Musical Expeditions: Bluegrass in Upstate New York

0
1502

“Old Forge is a sad end of the road for most of its visitors”

Two hours of driving separate Old Forge, where I was, from North Creek, where I wanted to be. Both places are in the Adirondack Park – a vast area of lakes and wooded mountains in Upstate New York – but apart from that they have nothing in common. Old Forge, though once a spring pad for adventures, is now the crazy golf capital of the universe and sad end of the road for most of its visitors. North Creek, on the other hand, is a remote little hamlet right in the depths of the Adirondack Mountains, which plays host every year to the Upper Hudson Bluegrass Festival. As I had no other way of getting there, I had to try and hitch a lift.

I set up in Old Forge some time in the morning, on the road heading northwards out of town. In my hand I was clasping a bit of cardboard that read BLUE GRASS on one side, and UPPER HUDSON on the other – both sides absolutely useless, I later realised, because Upper Hudson is not a place but a vast area, and no-one down in Old Forge was ever likely to have heard of the bluegrass festival.

Luckily, before long, chance had it that I found myself preparing a new sign, which would be inscribed NORTH CREEK – a name I knew I’d heard in connection with the festival, but I wasn’t sure if it was the actual location, or the nearest place, or a town on the way.

Fifteen minutes or less after I first set up, a little white police car came snaking along. I wasn’t sure if I was breaking the law or not by hitchhiking, and I could have just stood there to find out – to see if it stopped by me or carried on along its way. But it suddenly seemed like the best idea would be to stick the old sign under my arm and casually set out across the road, as if I wasn’t hitchhiking at all. While I was doing so, stepping out onto the zebra crossing which happened to be right in front of me, I noticed that behind the first police car there was another one, a big State Trooper vehicle, creeping along, ominous as can be. Just as I was making it across, they pulled over to my side of the road, and stopped in a lay-by a little further along the road from me. It was pretty clear by now that they had come along with regards to myself, but it seemed too late to go and discuss the situation with them.

Next thing, another of these State Trooper beasts pitched up. I was walking along the pavement by this time, with the other police cars behind me, and just happened to be coming up to a spot where the road cut in for a lay-by or a parking lot or something. This meant that the police car could pull in and give the guys inside a good close look at me. I had made it to this spot just before them, and it was my right of way anyway, so I crossed just as they were turning in, giving myself a nice opportunity to show them how casual I was feeling about the whole thing. I gave a nod of thanks – as if they’d invited me to cross – turned away, and carried on ambling down the street.

The obscurity of my sign, along with my carefree air, seemed to have done the trick, as none of them turned to follow me. I’d have thought that even the slightest glimpse of my sign – which wasn’t by the way well-hidden in the least – would have confirmed I was a hitchhiker and earned me at least a chat with the cops. At any rate, it occurred to me I might go and buy a bottle of water at a nearby ice-cream shop, while the situation calmed down.

Even though it was only just past breakfast-time, the queue for ice-creams was enormous, which was ideal for me, as it gave the cops a good while in which to clear off.

Some time later, water in hand, I headed back to the spot where I’d been before. The cops were nowhere to be seen by now, but I felt somewhat apprehensive anyway, and wasn’t quite ready to start thumbing down a lift again. So I thought I’d slump down on the ground and scribble myself a new sign, just to kill some more time. I happened to decide I’d label this one NORTH CREEK, for a bit of variety.

When it was done, I though it looked pretty good – a good clear sign. So I decided I’d use it, the North Creek one, in combination with the bluegrass one. This time I thought I’d lean them up, rather than hold them, and plant myself down by their side. I also thought I’d pick up the book I was reading, in the first place to stave off boredom; secondly because it was Nineteen Eighty-Four and seemed an apt thing to be reading while being hawked by police; and lastly because I thought it might make me look like an appealing guy to pick up.

 

“I sat there for nearly an hour, the police car never budged”

 

I’d only been there about five minutes when there showed up a police truck again, this one different from the earlier ones. It was semi-disguised, the only thing that gave it away for a police truck being the blue light on its roof. Otherwise it was just a big grey four-by-four with a trailer. It pulled in and parked itself right opposite me, in that same old lay-by/parking lot thing. I decided I’d stay put this time, because I couldn’t be bothered with the whole ice-cream shop business again, and if I kept doing stuff like that, I’d probably end up missing most the festival. I didn’t much look like a hitchhiker by now anyway, what with my book out and being seated and everything.

I sat there for pretty nearly an hour, with the police car never budging an inch. Round about then I decided it probably wasn’t a good spot, so I wandered on in the out-of-town direction, and soon set myself up on a corner where no car could miss me. I was directly visible for a good two hundred yards and there was a place a little way beyond me ideal for cars stop at.

A good half of an hour went by and I was beginning to lose hope, but just then an old lumberjack called Morse came by. He asked me where I wanted to go – North Creek way, I said – and told me to jump in.

At first he seemed somewhat cold, not chatty in the least, as though he regretted stopping for me. After a while, though, he struck up a sort of conversation: ‘You sure lucked out… me comin’ along,’ he said.

‘Yes, sir,’ I told him. ‘I believe I did.’

