The Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest

I devoted most of last weekend to musical activities. Saturday was the LA Regional All-Day Singing at Angels Gate in San Pedro. Many songs were sung, the requisite photos of the Korean Friendship Bell were taken, and Robert’s rules of order were much abused. We had visiting singers from Colorado and Georgia!

On Sunday, the LA Sacred Harp singers held workshops at the Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest & Folk Festival, which is…exactly what the name says. You can compete in different levels on fiddle, banjo, voice, and other instruments, or you can just listen to music, jam, dance, and check out the vendors and exhibitors. In the morning, I got a ride to the festival with two Sacred Harp singers who have been involved in the LA folk scene since the 1970s. One of them called herself a lifelong folkie and talked about Pete Seeger (!) performing at her Jewish camp (?) way back when.

The festival was held at Paramount Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains. I found out at the regional singing that the festival site was a Western movie set and that we would be singing in Chin’s, the Chinese laundry. Okay, then.

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This is the building in which we sang. There was nothing identifying it as the Chinese laundry, though it was called Chin’s in the festival program.

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It really was a Western movie set though.

We did three hours of singing: a one-hour workshop with explicit teaching, a one-hour workshop for which the ostensible theme was “minor key tunes mentioning death” (contrary to popular belief, this does not in fact encompass all Sacred Harp tunes), and a one-hour regular singing. A decent number of festival attendees dropped by to listen and even to sing.

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Singing!

I had brought along my thrift shop fiddle on the off chance that I’d have the opportunity to do some jamming. I left the death-themed workshop early to catch the second half of the Scottish Fiddlers of LA’s performance in the Eucalyptus Grove. When I reached the grove, they were about to start a set of two jigs. I recognized the director, whose Welsh fiddle class I was in at Camp Kiya last summer, as well as a couple other members who also went to camp. To my astonishment, after the jigs, they played the exact same set of four Welsh tunes we performed at the campers’ concert at the end of Camp Kiya! I’d left my fiddle in Chin’s; otherwise, I would’ve been tempted to join in.

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The Scottish Fiddlers of LA playing Welsh tunes! You can barely see the guy in the kilt and St. Andrew’s cross sporran playing the bass clarinet…

They closed with a pair of waltzes, and then I went to say hi to the director and one of the other fiddlers I met at camp last year. It turned out they were about to start a fiddlers’ jam right there in the Eucalyptus Grove. I was torn, since the regular Sacred Harp singing was about to begin. I walked back to Chin’s, but then I decided to grab my fiddle and return to the jam session for a handful of tunes. I figured it might be my only chance to play with anyone (and I was right).

They were playing the Swallowtail Jig when I returned, so I joined in on that. Then they switched to Morrison’s Jig, which I also knew. The next few tunes I didn’t know and couldn’t really pick up by ear fast enough to play properly. Then one of the fiddlers suggested Road to Lisdoonvarna, except suddenly she couldn’t remember how it began. By some miracle, I managed to pull the first phrase out of my memory, and then we were off. I’m not sure if I’d ever played that tune on violin before; I definitely had on cello. Anyway, if this jam session taught me anything, it’s that I know tunes in E minor (or E dorian). After Road to Lisdoonvarna, I headed back to the singing.

There was a brief contra dance late in the afternoon that I went to, but it wasn’t anything special. What was special was this hurdy-gurdy trio that played for hours in a pavilion tucked away near the saloon! One of the hurdy-gurdyists let some guy turn the crank of his instrument for one tune, and throughout the day I kept dropping by in hopes that they’d let me try to play a hurdy-gurdy. Alas, they did not offer.

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Hurdy-gurdies!

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One thought on “The Topanga Banjo-Fiddle Contest

  1. Wow! This looks great!!! I am glad you have such a varied social life as a grad student. XoPatty

    Please excuse the brevity of this mail as sent using the free GMX iPad App

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