too quickly. Some in the back were still mispronouncing the name.

I hot-footed it over to the Irish Jam at 10:45 with patterns for jigs and reels still in my head. Bua was there as well as a tent full of fiddles, flutes, whistles, dulcimers and one other bodhrán who had been at the workshop. For the next hour I went into an altered state during which I’m sure root-canal could have been performed without anaesthesia.

Then it was promptly to the main stage to see the result of rehearsals for the kids’ jug band. I’ve been a jug band nut since Jim Kweskin first recorded “Crazy Words - Crazy Tune” and it did my heart good to hear those tots on washboard and kazoo holler “Red hot mama!” Right about that time the power went off. We heard it was off all over Altamont. There were rumors of a lightning strike, a helicopter cutting power lines and a car crashing into a pole. I never did find out the truth, but performances for the next three hours were unplugged and undaunted. The only problem was that it made cell phones and loudmouths even louder.

The program listed Lost & Found as the main stage attraction at 3:00 and it wasn’t kidding. Emcee Bill Spence held up clothing, backpacks and water bottles which Roger the Jester juggled while audience members made their way to the front to claim them. It was a brilliant idea and I’ve never seen it done anywhere else. Leave it to Old Songs to find the right way.

I stuck around through most of the closing afternoon concert waiting for the draw for the instrument raffle. Prizes were a Martin guitar, a Deering banjo and a hammered dulcimer from David Lindsey of Oklahoma. I had bought enough tickets to win all three and I was already thinking of how to explain them to Canadian Customs at the New Brunswick line, but I didn’t have to worry because they were all won by people from New York. I was simply outnumbered. If I hadn’t stayed around, however, I Cat and Fiddle Paradewould have missed the Cat and Fiddle parade with giant puppets made by kids last year. There is no doubt in my mind that a Cat and Fiddle parade was happening nowhere else on the planet at this time. I was happy to be there.

There is a kind of melancholy I always feel when leaving an event of this sort. For three days I’ve had a connection with performers who don’t even know I’m listening and I’ve come to recognize people I’ve jammed with whose names I don’t know and whom I probably will never see again. Once I’m off the festival grounds, most people are unaware it even happened. When I get home, if anyone makes the mistake of asking “So how was it?” their eyes begin to glaze over after about an hour and a half.

That’s why I write. I appreciate the captive audience.


How do you run a festival which manages to do so many things right? First off (and this is just a hunch) you have organizers who love the music and don’t take themselves too seriously. Then you have about 400 volunteers and crew. Then you work at it for 29 years. Plus it helps to have funding from the state.

The effect is you have people wanting to come back. I will be glad to go back. Next time, though, I’ll probably stop overnight on the way. And I won’t bother looking for Fuller Road.

[Text and photographs © 2009 Jeff Doran]

Jeff Doran is a writer, musician, and retired high school teacher living in Nova Scotia. This is his third article for

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