There was a bit of a pause, and then he said: ‘Almost didn’t come by this way.’ He wanted me to thank him again, I think.

‘Well I’m glad you did – thanks so much,’ I said. ‘I was thinking of giving up and going home.’

After another short while he spoke again: ‘Folks don’t generally like giving lifts these days.’

‘Yeah, why is that?’

‘In case they get mugged, which happens.’ The way he said it, and looked at me when he said ‘happens’, it was like a threat, as if really what he was saying was: ‘I know your game – don’t even think about it.’

Well, after that, bit by bit he lightened up, and it turned out he was pretty good company this sixty-something or so lumberjack.

And so we drove on, and two hours later stopped by a sign at the roadside pointing up a lane to the Upper Hudson Bluegrass Festival. I paid my respects to old Morse, shuffled out the car, and set my course for the music.

 

“You could tell it was a family up there, the way they grinned at each other”

 

When I finally arrived at the festival, it was the Atkinson Family up on stage. They’re a five-piece band, but there was only one microphone to pick up not just the singing but all the instruments as well. So they all had to huddle round it, and each time one of them did a solo, he had to muscle in to the front so that he’d be nearest the microphone.

You could tell it was a family up there, the way they grinned at each other now and then while they played, and then the way they chatted to the audience between songs, finishing each other’s sentences, and correcting each other, and dropping in the occasional family joke and stuff like that. You could also tell that the audience thought this was great. Some of them even joined in the Atkinsons’ conversations.

I understood all this better later on, when Mrs Atkinson explained to me that bluegrass festivals were like huge family reunions – everyone’s family in the bluegrass world – everyone knows everyone else, more or less. Plus, everyone’s welcome, it seemed. As I was new to it all, I had countless people approach me, call me ‘kiddo’ or ‘son’, and strike up some kind of innocent conversation, just to make me feel welcome there.

As for the music, not just the Atkinson Family but all of it, the sound was very traditional, and not because they were all playing covers. There were some covers – ‘bluegrassed’ versions of Johnny Cash songs, Hank Williams songs, Woody Guthrie songs, Jimmie Rodgers songs, and stuff like that – but mostly they played originals, and even these sounded like they could have been written fifty years ago. That’s the particular thing about bluegrass, it doesn’t change much. It prides itself on sticking to its roots, as Mrs Atkinson explained to me later on.

 

“They call it bluegrass etiquette”

 

It’s an American music, she told me, which came about initially by the merger of three different types of music: Irish fiddle music, black gospel, and mountain-people folk. The father of the genre was a man called Bill Munro, the founding member of the Blue Grass Boys, which he formed in 1938, naming them after his home state of Kentucky, also known as the ‘Bluegrass State’ and still the bluegrass capital. Bluegrass is easily mistakable with regular country music, of which it’s a sub-genre, but the two styles are distinct, if you know what to look for, and a lot of bluegrass fans look down on regular country as less authentic. Bluegrass is more up-tempo, and generally has more virtuoso musicianship; it’s meant to be played only on acoustic instruments. Plus, the songs are about different things from country. In country you mostly just get ballads, while in bluegrass there’s a mixture of three main types: Train songs, killing songs, and gospel songs. Gospel is a big part of it.

Another big part of it, which goes along with the gospel-side of the music, is a general American wholesomeness. Everyone’s always jolly, cracking jokes, offering you a seat if you need one, and smiling at you whenever possible – ‘bluegrass etiquette’ they call it.

I wasn’t sure if this wholesomeness sprung from the fact that most the people at the festival were getting on a bit – grandparent-age at least – but a hip-looking guy in a baseball cap called Daryl assured me that at other bluegrass festivals you see more young people, and the etiquette and the whole thing remains just the same.

This same Daryl also told me that people stay up all night at bluegrass festivals, playing bluegrass non-stop, even the elderly ones – because bluegrass is like a drug when you’re playing, he said. And the people who come to watch at bluegrass festivals are mostly accomplished musicians themselves, so everyone keeps on playing together all night long. One reason you get so many old people at bluegrass festivals, Daryl said, was that people who like bluegrass just go on living. As they’ve got bluegrass for a drug, they don’t need to put any harmful stuff into their bodies, so they just keep going.

 

“Listening to the music on CD at home is one thing”

I didn’t stick around to see what Daryl was talking about, because he’d also said that if it rained people wouldn’t stay up anyway, because the instruments can’t stay in tune in the rain. It was raining quite a bit and the sky looked grim; the light was fading, and I didn’t particularly feel like spending the night with a whole bunch of mosquitoes under a sky that wouldn’t even have any stars because of the rain; I also felt like I’d almost seen enough of this festival, and wasn’t particularly minded to stay for day two; so I headed back to the road, leaving just as I had arrived, with the Atkinson Family up on stage again (all bands return to the stage for a second set).

Catching a lift home was a piece of cake compared with my outward journey. I was picked up almost immediately by a young couple coming up to the Adirondacks for the weekend from Albany, the capital of New York State. One of them was an architect, the other an engineer, and getting in the car with them was really like returning to normal life. The folks there couldn’t have been nicer, but it was really quite a culture shock, the bluegrass festival. Listening to the music on CD at home is one thing; bumbling around among the actual people is something else.

 

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here