The drive to Clifftop, West Virginia takes four and a half hours. We’re booked into a motel somewhere beside a small town called Dawson (Catherine is very excited) and the journey here has mainly been on the interstate. It’s beautiful none-the-less. As we’ve driven steadily north the greens have become darker and there are still the steep climbs and rapid drops into valley after valley. Unbelievable our ears are popping regularly on this tarmacadam rollercoaster of a journey. We cross rivers over steel spanned bridges, over railway lines that drift off into the horision, and skirt along the edges of cliffs chewed out by men and machines centuries ago. And when the going obviously got too tough for the engineers, we pass straight through mountains in long straight dark tunnels. We arrive at our bed for the night, dump our stuff and head on the thirty or so additional minutes journey to Clifftop.
Clifftop, or rather the Appalachian String Band Festival at Camp Washington Carver, Clifftop, is a musical institution in these parts. It’s a week-long event, highlighting old-time music, singing, dancing, you name it. People come from all over the United States, and often further afield – we met French fiddlers – and basically set up one huge musical campsite. There are competitions, but we get the impression that much of the real music happens in the wee hours around the tents. It’s held in Camp Carver, a site within one of the national parks here.
We pay the day rate (20 dollars per head), park the car and head over to the shuttle bus to take us up the road to the festival. Waiting alongside is a man, let’s call him Paul, with a double bass in tow, “Yeah, I’m here to join my wife. She’s been here all week and I’m here just to jam.” The shuttle bus picks us up. Its driven by Carl. He’s a local and thick doesn’t even come close to describing his West Virginia drawl, “I haven’t lived here all my life, but I’m working on it!” We’re dropped at the top of the lane and immediately you can feel the buzz. To our left is a huge outdoor stage that’s being prepared for tonight’s events, but we’re drawn to the first of a series of stall-holders that are selling everything from banjos to bandanas. The girls head for the toilets and I get my first, and only, change to play a 1932 Gibson. It’s priced at $3600 dollars, so I’m going to enjoy my few minutes of alone time with this beauty. I strike out a few chords and it just sings. The girls land back and there’s a general panic when they see the price tag – as if I would!
We have a quick scout about for a fiddle for Mary. But there are just so many and after a while you become a little punch drunk. Mary spies a few beautiful ones with subtle ornate designs. They are all German models built in the 19th century for the American market; apparently there were few American makers of quality about then. We see banjos galore, hammered and lap dulcimers, more and more fiddles and a few combinations of all three. Everywhere people are carrying cases, sitting down in chairs, on the grass, anywhere, and starting jams. The sound, and swing, is infectious. We’re tired from the drive and grab a seat in the grass in front of the stage to see some of the competitive dancing. It starts off with an exhibition dance from a previous year’s winner. The dancing style is flat-footed and at times has a comical weirdness to it with it's stright strutting legs and cowboy gait. But it’s beautiful stuff, dexterous, rythmic and highly skilled. We stay for a half hour until we get a second wind and then decide to head into the campsite.
We’re immediately drawn down one leafy avenue to a buzz going on. When we arrive there’s a huge crowd chatting and laughing, with possibly as many instruments as people. Slowly one man begins a lick on his banjo, the strings plonking in a soft melodious way like the sound water makes as it fills up a bottle. Another joins in. Then another. Pretty soon the fiddles are in full swing and an infectious rhythm ripples out through the crowd. The musicians arrange themselves in loosely layered circles, like a huge musical onion, with the better players to the centre and the less experienced ones coming in on the outer rings. We’re in there too and the sound has that immediate joyful bounce to it. You can’t help but be caught up by it. The melodies are simple, but it’s as much about the rhythmn as anything else. In that pairing of banjo and fiddle you can just hear the dances of Africa and the melodies of old Europe clash and merge for the first time in these wild lonesome hills. The same tune goes on and on. Somewhere in the thick of it and man starts a call and response and the musicians cry out above their frailing. Then as if someone gives a secret masonic handshake it all comes to a gentle stop without a word being spoken. We’re electrified. This calls for a drink. Over in one alcove a generous young man is pouring what is ostensibly water into paper cups of ice (you can’t sell alcohol into a national park). There’s a large bucket beside him, where you can drop in a few dollars as a donation to help buy next year’s supply. We grab three cups full, top up with some lemonade and lime a raise a glass to all and sundry. Water never tasted so good.
We get talking to Gene. I notice the design on his banjo’s headstock as an old 19th century Fairbank’s and we get chatting. “Us old-time musicians, we look out for each other. Every year we come to meet some friends, play a little music and have a good time” He tips his cup at us and takes a swig. We get to talking about the people here and their involvement in this music. “Most of them are fantastic players, but very few can make a living from it. They do it for the love, not the money. Like they say, “I’ve travelled thousands of miles to make tens of dollars.”’ We have a good laugh at this, knowing how much it has cost us to be here. But we wouldn’t change it for the world. Gene recommends we take a walk through the campsite to check out the music. We swap cards, say our goodbyes and take a dander south. This campsite is quite unlike anything we’ve seen. It’s reminiscent of a cowboy staging post in the Old Wild West. Tarps are stretched over trees, campervans extrude volumes of pots, pans, pandies… many sites have their own wood burning stoves with old iron kettles steaming away. And everywhere there’s the sound of jams. We pass a filthy van with the legend ‘I wish my wife was a dirty as this’ inscribed on it’s clay coated window; a dancer invites us to a Cajun jam later that night; and in a canvassed area a wonderful traditional jazz session is taking off.
Slowly we make our way around, stopping when our ears are pricked, and then moving on to musically more lucrative ground ahead. It’s heady stuff. We decide to stop at one of the stalls to grab some food. The lady serving us if from Tennessee. She’s thin, tall, her skin leathered with the sun, and could easily pass for an extra in ‘Grapes of Wrath’. When she opens her mouth it sounds like a twister is whipping across a dust-bowl from the 30’s. We settle on Bourbon Chicken (maybe the only way to smuggle liquor into this joint), black beans and rice. It’s real southern food and tastes so good. We take our time.
We settle up by some guitar and fiddle players for about an hour to listen. These guys are some pickers. When they hear we are from Ireland and London, they play us a selection of Irish tunes. It’s strange hearing the music we know so well played by these guys. It sounds older, more relaxed, the tuning wider and atonal. Somehow it feels the way Irish music might have been before the leveling effects of radio and other media in the mid to late 20th century. We’re delighted at our own private shindig.
That night we park up in front of the stage again to see the senior old-time band competition. Five groups, with various combinations of singers, banjos, fiddles, double basses, and guitars each play two pieces; one song and one instrumental piece. They are all fantastic, but what’s more revealing is the attentive attitude of the crowd who listen intently into the dimming light at each and every note. There are a few revealing quips about the difference between this relaxed music and it’s more hyperactive cousin, “What do you call an old-time banjo player who never tunes up? A Bluegrass player!” I’m sure the Bluegrass players tell it the other way round. We while away much of the night like this between official performances and the spontaneous musical outbursts everywhere. At one session the musicians play as a line of dancers take to a wooden board one by one to display their skills. As the last of the light fades, a sythe of a moon cuts across the sky and the air is heavy with the thrumming of insects and the clacking of shoes skiffling to an old, primitive rhythm. We drive home that night silenced in the car, quietly listening to old recordings of women from these mountains singing about love, murder, death, and all with an intensity that is broken only occassionaly by the odd humorous song. Our emotional fuel tank is both full and empty all at the same time.