Hooked on Bluegrass

Masha Goodman Crawford

It was November, the air was frosty, the ground was covered in a thick blanket of snow with an icy, glittering crust just beginning to form. We drove up to the big old farmhouse, saw various old cars parked off to one side. There was smoke coming out of the chimney, and the sun was just going down. Is it picturesque enough for you yet? As we walked toward the house the door opened, and out came a warm glow of light and the sound of fiddles and banjos and footsteps and laughter. The tune ended, and the laughter doubled, some people clapped, everyone talked, and as I walked through the door someone reached out a hand and said, "Wanna dance?"

It sounds like an after-school movie, or a sappy novel, but this was 1977 in a little town outside of Chicago. I was a city girl, and could hardly believe a scene like this was possible. The front room of the Ritchie's farmhouse was barely big enough for the 12 or so dancers now lining up and the cluster of musicians off in the corner. I didn't know their names then, and the years have blurred together a bit, but among the folks who stood in that corner playing wild and wonderful screaming, rhythmic, rockin' tunes over the years were Mark Ritchie (whose parents were wonderful enough to let us all take over the house for Thanksgiving weekend), Mark Gunther, Kathy Hirsh, Fred Feild, Tony Scarambolo, Steve Rosen, Chirps Smith, Emily Fine, Nancy Katz, Stan Shapin, Vicki Moss, Brad Leftwich, Ken Stein, Tom T. Ball and a pair of brothers, whose names escape me now, who came down from Michigan bringing wonderfully wild energy & tunes. Many, many other amazing musicians joined in the playing over the years, I think Warren Argo and Bob Naess and Fred Park and Armin Barnett all made it there at least once, and of course the Bloomington crew, Frank Hall, Ted Hall, Dillon Bustin, Terri Klausen, Bill Meek, Paul Tyler were there, at least in my memories. We played and danced all night, slept in our sleeping bags on any bare piece of floor we could find. A few hardy (or insane) folks pitched tents.

I didn't know any of the names that first night. I had never heard this kind of music before, never imagined that there was a community of people like this here, within striking distance of Chicago, an hour and a half's drive away by car, but the opposite end of the universe from the overly competitive world I had just come from. I fell in love with the relaxed, welcoming, fun atmosphere and folks, the whirl of dancing bodies and laughter, the woodstove warmth and the potluck food, and the fiddle and banjo music that was its soundtrack. "Breaking Up Thanksgiving", as those parties came to be known, continues today as an organized mini-festival, with scheduled bands and callers, pre-registration required. "Success" comes with a cost. But back then it was a party, a gathering and celebration of a shared love of old-time music and dance. No tickets, no lessons, no costumes, no name tags, no stars, no stage, this was music and dance in a living tradition, learned by ear from friends and elders, shared openly and generously with anyone who wanted a piece, fueled by friendship and whiskey and endless jokes. This was the old-time music and dance community, and I was hooked.

(posted 1/24/2009)

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