Camping in acoustic heaven
by Jeff Doran
They’re tuning up at the 4th Annual Kempt Shore Acoustic Maritime Music Festival. They lean close with fiddle, guitar, banjo and mandolin, twisting pegs and cocking heads. And they’re not even going onstage.
These are the campers at Peterson’s Festival Grounds on the Minas Basin of Nova Scotia. They’ve come for three days of singer-songwriters performing “acoustically as possible through the microphones,” but they’ve also come for campsite jam sessions which go on all day and can last until dawn. I’m not exaggerating.
Walking back to my site after the concert Saturday night was like changing channels on a radio which plays nothing but the kind of music you want to hear. From lantern-lit circles came old-time instrumentals, bluegrass, country ballads, Simon and Garfunkel and the Eagles. When I walked up to the porta-potty at 3:00 a.m., a distant voice was singing “Lord, help me, Jesus!” with vocal cords so wrecked it sounded just like Kris Kristofferson. At 7:00 a.m. when I woke up, he hadn’t quit, though he could barely croak out Murray McLauchlan’s “Farmer Song”: “Straw hat and old dirty hanky, mopping a face like a shoe, thanks for the meal, here’s a song that is real, from a kid from the city to you...” I felt right kindly toward him. It hadn’t always been so.
I had come early on Thursday to get a good spot. My home was only an hour and a half away, but I had never been to this shore of the province before. And I had never camped at a music festival before. The festival ticket included “rough camping” on the 20-acre grounds. I was prepared to rough it in my ‘86 VW van. I had a butane stove, cans of chili, a frozen jug which would give me drinking water as it melted, a dozen cans of Alpine lager beer and my five-string banjo. When I pulled in, I told the campground guide in a golf cart I wanted a site “away from people.” He smiled weakly.
I found a spot on a dead-end lane with a view of the water, lots of green space on one side where little flags marked campsites, no flags on the other side next to trash and recycling barrels. I took a path to the beach. Kempt Shore is at the mouth of the Avon River. It looks across to the bluff of Cape Blomidon, legendary home of Glooscap who the Mi’kmaq believed was the first man, created from a lightning bolt, a giant with godlike powers. Beyond is Cape Split, high cliffs eroded like the Pillars of Hercules. All of this is at the end of the Bay of Fundy where the world’s highest tides bring tourists to watch rivers run upstream. I was alone on the gravelly beach.
I thought I was in heaven.
I walked up to find the free showers (two of them for men and women each with plenty of hot water), the drinking water tap under a “CAUTION Musician Crossing” sign, the concessions (Cocoa Pesto with drinks and ice cream; The Drop D with breakfast, lunch and dinner; and Moe’s Place with strings of all sorts) and the main tent in front of the stage. Some people had already saved places under the tent with sling chairs. It was sunny and hot right now, but the tent would also give shelter from rain showers which were predicted. I watched the crew setting up the stage. There were towers of speakers on either side and a mini-barn for a sound booth in back of the audience to make sure our acoustic performers could be heard. The stage was at the foot of a gradually sloping hayfield recently mowed. It was also flagged for campsites, but I had rejected it as being too uneven and too far from the water. I started to walk up the hill to get the grand view, and then I saw them coming.
They were coming in buses, motor homes, fifth-wheels and trailers with brand names like Intruder and Big Foot. They were lined up on the shoulder of the highway waiting to check in. Golf carts scooted around like droids guiding them. They were jacking and wedging themselves level. Pick-up campers and dome tenters had pulled to the tree line where they could angle the heads of their mattresses uphill. It was only Thursday and there wasn’t any entertainment planned until the official opening tomorrow at 5:00. I had an unpeaceful, uneasy feelin’.
I hurried back to my little corner of paradise. It was already being walled in by Quantum, Citation, Solaris, Invitation, Pace Arrow and Wildwood Lite. Name plaques were hung by the awnings with care. There were whirligigs stuck in the grass and fibre-optic displays in the windows. Folding picnic tables and gas barbecues were being assembled. I heard a shriek like a macaw from a woman across the lane as a carload of company arrived for dinner: “There you are! I was just tellin’ Tammy where are they? I was just tellin’ her not five minutes ago, I said where are they!?!”
I had neighbors in a 22 foot dual-axle Outdoorsmen with a four foot pull-out at the rear. Jack and Catherine were a retired couple who had owned two Westfalias in their time as I found out when we chatted in the shade of their awning. They lived just across the river and had been to the nearby Fox Mountain Bluegrass Festival. Catherine asked if I minded some music. I thought, Here it comes, but all I said was, “What have you got?” She put on a CD of Cherryholmes they had picked up at Fox Mountain. Through the rest of the evening, I could hear her reminding Jack to keep the music down.
