Gospel!

The day (August 14) began, wonderfully, with a gospel sing as a final conclusion to the Augusta Heritage Festival. This event began, as scheduled, at 10:00 AM, but it did not conclude until well past 11:00 AM. It was evident that everyone was thoroughly enjoying the sing-along and didn’t want it to end. It was held in the chapel at Davis and Elkins College, which is a very interesting building. It is round, and the seating is arranged around the circle so that everyone is basically facing each other. If I were going to design a chapel or church, this is the design I would use. It communicates, intangibly, that all the congregants are expected to be participants rather than spectators. (This is also how I would design classrooms, but that’s another story.) The singing was led, initially, by a member of the leadership team of the Augusta Heritage Festival, but he quickly moved into a shared leadership position, inviting anyone and everyone to suggest and/or lead songs. It was very nice!

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Chapel at Davis and Elkins College

A situation such as this makes me wonder about people’s enjoyment of gospel music. Is this enjoyment indicative of a genuine relationship with the author of the gospel, Jesus, or is this a cultural thing, centered more on the music than the message of the songs? There’s no real way to know for sure, and I’m sure the answer varies from individual to individual. There was one young fellow who left no doubt as to his passion for Jesus. He requested that we sing the hymn, “Victory in Jesus.” He admitted to being a poor singer (he wasn’t, really), and he went ahead and led the song with enthusiasm regardless. It was clear that it was the message of the song and not the tune alone that was meaningful to him.

 

When the sing-along ended one of the participants whom we had seen multiple times since Thursday night came over to chat with us. Both Elaine and I had noticed her early on because she looks a lot like a friend of our daughters. We had been referring to her as “Julin” because of this resemblance to this friend (whose name is Julin). So when she introduced herself to us, we told her about Julin and that we had been calling her Julin since Thursday. She told us a little about herself. She attended the vocal music week at Augusta. She is originally from Mississippi, but is currently living in Virginia. She is a songwriter, and presents her work at www.graciousmemusic.com. This has been one of the best parts for us of the Augusta Heritage Festival: meeting people who have a love for this music and the culture of this region.

On one of the short hikes I took there was a great overlook with a wide-ranging view of the Blackstone River in its canyon. When I saw it, it made me think of the standard West Virginia WV logo.

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Here is the scene: Do you see what I mean about the logo?

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In the afternoon we spent time on the river (Shaver’s Fork – tributary to the Cheat River). There is a really nice swimming area (hole?) in our campground. Unfortunately, it is not an easily walkable distance, so we have to get there by car, but it is well worth the trouble to get there. The river water is as clear as crystal, and it isn’t too cold nor too warm.

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Swimming Area at Shaver’s Fork in Stuart Recreation Area

It was a lovely place to spend part of the afternoon. Then a thunderstorm came along and drove us back to the shelter of our camper for the rest of the evening.

 

Music at the Top

In our planning, the one event that seemed to hold the most promise as an ideal event was the Augusta Heritage Festival in Elkins, WV. This is a three-day event that begins with a square dance on Friday night, continues with an all-day multi-stage event in the city park, continues with an evening concert followed by another square dance on the Davis and Elkins campus, and concludes with a gospel sing on Sunday morning. We missed the Friday evening square dance, but we spent the whole afternoon and evening at the festival today.

 

The multi-stage event in the park was as extraordinary as I hoped it would be. There were many craft vendors with high-quality wares, some food vendors, three stages, a “pickin’” tent, and a great ambiance in this tree-shaded city park. The stages featured some of the same performers we had seen on Thursday evening, and in this setting we had a chance to meet and talk with them one-on-one or ask questions of them in their performance setting.

 

It was a wonderful opportunity to meet Emily Eagen and tell her personally that her performance was such a treat. I found out that she is teaching in New York City, but that she originally hails from Cincinnati. It was a real joy to be able to encourage her. I hope she continues to follow and achieve her dreams.

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Ann Downey and Emily Eagen

I had my mandolin with me, and Elaine and I joined in on a sing-along in the afternoon, led by Don Friedman, the same leader who had led the Thursday night jam after the concert. A lot of the same people were there today. It’s clear that singing is a central joy of their lives.

