Community, Tradition, and Joy at Fiddle Camp

I’m writing from a tent on an old fairgrounds somewhere in southwestern Maine. It’s getting dark – the last streaks of the sunset are still visible between the tree line and the crescent moon.

A hundred feet to my left, I can hear a group of about ten people jamming Little Feat’s song “Willin’,” a ’70s country-rock anthem about the life of a trucker. This group includes students and senior citizens, amateur musicians and world-class professionals, and they’re all bellowing like drunken teenagers discovering the mystical powers of a good chorus.

The song ends with an exuberant and gloriously out-of-tune fiddle solo, then a final chorus, then one more chorus, then cheers and laughter. Then they launch into “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” a traditional fiddle tune that made its way from Ireland to America. Their joy is unmistakable. There’s no trace of ego, or even performance, in the music they’re making. It’s the kind of pure joy and camaraderie that’s difficult to find in everyday life, but it’s common in the world of fiddle camp.

Over the past several decades, these camps – they’re often referred to as “fiddle camps” even though they offer instruction in many acoustic instruments – have been increasing in number around the country. This week I’m teaching fiddle, songwriting, and harmony singing at the Ossipee Valley String Camp in Hiram, Maine. About 90 students of all ages and abilities come here to spend a week learning repertoire in various folk and acoustic styles, as well as skills like ear training and ensemble playing. Most learning is done by ear, and practical knowledge is emphasized above technique. The accommodations are rustic, and the mosquitoes can be fierce, but the food is delicious and we can tube down the Ossipee River on hot July afternoons. At night, jamming reigns: classic country heartbreakers, old-time fiddle tunes, bluegrass picking, and more. For many students, it’s a rare opportunity to learn and play with other musicians, simply for the love of it. For me, it’s always been a part of life.

My parents are both folk musicians, and when I was growing up, they brought me and my sister along to the camps where they taught. We would protest and whine in the indiscriminate way that kids do when their parents try to take them anywhere unfamiliar. Eventually, though, we fell under the spell.

I was 11 when I first attended Maine Fiddle Camp, and it was there that I met my current bandmates, took my first fiddle lesson, and started to find myself as a musician. I remember writing the number of days until fiddle camp on the calendar in my childhood bedroom, starting the countdown as far as six months ahead. Amid the turmoil of middle school, fiddle camp was where I felt truly at home. Everyone seemed happy there – the older musicians passing down their traditions, the young adults forming bands and jamming late into the night, and the kids causing mischief. I was particularly in awe of the young professional musicians there, thinking they had to be the coolest people in the world. I devoured the fiddle tunes I learned in class, and I learned to harmonize by singing old ballads around the campfire at night. I left camp dreaming of a future where I could build my life around music and community.

These days, I spend most of the year in a balancing act that will be familiar to many musicians. I split my time between touring with my band, Lula Wiles, teaching and gigging in Boston, and working part-time for No Depression. In the summer, though, I get to spend a few weeks teaching (and learning!) at music camps. I turn off my phone, and I try not to read the news. I reconnect with people, and with the best parts of myself.

Here at Ossipee, I’m teaching along with friends, collaborators, and even mentors. For the last few years, I’ve developed my musicianship at Miles of Music Camp, a retreat that blends the traditional fiddle-camp approach with songwriting workshops and more modern genres. Next month, I’ll return to Maine Fiddle Camp to help teach young beginning fiddlers. I hope to be part of many more camp communities throughout my life. It’s a profound feeling to be part of a tradition, and passing on that tradition is a responsibility that I cherish. I feel so lucky to have grown up in a world where music and community are so closely intertwined.

For some people, music is a spectacle, a form of entertainment. For others, it’s a commercial product, a vehicle for profit. It exists on the radio, or on a stage, with a clear separation between the artist and the listener. At fiddle camp, though, music is often impermanent and experiential. It’s a vehicle for connection and community, and it just feels good. We play and sing not so that others will hear, but because of the way it feels to sink into the cyclical trance of a fiddle tune, or to loudly sing the chorus of “Willin’.”