OTR-4 Clifftop
Old-Time Rambler 12/15/08

Let’s talk about old-time festivals, in particular the Appalachian String Band Music Festival, held each year in late July and early August at Camp Washington Carver in Clifftop, West Virginia. It’s the one everybody refers to simply as “Clifftop”. This is probably the premier old-time festival in the country, close to 3000 people, stretching from Thursday to Sunday. Here’s the website: http://www.wvculture.org/stringband/index.html. Notice that this is an official State Of West Virginia event. They are very proud of their traditional music.

The format is very unstructured. There is no lineup of well-known stage performers who at other festivals would provide three daytimes and evenings of, say, hour-long sets. There are stage contests in fiddle, banjo, flat foot dancing, traditional bands, and neo-traditional bands. The winners of the two band contests are invited to perform a one hour set the following year, pretty much the only “advertised” acts in the schedule.

There are no instrumental workshops, though there are flat foot dance workshops most days for an hour or so. There are usually three Master’s Showcases on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, which present three players who will play and talk about their music for about an hour in the afternoon to an audience in the dance hall.

Each evening there is a square dance in the dance hall, a wonderful FDR-era building of heavy log construction. Music is from bands invited to play for dancing. The members of the dance bands are almost always musicians who would be attending Clifftop even if they weren’t playing for the dance. The callers are top quality, too. And the style of the dance is one where each dance is taught and walked through before the music starts. It is a very welcoming atmosphere to dancers of all abilities, and even someone who has never square danced before can have loads of fun.

Of course, jamming is constant, with the camp never being completely quiet, 24 hours a day. Clifftop attracts the best players in the country, and to walk around and just listen is an amazing experience. You can hardly go twenty feet before you come to the next jam. And in addition to your own friends to jam with, and a bunch of other really great players you’ve never heard of, the top echelon of old-time musicians are there too; not on stage, just jamming. Bruce Molsky, Rayna Gellert, Rafe Stefanini, Mike Seeger, Alice Gerrard, Dave Bing, Gerry Milnes, Mac Benford, Walt Koken, Rich Hartness, Jane Rothfield, Rhys Jones, Paul Brown, Erynn Marshall and on and on. And besides these giants of the genre, there are plenty of twenty-somethings playing with the kind of energy at 3 a.m. the rest of us are lucky to have at 9 p.m.

The vast majority of people camp. There are two RV sections away from the center of things, one not to far off where generators aren’t allowed, and one way down by the entrance station where generators are okay. No hookups, this is The Country. There are a few bluegrass people who RV or camp together, but there’s about a 95% chance that any banjo you see won’t have a resonator, probably has a skin head, and will have those telltale stains from being frailed all its life.

The feel of Clifftop is just short of miraculous for an old-time musician. So many festivals are short on old-time, but in this place, nobody has to explain the difference between what we play and bluegrass. It’s like suddenly meeting up with people who speak your language. And that’s what all these people are doing with their fiddles and banjos, having conversations.

There’s a fairly comprehensive 2005 article about Clifftop from, of all places, the Wall Street Journal. It’s not terribly complimentary, nor all that accurate, but worth reading. The description of the political leanings of old-time players is probably mostly true, though. Here’s where to find it: http://online.wsj.com/public/article_print/SB112431962083316041.html

Would you like to see a video of the typical scene that’s, well, everywhere at Clifftop? Of course you would. The tune is “Half Past Four”, and the link is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWWP0Nif5Z4=18

And the clip down below is of the “Moonshine Monsters”, probably a pickup band, that won the traditional band contest in 2005, playing “Sally Ann Johnson”. This is only THREE players, people. Listen to ‘em roar.

Sally Ann Johnson
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Posted By:  Rick Cornish

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