Across the lane a party started at a trailer hemmed in by 4x4s. There were two guitars and what sounded like half the campground singing along to everything from Hank Williams to Jimmy Buffett. It could have been the playlist of a dance at the local fire-hall. It went on until 1:30 a.m.
I thought I was in hell.
I snugged down the clam-shell roof, slid shut the windows and stuffed in ear-plugs which I hadn’t used since my last trans-Atlantic flight. Rules and Regulations in the festival program said “No generators from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. except for medical reasons.” I would have preferred the gentle putt-putt of a nice gas generator.
When it stopped, it just stopped, not in response to a bellow of protest from a neighboring site or a scolding from a campground worker. The last thing I heard was the clink of bottles.
In the morning Jack said, “How’d you sleep?” It was a leading question. I said I slept like a baby after 1:30. He nodded. “Pretty loud.”
I said, “Good music, though.” I couldn’t believe I was saying this.
“Pretty good,” he agreed.
Through the rest of the day I tried to figure out what I meant. It wasn’t that the singing was that good (though it wasn’t that bad, even with some harmony, and someone always knew all the words) or that the guitars were that good (which they were, actually, and in tune as well, not easy to do in the night air by the sea with the fog coming in), but that it was live and, well, acoustic.
I’ve been in parks where some neighbors’ idea of camping is to unload a flat of beer and crank up the car stereo until the ranger comes and shuts them down. And I’d have to admit I’ve been in some sing-alongs which might not have sounded that good to the neighbors. The difference is that it’s hard to get angry at neighbors who are making their own music, not just plugging it in, because deep down what you really want to do is join them.
I went to watch the tide come in. It’s not like watching grass grow or paint dry. On the Bay of Fundy you can actually pace it up the beach. On steep shoreline like Cape Split you can get trapped and drowned. Real entertainment twice a day.
When I came back to the van, a couple of guys were eyeing the space between me and the barrels. “Looks like we’re going to be your neighbors,” one of them said.
“Uh, I’m not sure it’s a spot,” I said hopefully.
“It’s okay,” the other one said.
“Are you sure? Did you check?”
“It’s okay,” he said. “I work here.”
I looked down at his festival t-shirt. He went back to his golf cart.
A Mazda with roof-top carrier pulled in. They introduced themselves as Donald and Chrissy from Pictou County, also home of one
of the performers, Charlie A’Court. They had a dome tent and a screen tent which they squeezed into the space. They had been to this festival before, in fact had camped in my very spot which had flooded in heavy rain, but now a drainage ditch had been dug along the tree line. Chrissy sat in the shade of the screen tent softly playing guitar and singing. I felt pretty safe.
One of the special attractions of the Kempt Shore festival is that performers stay all weekend so you get to hear them each day, three times on Saturday if they take part in morning and afternoon workshops. They vary their sets a little, but not much because some of the audience come just for one day and always request the favorite tunes. So if you’re a die-hard camper, by the end of the weekend you’ve heard the same song by a performer maybe three times. It’s a good thing the singer-songwriters are so good.
The amazing thing is that they are all Maritimers, the farthest travelers coming from Newfoundland. No Toronto, New York or Los Angeles talent represented here. And yet, the range of styles – like the variety at campsite jam sessions – is a magical broadcast with nothing but the best, and the caliber of musicianship is top-notch.
Dave Gunning has hits called “House for Sale” and “Pride of
Pictou.” Frank Heckman and Dan Downes from St. John, New Brunswick play classics like “John the Revelator” and “Death Letter” while the resonator guitar flashes under the spotlights like a pulsing juke box. John Simms of Truro was a festival MC last year and this year showcases his own skills. The Spinney Brothers from the Gaspereau Valley are country gentlemen with a bluegrass sound straight out of Nashville, the banjo driving them like a steam locomotive with the throttle wide open. Amelia Curran from Newfoundland says she fits into the category of “weird” and when requested, “Play something happy,” says, “Something happy? You got to get to know me better!” Irish Mythen from Canso is originally from . . . you guessed it, and will clobber you if you try to call her Jane. Ron Hynes from Newfoundland has a number of albums and is still trying to live down the success of his smash hit “Sonny’s Dream.” Matt Andersen has blues licks which certainly must come from a deal with the devil at the crossroads at midnight.
Charlie A’Court can play a long, bluesy intro to a song which makes you forget there’s more to come.
And that was just Friday night.
