Carole Currie: Magic at the Swannanoa Gathering

by Dryridgeinn on August 19, 2014

There’s almost always music in the air during the weeks of summer’s Swannanoa Gathering on the campus of Warren Wilson College.

As the various specialty weeks roll by featuring banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, dance and song, students gather all over campus before, between and after classes to play together, practice what they have learned or share tunes.

Sweet fiddle tunes in one tent share air space with lively bluegrass in another, sometimes long into the night.

Students of all ages from across the United States gather to be taught by some of the country’s most outstanding instrumental specialists in a setting surrounded by tall pines and oaks, mountain views and wildflowers.

Some return year after year to this summer experience begun in 1991 by Doug Orr, who was then president of Warren Wilson College. Most of the adults say they would move here if they could.

By the last week of the Gathering, hundreds of students will have come to learn music and be inspired and enlivened. Asheville attorney Marc Rudow sets aside a week each summer for a half day of fiddle week, which he attends “just to have the opportunity of playing with these guys. Some of them are the best in the world.”

It’s hard for people like Marc to have the opportunity to sit down and play with other musicians, but at the Gathering he can satisfy that longing.

Ages of attendees range from eight to 80s. There are a few pre-teens, more teenagers, some middle-aged career people and a bunch of retirees. All approach the week with an impressive seriousness. I spent several days at the Swannanoa gathering with my 10-year-old granddaughter, Lillian, a fiddler.

Like several other classically trained players at the Gathering, Sean Kelly, of Austin, Texas, is a retired professional musician who played string bass in an orchestra and now has turned to fiddling, including Celtic and swing. “It doesn’t matter to me if I’m good or not,” he said. “Now what matters is just to enjoy it.”

Students self-select their class levels and specialties and can take four classes each day. At the end of the day, there are band rehearsals for those who have chosen to be thrown in with a group of other players to prepare a number for the Friday night showcase.

Reed Doke, of West Fork, Arkansas, a retired teacher and professional musician who still plays banjo in a bluegrass band called The Rusty Plow, comes to refresh and renew his skills and says he gets something new every time he attends a music conference such as the Gathering.

“Don’t forget to tell about the kids,” Reed told me, pointing out that 8-year-olds may be in classes with students many times their age. They get plenty of respect from the adults but are cut no slack just because of age.

Reed, 72, was the banjo backup man and social arbiter for the Crow Feathers band, average age of about 11, and after fits and starts through the week, they wowed the crowd with a lively number Friday night.

Week nights featured three concerts by the instructors, during which time banjo players were the butt of many jokes. (How do you slow down a banjo player? Put sheet music in front of him. How do you stop a banjo player? Ask him to read it.) Thursday night featured a huge Farmers’ Ball.

Lillian was sad when it all ended Saturday morning, but she has it all recorded.

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