Thursday, March 26, 2009

One time, at banjo camp...

Yes, last weekend was our annual Suwannee Banjo Camp, and I more or less survived. The camp is held at O'Leno State Park, a really nifty place in north central Florida about two hours drive from Jacksonville. The photo below shows where the Santa Fe River disappears into a sinkhole inside the park; it reappears a few miles away before flowing into the Suwannee.



There are screened but unheated cabins, which makes for an interesting time with temps falling into the 40's at night. There's also a dining hall, where campers are fed pretty well by a catering service.

But mostly, there are workshops, each lasting an hour and 15 minutes. As at academic conferences, it's often hard to decide which of two competing workshops to attend. Do you go to Ken Perlman's "Celtic Reels, Clawhammer Style" or Laura Boosinger's "The Art of Singing with Banjo?" I mostly did old-time banjo, and learned some good things from Paul Brown, Bob Carlin, Adam Hurt, and Brad Leftwich; I also did one fiddle session with Brad. Google any of these folks and you'll get an idea of how good they are.

I started attending the camps in 2005, after about 35 years of playing banjo mostly by myself and learning most of what I knew from instruction manuals. I had been living with performance anxiety for many years, limiting myself to playing around the house. As I was about to turn 60 that year I felt that I needed to do something to force myself outward. Banjo camp was my solution.

It was hair-raising at first, playing in front of or along with people who are world famous (the first camp included Pete Seeger's brother Mike, whose group, The New Lost City Ramblers, helped jump-start the revival of interest in traditional American rural music). But it was comforting to learn that my instincts about how the tunes should sound were pretty good, probably a result of listening to them and singing them at Howard Street Elementary School in Hagerstown, Maryland, back in the 1950s before the No Child Left Behind act started leaving children culturally behind.

Being at the camp has helped lower my anxiety, not enough to call myself a performer but enough at least to make it possible for me to demonstrate traditional banjo styles in a course on Appalachian Literature here at UNF.

It's never too late to go to camp.

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