The jam session across the lane lasted until 3:30 a.m. even in pouring rain. Somehow I didn’t seem to mind it. I was up anyway, too excited to sleep. There was to be an open-mic Saturday morning and I was bound and determined to sign-up. I knew I would kick myself if I didn’t. I had a tune fresh in my head which I thought suited the spirit of the festival. I had the banjo. I had no excuse.
I got the banjo in 1960 from a college professor who collected old instruments but couldn’t play them. He gave me my pick with the understanding that I would learn to play it and occasionally play it for him. I’m still learning. For the longest time I tried to learn Scruggs style. Then a few years ago another banjo player saw mine and said, “That’s a frailing banjo.” Now I’m still trying to learn clawhammer style. I am most at home with what is called in Pete Seeger’s instruction book, the “Lullaby Lick.”
All morning I practiced the Lullaby Lick to chords for Robert Service’s poem “Laziness” which I had heard set to music on the radio but couldn’t remember the melody so I decided to make up my own. The opening verse goes
Let laureates sing with a rapturous swing
Of the wonder and glory of work
Let pulpiteers preach and with passion impeach
The indolent wretches who shirk
No doubt they are right in the stress of the fight
It’s the slackers who go to the wall
So though it’s my shame I perversely proclaim
That it’s fine to do nothing at all
Oh, it’s fine to do nothing at all
There are two more verses. At the time, singing to myself inside the van, I didn’t think it added up to a lot of words. But when I walked up to the main tent and put my name down for the open-mic, the words started to drop from memory like old post-it notes. The sun had come out; there was no chance the open-mic would be called on account of rain. I had come so early that I was second on the list. The guy before me lived just a few minutes away and had come just for the open-mic. He sounded polished. He did what I had heard the professionals do, prompting the sound man, “Could I have a little more monitor on the vocal and a lot more monitor on the guitar, please?” I really couldn’t imagine why you wouldn’t be able to hear yourself onstage. Wouldn’t it be just like sitting in your van?
When I walked out, there were only 30-40 people in the audience, but it was a lot more than when I had first arrived and it looked like a lot more from up there. That was my first mistake: looking. Then I opened my mouth.
I don’t know what it sounded like to them. To me it sounded as if I were under the Cone of Silence. The Lullaby Lick had drifted off to sleep. I don’t know if my fingers were actually touching the strings. It didn’t matter because I only got as far as the second line when three little girls frolicking at the edge of the stage caught my attention. One of them shouted something which I took personally. Probably all she was doing was shouting to one of her friends something like “You’re it!” but what I heard was something like “We can’t hear you!” or “Get off the stage!” It sort of broke my concentration. I kept repeating a shuffle of the words like trying to restore a document run through a shredder. I dispensed with definite and indefinite articles and verb endings. I knew somewhere in there was a chorus and if I could only reach it I could hang on until I washed ashore. Unless the sharks came, that is.
I made eye contact with a few people standing in the back. They did not look hostile. If anything, they looked curious. I was curious, too, about how I was going to get out of this. I made an unconventional, probably ill-advised choice. I ended the chorus in mid-line without resolving the chord, so I just sang, “Oh, it’s fine to do...” and then looped the banjo strap off my head, shrugged and bowed deeply. There was a puzzled silence, broken only by the host John Simms who came out belatedly from backstage, summoned, I would guess, by the thunderous silence.
I slunk out the stage door. I was humiliated and mortified in the original sense of both words. I went straight to the van, hid the banjo, and completely changed my costume, adding dark glasses. I didn’t go back to the main tent until after lunch which consisted of beer. By then, I hoped, the 30–40 people who had witnessed my calamity would have dispersed or, preferably, gone home.
The afternoon offered workshops on lyric writing and blues styling. The groups were small, and I had a chance to sit close to Curran, Gunning, Andersen, A’Court, Hynes, Mythen and Simms and think seriously about what I had done. Slowly, very slowly like the seven stages of grief, I came to the realization that I had learned a powerful lesson about the differences between creating, performing and entertaining. One of the differences had to do with knowing what to say to the sound man. But more than that, I had learned that the comfortable, relaxed, jokey, folksy style of the professionals onstage was an act. Not that these weren’t genuinely nice people, but that when they appeared not to be working hard was when they were working hardest.
The night before in Ron Hynes’s set, a pair of elderly women had walked in front of the stage during one of his songs and he had cracked up. “Mum?” he had called after them. Then he had begun to sing about thinking he saw his mother and cracking up and forgetting the words. His improvisation had brought a round of applause.
Now, why hadn’t I done that?
I decided I had learned that I really didn’t want to be a performer. I would be just as happy singing to myself or, at most, to friends in the kitchen. It was a comfort to know that I didn’t have to cope with a second career.