The evening concert was a live (recorded for future broadcast) performance of the Mountain Stage radio program. It was a great evening! In addition to a number of lesser-known performers we had the opportunity to hear two big-name bluegrass bands: Flatt Lonesome and the Blue Highway band. Flatt Lonesome is a group of young people that is gaining popularity and winning awards; Blue Highway is a band that has been performing for over 20 years. I liked them both, but I enjoyed Blue Highway more. I think their experience shows. It was interesting to learn that their bass player had recently suffered a heart attack and this was his first performance after his recovery. Way to go, Wayne Taylor!!

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One fascinating connection happened. The opening act featured a young woman singer-songwriter-guitarist – Dori Freeman. She was accompanied by her father on mandolin: Scott Freeman. We had met Scott last year on our Crooked Road trip. He was part of the two-man band that was playing at the Blue Ridge Music Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I believe it was he that I asked for advice about buying a decent beginner mandolin, and whose advice I followed in purchasing my Kentucky mandolin. Small world!

Epic Day and Night

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.

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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.

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Emily Eagen and her dad
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Emily at the jam

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!

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Don Friedman led the jamming

Neighbors and (Not Much) Wildlife

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Scott and Jane – from Frederick, MD. Our neighbors for a few nights at Blackwater Falls State Park. Scott was very outgoing, and came over to ask us about our Lafuma chair. The true proof that they were “nice people” came when they said that they enjoyed my guitar and mandolin practicing. Now you have to understand that this is not guitar and mandolin “playing.” This is guitar and mandolin practicing. I’m new enough at mandolin that I know very few songs. I have to do exercises nearly every day to build my skills. They are nothing to listen to. In guitar, in spite of the fact that I’m no beginner, I am currently playing like a beginner. (One of the instructors at the Greyfox Bluegrass Festival “corrected” the way I was gripping the guitar pick. He told me that I’ll never be a good bluegrass player unless I change the way I grip the pick. So I’ve been forcing myself to change. The result is that I feel like I am completely uncoordinated and playing like an oaf.) They gave us information about a bluegrass/roots music festival held every June in Barryville, VA. It’s held in Watermelon Park.

 

In the afternoon we went exploring in the inner reaches of the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. There is an unpaved road, known as the “A-Frame Road” that gives access to an area where beavers have created a network of pools and ponds. We hoped to see some beavers. While the scenery was spectacular, and hope sprang eternal, we did not see any wildlife except for a white-tailed deer, and a mountain bluebird (seen by Elaine but not by me).

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Some Brave Soldiers

There is a spot near here where a pair of 900’ tall rock outcroppings emerge from the surrounding hills. This feature is known as Seneca Rocks, and it is quite a sight to behold. Evidently rock climbers from all over the world come here to face its challenge. We saw some of them in action today.

 

The US Forest Service operates a visitor’s center at that base of the rocks. It’s a very nice facility, and well worth a visit. One of the things they have to offer is a 20-minute video about the US Army’s use of this area during World War II. The Tenth Mountain Division saw these rocks as an excellent training ground for mountaineering skills. Thousands of soldiers learned climbing techniques here before being deployed in the war effort. One of the things that struck me as I listened to some original source material from some of the trainees was how they had to overcome their natural fears as a part of their training exercises. The Army took ordinary boys, brought them to these rocks, screened them for their likelihood to succeed (6 in 10 were selected), and then essentially ordered them to follow their training – in spite of their natural fears. Even at that, some of them were not able to do it.

 

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Seneca Rocks

 

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This got me thinking about fears and how we overcome them. I will admit that I’ve been facing some anxiety on this trip as I am getting acquainted with my 4Runner’s capabilities to handle towing our trailer in mountainous country. The roads are steep and winding. Going uphill presents the challenge of finding the right gears and watching the temperatures. Am I asking too much of our 4Runner? It’s a constant source of a bit of  anxiety. Going downhill, am I letting it pick up too much speed? Am I going to be able to keep it on the road? Am I using the brakes too much and causing them to overheat? Again, it can be a constant source of a bit of anxiety. So how do we respond to our anxieties? How did those young soldiers overcome their fears? In some ways they had it easier than most of us do. They had orders, and they knew they had to follow them. Most of us have to give ourselves our own orders. It is a lot easier to ignore orders coming from ourselves than it is to ignore military orders from a commander. But it still comes down to the same thing, I think. We simply have to tell ourselves to get over our fears and get on with life.

