The Appalachian State University Fiddler’s Convention last Saturday (February 7th, 2015) in Boone, North Carolina was an opportunity to see the old time music culture in action. The venue was conducive to such an event, with multiple rooms for workshops, stages for performances, and plenty of separated areas for the jam sessions. In every nook of the Student Union (from the cafeteria to the space under the stairs), musicians gathered in informal jam session, practicing (and perhaps showing off) their picking skills.
I spent a fair amount of time at the clogging workshop with Rodney Sutton of the Green Grass Cloggers. In a short hour of instruction, he shared stories, taught exercises, and shed light on the purpose and history of flat footing in Appalachia.
(Sutton was excellent, but yeah, that’s not quite what we looked like after the workshop…)
What most struck me about Sutton’s story was the group’s humble origins. From the way Sutton described it, none of the early members (including founder Dudley Culp) had had any performance experience or formal dance training before joining the group, an incredible fact if you see them dance today (please see attached video). According to Sutton, Culp and the early cloggers went through a rigorous process of collecting and dissecting the different styles of flatfooting to learn and teach themselves. This process reminded me of some of the folklorist activities discussed in class, particularly the work of song collectors like Olive Campbell and Cecil Sharp, with the cloggers preserving steps learned from all parts of Appalachia. On the other hand, maybe the Green Grass Cloggers are serving a role more similar to the Bristol Sessions, tapping into an important piece of heritage and making it more accessible to people outside the region (as far away as China). Either way, observing the ASU Fiddler’s Convention allowed for these stories to be told and questions proposed.
With the floor of the main stage totally packed with spectators and waiting performers alike, we found ourselves wandering to the balcony overlooking the stage for a better view. From above, it was easy to see, not only the performance, but also the faces of the audience below. As the music played, I got a chance to assess the demographics of the convention. There were far more woman, both watching and performing, than I might have expected. I recognized many faces from the folk singing performance I had just witnessed upstairs, the faces of talented vocalists and musicians alike. Perhaps more surprising was a wide age range, and the odd gap that left out the group I most expected to see: college students. While performers and audience members from the very youngest to the very oldest were present, I did not get a sense that many students were in attendance (at least not as many as I expected on a college campus).
(Anneli Burnett and many other talented young singers competed in the folk song competition against people six times their age!)
This supported the idea we had earlier discussed that the convention, while entirely student run, was more of a community event than a collegiate one. But given the range and talent of the participants, that was just fine by me.
(This was a fun day, and I’m glad to report YouTube has a fine selection from the convention)