I was able to sit back and enjoy the rest of the afternoon. It continued with something called the “Guitar Summit,” six acoustic guitars onstage playing the blues with a sound like the throbbing of a syncopated ice breaker.
I was up there, I thought.
When I walked back to the van for supper, there was a stick leaning against the door. I thought at first it was a pole from a tarp at Donald and Chrissy’s campsite, but as I picked it up I saw it had the face of a bearded man carved at one end. It gave me a tingle like a totem from a vanished tribe. Then I remembered seeing Jack whittling for the past couple days. It would be the perfect length for a walking stick. I went next door to thank him. He was humble. He said it was alder which he had brought with him, but it was too green, should have been aged more. I said it was a treasure.
Catherine asked if I had gone to any of the workshops. I said yes and then I found myself talking about the open-mic with pride. I didn’t tell everything. I said the main thing was that I had done it.
“Oh!” she said. “I wish we had known.”
“No,” I said, “I wouldn’t have wanted anyone there I knew.”
“Even so,” she said.
“No,” I said. “Really.”
I was in such a good mood I didn’t even mind that a double-parked 4x4 was blocking my site. I wasn’t going anywhere anyway until check-out tomorrow. Nobody, as it turned out, was going anywhere. The whole campground was gridlocked. Donald and Chrissy had her sister and husband join them with another car and another dome tent which they sandwiched into the site. They ran out of propane for the barbecue and Jack brought over a tank. Now all three campsites were on a first-name basis.
I went up for a shower while most folks were having dinner. The water was still hot. Back at the van I sat with the sliding door open while the two couples had hamburgers in the screen tent. Charlie A’Court was on their car stereo and I didn’t mind.
I actually dozed in the van and didn’t go back for the evening concert until 8:30 and that was just for Ron Hynes. His songs of heartache and loss made tears stream down my face:
There’s a dark moon
Shrouds the night
Throwing shadows over love’s pure light
Only gray skies
Oh how do we ever lose our way
All those sweet dreams and those promises
Nothing’s left now but this loneliness
How it haunts me through this whole night long
Tell me where does love go wrong
I felt Ron was singing just to me. I decided I would buy one of his CDs and get him to autograph it. The performers usually went to a gazebo tent after their set to sign CDs.
The crowd at the main tent spread far up the field. People were watching from RVs on the hillside. I unfolded my chair in a slot only big enough for one.
Someone requested “Sonny’s Dream” and
Ron said, “Don’t know it. I have an agreement with Ron Hynes – I don’t sing any of his songs and he doesn’t sing any of mine.” Then, of course, he played it. He recited a poem about the death of his father and the tears streamed down my face. As an encore, he climbed off the stage and waded into the audience. His body disappeared and his voice, unamplified, rose thin but confident in a “Come-all-ye” introduction which had people in the audience shushing those behind them. It was a true acoustic moment.
The Spinney Brothers were as powerful as ever through “Rocky Top” and “Shady Grove.” They called Ron Hynes back to the stage to join them for George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” I felt it was the perfect end to the evening. There were two more sets to go, but I was beat and getting cold.
I didn’t look for Ron at the CD tent. I would catch him tomorrow.
I walked back to the van under a full moon and starry sky. I planned to have a nap before the all-night party began across the way. I didn’t wake up until 11:00 when I heard Donald and Chrissy come down to their tent. Then it was quiet. It was still quiet at 2:00 a.m. No party. I thought maybe the concert was extended and everyone was at the main tent. I could hear a distant thumping like a bass. Maybe there was a monster jam onstage and I was missing it all. I barely had the strength to undress and pull up the sleeping bag.
So the thumping like a bass turns out to be someone playing djembe to “Lay Down Sally” at a party far across the campground where the 4x4 gang have gone and I can barely hear them, and the croaking of the sole singer at dawn is like a rooster crowing and it’s Sunday and the skies let loose. I seal myself in. The rain sounds like hail on the roof. The ditch in back is starting to run. I go back to sleep. It’s still raining at 9:30. Yesterday’s open-mic was so popular it was scheduled to continue this morning. I don’t know if it’s been cancelled. I make coffee.
I was up there, I think.
By 10:30 the sun is breaking through and Jack and Catherine are packing up. We say we’ll probably meet again. As I watch them pull out, I start to feel sad. Music wafts down from the main tent as the morning session gets underway. The wind is picking up. When the music suddenly gets loud as if the speakers had been turned our way, I know the wind will follow. Jack and Catherine go up the hill to “Will the Circle be Unbroken” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
I go to the main tent without my chair, just to check on the condition of the grounds. Ditches are running and so are the roads. Amelia Curran is singing the songs I’ve heard before with the same thumb-strum minor chords. I stand listening, telling myself I won’t get her CD. I’ll just get Ron Hynes.