 

Right??

 

Quiet

 

One of the things we’ve found when we travel looking for music is that most musical activity is centered around weekends. So, we have a few days to enjoy the nature of Tucker County, WV.

 

We are staying at Blackwater Falls State Park, just outside Davis, WV. It’s extremely quiet and peaceful, and they tell us that black bears are not out of the question. We’ve only seen white-tailed deer so far. The campground at Blackwater Falls is divided into two separate sections: an electric loop and a non-electric loop. We’re in the electric loop, and it is pretty spacious. One of the nicest features is that there is a wide-open area of sky in the center of the loop. It allows for great night-sky viewing, and it is dark enough here that the Milky Way is clearly visible.

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Blackwater Falls

To the south of the park there is an area known as the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. (They pronounce it “Kuh NAAN” with a short, nasally “a” sound on the accented second syllable.) Evidently this area was targeted by an electric power corporation sometime in the 20th century to be dammed and flooded, but locals stood up against this plan. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, and the power company was thwarted. The land that would have been flooded has been (mostly) turned into this wildlife refuge. There is good hiking and some flatwater canoeing/kayaking on the Blackwater River. I took a short cruise in my kayak to check it out.

 

Even further south from the wildlife refuge is a second state park, the Canaan Valley Resort State Park. This is the most fancy and swanky state park that I’ve ever seen. It includes a ski slope, a golf course, and a conference center (along with the usual components of a state park: campground, hiking trails, cabins). Everything is very nice and well presented. It seems like it is designed to appeal to the more well-to-do clients. We did some hiking here, and the hiking trails were like hiking trails everywhere: no distinctives for the well-to-do.

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Two Hits and No Misses So Far

When we first heard of the Mountain Music Trail in West Virginia, we were exploring the different music venues and events, and we were struck by the fact that two of our very favorite Bluegrass bands (The Barefoot Movement and Balsam Range) would be playing on consecutive nights within a few miles of each other. These two events became the anchor points for the beginning of our trip. We would go to the Purple Fiddle in Thomas, WV on Friday, August 5 to hear The Barefoot Movement, and we would see Balsam Range at the Pickin’ in Parsons bluegrass festival on Saturday, August 6. In all our planning contingencies, these two events were the non-negotiables. So we made camping reservations at Blackwater Falls State Park to enable us to see these two bands without too much in-between traveling.

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Friday night the Barefoot Movement put on a tremendous show. They are full of energy, they are excellent musicians, and they perform great songs and tunes. By the end of their show I was slightly disappointed that they had not performed Tobacco Road, an original song by Noah Wall. When they made their encore appearance after a well-deserved standing-0, I shouted, “Tobacco Road.” Noah seemed a bit taken aback. She said that they hadn’t performed it in a long time, but since it was requested, and since it was an original song with them, she said they would do it. I was happy! They did a great performance of this salt-of-the-earth song.

 

On Saturday we spent the whole afternoon and evening at Pickin’ in Parsons. This is a smaller bluegrass festival than Greyfox, but it was a great experience. They had a super lineup of bands, and they saved the best for last. At 8:00 Balsam Range took the stage. We’ve heard them at two previous festivals (Winter Village Bluegrass Festival and Greyfox), so we knew we were in for a treat. Their performance was even better than we had expected. The highlight of the evening was when they performed Stackin up the Rocks. They explained the origin of the song. Buddy Melton, their fiddler and lead singer, had had a severe head injury in a farming accident about four years ago. His survival and ultimate recovery had been in doubt for a while. They sent out requests for prayer, and eventually thousands of people prayed for him. He experienced a miraculous recovery. After he was well again, he was meditating on the Biblical story of the rocks stacked up by the Jordan River to commemorate God’s act on Israel’s behalf. This became the impetus for the song, as a testimony of his miraculous healing. This was not the only Christian testimony that occurred in their performance. The entire evening was a reflection of God’s glory in their beautiful harmonies and uplifting music.

 

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It’s hard to imagine this journey getting any better following these two evenings of great performances by some of our favorite bands.