Mar. 4, 2008 at 1:05pm
Coincidental Cultural Confluence
I have been attending Wintergrass for 13 years, trading volunteer hours for access to the performance venues. For the past nine years, I’ve been working with the stage crew, which usually puts me in the happy position of hearing the music, even when I’m on the job. Many people spend the weekend outside those “paid” venues and simply spend all their time jamming with other musicians. It is quite a sight to see, every square foot of the dignified Hotel Murano (formerly the Sheraton) taken over by fiddle players and banjo pickers. (I really mean the “every square foot” thing … the hallways, the stairwells … all day, all night). In order to get in to see the “pros,” you pay or work for a wristband.
Wintergrass is, by choice, not a purist festival. There have
been doses of blues, Celtic and other forms of international music, and
adventures at the edges of bluegrass, country and rock. I’ve, more than once,
overheard someone say, dismissively, “That’s not bluegrass.” Quite often,
there are drums and/or electricity involved.
I believe that the blurring of the musical boundaries has
contributed to the size and popularity of the event, even if a small percentage
are put off. It definitely works for me.
This musical diversity has not always been reflected in the
racial diversity of the performers, especially as regards African-American
performers. Regional treasure, Laura Love, notes that she is often the only
dark-skinned performers at bluegrass festivals. So, she proposed to the
Wintergrass promoters that they consider a theme of “The African-American roots
of bluegrass music.” The festival organizers were enthusiastic and put Ms. Love
to work putting together the Thursday night festival opener.
So, she started with her own band HarpersFerry. The one band
member with whom I’m familiar is another northwest treasure, Orville Johnson,
who played guitar and sang in this setting, but is also a master of the
resophonic guitar, mandolin, banjo and probably more. Laura introduced Orville
by saying that he, even though White, was so funky, they’d made him an
“honorary Negro.” Laura’s newest CD is named “NeGrass,” so she clearly doesn’t
flinch at being playful about racial issues.
But, she was quite serious about showing how a musical form
like bluegrass, which is not usually thought of being ethnically diverse can
trace some of its roots to the music of slaves and their ancestors. Much of the
music performed by HarpersFerry was old blues and back-porch country and, in
the grand folk tradition, there were some gospel numbers that had been
re-worked lyrically for the civil rights movement and, in a few cases, the
current political scene. At least one person left the room, seemingly upset
over that political content. I’ll leave for another time the issue of political
comment at an ostensibly non-political event. Suffice to say that the band
rocked, Laura Love has an amazing voice and presence, and Orville Johnson is a
talent to behold.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops canceled, so there’s nothing for me
to report. They were replaced by the Ebony Hillbillies. If you closed your eyes
(or if you are, like me, functionally blind at that distance), you might
imagine you were sitting on a porch in
The final set was performed by Ruthie Foster, a well-known R
& B singer with a soaring and expressive singing style. She moved smoothly
between the quieter folk material and the more raucous blues shouters, with
some hearty gospel thrown in.
It was a creative and adventurous start to the weekend, with a
useful history lesson about some of the lesser-known precursors to the music
being played in and around the festival.
So, what’s this “coincidental confluence?”
We were forced to leave the festival a couple of hours
before the last set, which was to be one of my favorite groups, The Seldom
Scene. The reason we had to leave early was we had tickets for a show down the
street at the Pantages Theater, part of the
We were there to see
It was an amazing musical weekend.
comments  | posted under Broadway Center, Ebony Hillbillies, Laura Love, Ruthie Foster, Tacoma, WintergrassComments
by KevinFreitas on 3/4/2008 @ 8:59pm
|Wow, thanks for the snapshot. It's awesome to know such great music is happening in Tacoma for special events and [hopefully] constantly.|
Oh, and a hearty welcome to you and your shiny new blog!
by izenmania on 3/5/2008 @ 9:56am
|Well, we do our best to have good music happening as constantly as we can manage.|
Don Izenman ... retired mailman ... occasional musician ... proud father ... happily married (this time for sure!) ... contented non-driver ... interested in all things local and all things Tacoma. Oh yeah ... food, beer, and wine!