Back at the site, Donald and Chrissy and company have sleeping bags drying on top of their cars. A new Irish Mythen CD is playing on the stereo. I sit in the van with the sliding door open.
“You listening to that, Jeff?” Donald says.
“Yeah. You staying for the rest of the day?”
“Pretty much. We want to hear Irish sing again.”
“I want to hear Ron Hynes.”
I make myself a late brunch of hot dog wrapped in bacon in a bun with taco sauce. I have the last beer of the day until I get home. I will leave after Ron Hynes finishes. I won’t eat anything more; it might make me sleepy on the drive. There is a swimming hole at a quarry a few minutes up the road where I can refresh before setting out. From what I know of spring-fed quarries, they are deep and cold. The girl at the registration booth told me about it when I checked-in. “It’s a man-made quarry,” she explained. She had a peaches-and-cream complexion. From the top of the hill I looked all the way to the Parrsboro shore across the basin. It was my first view of the campground.
“You’ve got a beautiful place here,” I said.
Ron Hynes comes on at 3:30. The schedule has run on time all weekend, another fine feature of Peterson’s Festival Grounds, like the hot showers, potable water and regular trash and recycling pick-up. They even have a note in the program which says, “If you are seated in the audience area please ask your neighbor if they mind if you smoke.” I haven’t been asked and I haven’t smelled smoke. I’ve only smelled sunscreen, Off!, vinegar and fish and chips.
Ron looks tired. He doesn’t banter with the audience between songs. He doesn’t come back for an encore.
“Ron has to leave right away,” the MC says, “but he’ll be up at the CD tent for a few minutes.”
I catch him there. I pick two of his albums, Get Back Change (Borealis, 2003) and the self-titled Borealis, 2006. As I hand them to him, I start to tell about the tears streaming down my face.
“What’s yer name?” he says, picking up a Sharpie.
To his left, Amelia Curran is taking money and ticking off sales on a looseleaf list of artists. On impulse I pick up her album War Brides (Amelia Curran Gunner Music, 2006). As she’s signing it, I ask her if she knows the song about Amelia Earhart.
“No!” she says, looking up. “I was named after Amelia Earhart! You know, she left for her last flight from Newfoundland. There’s a statue to her there.”
I lean close to recite the chorus:
There’s a beautiful, beautiful field
Far away in a land that is fair
Happy landings to you, Amelia Earhart
Farewell, first lady of the air
“That’s beautiful,” she says.
I go down the hill for the last time. The tents and cars are gone beside my van. It sits away from people, the way I thought I wanted.
It’s easy to pack up a Westfalia: you just close the roof and leave. As I pull out, I keep looking in the side view mirrors. I have a feeling I’ve left something behind. But the space is empty.
It’s starting to sprinkle as I go past the stage. People have pulled chairs under the tent. There are few enough of them that they all fit. The hayfield has emptied. There are muddy tracks.
A sign, “Hants County Recreation Site,” marks the quarry 1.5 km down the road. It looks just like a lake with grassy shores, but when you wade in, the bottom is crags of gypsum, unpleasant for walking. You don’t walk far, though, because of the drop-off. The water is so clear it’s blue-green. It feels silky. Mounds of white in the depths gleam like beluga whales. I am the only swimmer in the rain. For some reason I think of Dylan Thomas:
Can the fishes see it’s snowing?
On the drive home the rain turns to fog as I come down from the mountain to the shore on my side of the province. I am singing to myself. I am singing the song I should have sung at the open-mic, something I wrote in 1970 after moving to Canada:
(to the tune of “East Virginia”)
I was born in North Virginia
Nova Scotia I did go
There I found the fairest valley
Its name and age I did not know
I’d rather be in some dark hollow
Where the sun don’t never shine
Than to work another’s garden
Growin’ old by doin’ time
O, when I die don’t tell my mother
That the sun won’t never rise
Lay the sod upon my bosom
Lay the moss across my eyes
So I might go back to the valley
Where the sun will always shine
Sleep beneath another’s garden
Waitin’ for my growin’ time
When I get home, I open a can of chili and a can of beer. It’s like camping except I have a CD player. I put on Amelia Curran:
You won’t hear me in the harmony
The way you listen to your devils in the minor key
I feel she’s singing just to me.
[Text and photographs © 2008 Jeff Doran]
Jeff Doran is a writer, musician, and retired high school teacher living in Nova Scotia. This is his second article for folklinks.com.
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