On most of our travels the best things that happen are the ones that are unexpected and unplanned. We’ve seen this time and again: we have plans (or sometimes we don’t), and as we attempt to make our plans come to pass, we run into obstacles. Things don’t go well, or things don’t turn out as planned, and we have to abandon our ideas and find alternatives. Last year, on the Crooked Road, the most notable example of this was the night we found the Alan Hicks Jam. Today (tonight) will go down in ContinualSunsets history as one of the more remarkable instances of this sort of thing.
In researching for this trip we found that there were actually two alternatives for music on the evening of August 11: there was said to be Thursday night jamming at the Big Timber Brewing Company in Elkins, and there was to be a festival taking place at a nearby campground, and they had a lineup of bluegrass bands on tap for this evening. Either would be suitable, but we opted for the jamming at the Big Timber Brewing Company.
We had stopped in at the Elkins Visitors’ Center as we had entered town, and we had learned about a third musical option: a Thursday night concert connected to the Augusta Heritage Center’s ongoing summer program. This week was “Old Time” week, as well as “Vocal” week, and the Thursday evening concert would feature old time music, vocals, and traditional dancing.
However, once we had moved to our new campsite in the Stuart Recreation Area we realized that we had very little information to go on. Still lacking a cell signal, we were unable to go online to find out details about the Thursday evening jamming at Big Timber Brewing (our first choice). We were guessing that 7:00PM would be a logical time to expect them to start. We knew the location, so we set out shortly before 7:00. When we got there we found that this “brewing company” was really just a bar, and a fairly small one at that. I went in and found no jamming. I asked the bartender about it, and she said it was “hit or miss.” Sometimes “they” showed up and sometimes they didn’t. You could never tell. If they were going to be there, they were generally there from about 7:00 to about 9:00. Well, it was shortly before 7, so we decided to give it a bit of time to see what developed. Meanwhile, we decided to find the library and see if there was a wifi signal that we could use to check on our communications.
At the library I found more information about the Thursday evening concert with the Augusta Heritage Center. It was to start at 7:30. I got some “general” directions to the location from one of the librarians. (She was pretty sure we would have trouble finding a place to park if we went there.) When we went back to the bar at about 7:20, still nothing was going on. So we punted. We decided to try to make it to the 7:30 concert. I wound my way through town and onto the Elkins and Davis College campus. The directions were vague and complex, and I really couldn’t remember the details. But I knew I needed to go up the hill and look for a library and a chapel. As I wandered through the campus I saw both of these. We saw several people headed in the same direction, including a man carrying a banjo case. We followed. We followed right up to an empty parking space in the closest row to the performance venue. We arrived a few minutes after the start of the show, but we were still able to get tickets and enter between songs.
What we found was beyond extraordinary. We were in an auditorium that seats over 1000, and it appeared to be nearly full. The performances were mostly teachers and students from the weeklong “classes” that are studying old time music and singing (along with dance and mountain crafts). Each performer had about 10 to 15 minutes, and then the next ones were introduced. We heard everything from the traditional fiddle-banjo-guitar ensembles to cowboy songs to yodeling to sea shanties to gospel to whistling. Not a single performance was disappointing, and one or two were almost breathtaking.
By far the most spellbinding performance was from Emily Eagen. She is listed as the instructor for “Lullabies from Around the World” and “Tricky Transcriptions & Hidden Harmonies.” She is described as “a singer who loves both early and old-time music, [she] can plumb the connections among many genres.” But these words do not begin to capture the creativity and talent that this woman possesses. In one song there was a verse that she whistled. I have never imagined that a human could whistle this way. She sounded more like a bird than a human. In another song she collaborated with another instructor (Ann Downey – Cowboy Songs and Yodels) to create some of the more interesting and entertaining yodels I’ve heard. The most remarkable thing Emily presented is an original song in which she reversed the Twinkle Twinkle Little Star lullaby, presenting the star’s response to the original lullaby’s query. Not only did she reverse the perspective of the song, but she also inverted the melody.
After the concert ended I was asking around about purchasing tickets for Saturday night’s performance. After seeing tonight’s concert I didn’t want to chance missing an opportunity to attend Saturday night’s main event. (I had thought that the main event was to be held outdoors, and therefore was not concerned about the tickets selling out. Learning that the concert would be held in this venue I realized that there would be a limited number of seats.) I asked one of the volunteers about getting tickets, and he pointed out the person (Beth) that I should talk to. When I introduced myself to Beth I did not realize that she is the Director of the entire Augusta Heritage Center programming. When she (Beth King) learned that I was going to be writing about our experiences here, she presented us with complimentary tickets for Saturday’s concert.
As if all of this were not remarkable enough, we then spent the next two hours or so jamming with a group of singers and players in “the bridge,” an enclosed walkway connecting some of the buildings on campus. Elaine enjoyed this a great deal, as it was not billed just as an instrumental jam but also as a “singing” jam. By the time we left, at 12:30 AM, it had been a most amazing day!