After many years of "maybe next year" I finally made it to Augusta. A lot of folk I know have been to Cajun/Creole week, and as fun as that would be I was interested in learning Harmonica from Phil Wiggins, so it was Blues week for me.
Since I've been spending time at the Archie Edwards' Barbershop Jams I knew a crowd that was going. And that helped, but the openness and friendliness of the blues crowd was astonishing. Particularly since many of them have been coming back for many years, it would be perfectly natural for cliques to develop. But it really hasn't. Folks are coming from all over, particularly the east coast. And while the majority of the instructors come from the DC area, they're coming from all over as well: Grant Dermody from Seattle, Stan Hirsch from the southwest, and even importing Fiona Boyes from Australia and Louisiana Red from Germany.
In recent years, Blues week has been paired with Swing week. This year Blues week was paired with Guitar week instead. The official word was that the change was because of scheduling conflicts of the principals; but there were rumors about other conflicts. Still this year's Swing / Bluegrass pairing seems awfully nonsensical. With all of my minimal influence, I'm pushing for a return to the pairing with Cajun/Creole week. In the end Guitar week didn't have enough registrants and was cancelled. It left the camp feeling a bit empty, but it had it's advantages.
Our mornings and early afternoons were filled with instrumental classes. Before dinner there were other classes to choose from like songwriting, blues history, Gospel singing, and band labs. I gravitated to the jam session on Halliehurst Porch. It was a friendly jam where the songs aren't too complex and they're careful to call out the song keys and changes.
There was a lot of variety in the class selection for the guitarists. But there are options for the harmonica players, singers, pianists, and mandolinist/fiddlers among us. Out at the jams these were the predominant instruments, but a few oddballs could be found and were well accepted. My roommate, Chris, got around the scarcity of pianos (and the electrical connections & amps for them) by bringing a piano accordion and a melodica. And one of the most popular guys was a drummer who brought a Cajon, basically a wooden box big enough to sit on that makes a lovely sound when you hit it.
My harmonica classes went well. I'm not sure if it was intentional or not, but all three teachers approached the lessons from different perspectives and they jibed well. Joe Filisco was very focussed on rhythm and to a lesser extent dynamics. Grant Dermody showed us the 12 bar structure and encouraged us to experiment within that structure. Phil Wiggins was showed us a basic 12 bar riff and "Sitting on Top of the World" and we worked through them slowly. There was a bit of a mid-course adjustment because several of us wanted more skills for participating in the Jams. It was all for the good...
The optional mini-classes ranged from Harmonica Performance & Gospel Singing to Mexican Cooking and Knitting. There was also a Blues Dance mini-course which I considered, but I opted out because that was the one bit of free time. Good call because with early mornings & late nights it helped to have a nap.
Most of us stayed in the dorms, which were... well dorms. They fit the need... suitable for falling over into bed at the end of the day. But it's a hike up to them that probably rivals the late night stumble up hill at Buffalo Jam. There are hotel rooms attached to the old Graceland Inn. The food was cafeteria food, not bad... but nothing to write home about. But there were options: soup, salad bar, cold cut station, & pretty good pizza at lunch.
After lunch time we had announcements and the instructors got to do something together. The first one was an admonition of how to jam well together when Rich DelGrosso, Daryl Davis, and Stan Hirsch took simultaneous hot-dog solos while Grant Dermody took a cell phone call. All the women got a chance to play together. Daryl wowed the crowd when he pulled up Ann Rabson, Irwin Helfer, and Ian Walters to play the same piano simultaneously. I missed the guitarists on Wednesday, but one moment became legend when Louisiana Red called up Rich DelGrosso and Phil Wiggins, launching into a song which Rich determined was in C#, and left Phil scrambling for a harp of a key that'd fit, and then insisting Phil take a solo.
I missed it because I went to see Ian Walters performance down in the Elkins City Park. Ian was pretty ubiquitous the entire weekend. Teaching the beginner pianists, playing the dances at night, and jamming often and late. While I was down there I caught the traveling Smithsonian exhibit on the history of american roots music, it was a good well timed exhibit covering blues, gospel, cajun, zydeco, old time, bluegrass, and more.
