A bluegrass festival represents a very special kind of community-building each time it occurs. My wife and I just spent five days, including the attendant elements of getting to, participating in, and departing for another year, at one such event. During the three days of the actual festival we lived in an almost politics-free world while remembering, usually quietly, that we’re in perilous times.
The Delaware Valley Bluegrass festival came together in Woodstown, New Jersey, with lots of preparation by a cast of hard-working, semi-anonymous volunteers several days before the music began over Labor Day weekend. Areas for camping were lined out, porta-potties delivered, barriers and gates erected, and the often unnoticed infrastructure of a community that would grow to several thousand people re-created. The Salem County Fairgrounds saw its display buildings cleaned, the stage area prepared, and a backstage tent erected and surrounded by flimsy orange plastic fencing. By the time we arrived on Wednesday afternoon, all the infrastructure of a recognizable community had been developed, controlling entry while presenting a diversity of opportunity. A festival tracing its lineage to two of bluegrass music’s founding fathers, Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, was getting ready for its 46th iteration.
Governed by a board the board of directors of The Brandywine Friends of Old-Time Music, the festival is a part of the larger mission of the organization, which sponsors a concert season, this major bluegrass festival, and other activities in support of old-time and bluegrass music. It functions under the restrictions of a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization with a charter document that states its goal as “helping to preserve traditional American music by presenting live performances of bluegrass and old-time music.”
The Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival is the only event we attend that's built on a theory and on principle. Because it is operated by Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music and is also the outgrowth of event founded by Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, it focuses on the old-time roots of bluegrass, many of which lie in the dance music of Appalachia. But people thinking that this means a repetitive succession of stringbands playing fiddle tunes until the last dancer drops are in for a surprise. Festival director Carl Goldstein and his hardworking, dedicated board of directors understand that the influences forming the development of bluegrass come from many sources.
This year’s event included Asleep at the Wheel, an exciting Western swing band celebrating the world and music of Bob Wills, led by the six-foot-seven Ray Benson, a dynamic singer who moved to Texas 40-some years ago at the behest of Willie Nelson. It’s rare to see a drum kit on the stage of a determinedly acoustic festival, but add woodwinds and a table steel guitar to Benson’s electric one and you get an exciting, performance that gives a true feel of radio swing from the '40s and '50s.
But this year was especially rich in genre-bending revelations of music that is old-time, yet forward looking. Foghorn String Band, from Oregon, a quartet of energetic, lively performers, found delightful ways to combine foot stomping old-time music with interpretations of Ralph Stanley to bring the Sunday crowd to its feet. Meanwhile, a band few at this festival had heard of and likely never considered as grist for this particular mill created its own brand of excitement. Tuba Skinny, a New Orleans street band composed of horns, drums, a six-string banjo, and what looked like a well-worn and frequently painted National guitar, offered an hour of foot stomping New Orleans jazz.
On Saturday the remnants of Hurricane Harvey blew in with driving rain, creating a chilly, muddy world for us to enjoy our music with. By three in the afternoon, I was cold, cranky, querulous, and unhappy. Going back to our truck, I turned on the heat and tried to get a respite from it all, feeling very sorry for myself. Then a text message from a good friend in Houston popped up. It took me no time at all to adjust my attitude and get back to the music. Sunday dawned clear and warm, and we had no months long cleanup to stare down.
Meanwhile, plenty of traditional and more contemporary bluegrass was available throughout the weekend. Danny Paisley & the Southern Grass, which has appeared at every Delaware Valley but one, not only played four scheduled sets, but filled in when a breakdown delayed the closing band, Blue Highway. Junior Sisk, with his high lonesome Stanley Brothers-inflected bluegrass, arrived tired and willing from Thomas Point Beach in Maine. The Gibson Brothers, heading the other way, gave us two of their award-winning sets. Del McCoury, a living and vital link to the origins of bluegrass, closed Saturday night.
On Sunday morning, the festival featured two bands composed of kids, signaling the hope that the future of traditional American music and what grows from it is well assured. The CabGrass Band, students at the nearby Cab Calloway School of the Arts, performed, as did the Delaware Valley Kids Academy, directed by Ira Gitlin with the help of a strong staff.
And there was much more. All told, the festival both represented its charter and, through thoughtful choices and a well-designed schedule, explained those goals without having to talk about them.
For a 46th year, the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival demonstrated all the attributes that contribute to growing a musical community coming together to hear and make music in a simple country setting. For the most part, while aware of the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, the spirit, even when damp, celebrated the music and the ability of a diverse set of music lovers to put aside differences in the kind of celebration only music can provide.