Monday there was a memorial service for John Cephas in the Davis & Elkins Chapel. He was the elder statesman of this group, and he'd been coming to Augusta for a couple decades (at least). It was a truly emotional evening, reminiscing, telling stories, crying, and finally ending in the camp singing gospel. John's death added a heavy layer of emotion on the week. And it wasn't bad, in many ways I think it was quite cleansing. There were a lot of tears and laughter over the week. I think it was so prominent because the camp is such a safe and supportive place for it.
Every night there was jamming, mostly concentrated around Hallihurst porch and in the old IceHouse (now a bar) which has a piano. And these were going as late as 4am or later. People were pretty good about calling keys. But depending on who chose the song, it could be a blues or not. But if you don't know the tune, you can move on to another jam nearby. It's mostly acoustic, but there was space for electric jams at the Boiler House Theatre down the hill... but I never made it there. One of the best moments was at Joe Filisco's "super secret" harmonica-friendly back porch jam, Resa Gibbs sang a beautiful quiet slow blues and the 20-some harp players all got a solo... a very quiet one, quiet to the point where ice shifting in my drink was loud.
The instructor showcases were spread over Tuesday and Thursday because Guitar week didn't happen and it gave each a chance to play a couple songs instead of one. Tuesday in particular was very emotional, Roddy Barnes finished a funny song about how no matter how at least we're not perpetually worried about being eaten like the "Little Fishes" and followed with a tear jerker about trying to rationalize the death of a friend's step-son. Andra Faye sang her "Blue Lullaby" waltz and admitted the painful inspiration for it. But the killer of the night was Phil Wiggins who closed the show doing a solo, powerful, deeply emotional, yet constrained instrumental version of "So Lonesome I Could Cry" for John. He followed with a couple faster ones including his virtuoso boogie "Burn Your Bridges". Thursday was far more up beat, Joe Filisco's performance of a Fox Chase which morphed into a Fast Train song was sent out to my harmonica playing buddy, Cecil. At the student performances on Friday, Cecil turned around and did his own Fox Chase which was dedicated back to Joe, and Cecil got a standing ovation for it.
At those Friday afternoon student performances, two of my beginner harp classes did bits, and I did my first terrifying solo. It went pretty well, and the crowd was so amazingly supportive of everyone. There were class presentations from the Gospel class, Piedmont Blues Guitar, Advanced Harmonica, & Piano. Individuals followed and there were some amazing performances from beginners and advanced alike. And all were supported, even the failures and folks who got emotional on stage. Several wrote their own songs many were very "Saffirey" even from the men. It's not surprising with the influence of those Uppity Blues Women and Fiona Boyes who taught the songwriting class has a very similar style.
Friday evening, Roddy Barnes & Baltimore's Gina DeLuca had a side gig down in town at El Gran Sabor where it seemed like half the camp showed up and several ended up on stage. It was good fun and good food too.
I wasn't sure how well the dances were going to work without a "dance" week attached. You may have heard that blues musicians don't dance. You may have heard it from me. Much to my surprise they do; bolstered by the locals the dance floor was pretty full most of each night. The Dance Pavilion's floor was particularly full for the Friday night dance. All the instructors got to play in groups. One acoustic set was dominated by local folk: Rick Franklin, Eleanor Ellis, Ian Walters (on drums now); Jackie Merritt & Resa Gibbs (of MSG) hopped up too; Grant Dermody was the only "outsider". Phil Wiggins played a very rockin' version of his "Fools Night Out" with Stan Hirsch, Ian, Elkins-local rhythm guys and the Saffire women singing backup.
As people trickled out on Friday there were a lot of thank you's, well wishes, exchanging of contact information, and hugs. Saturday morning came entirely too early. I hated to stop, but I couldn't keep going the way I had been... sounds like the beginning of a blues tune to follow the other one we'd been talking about "Red Bull & Visine".