I’ve had the great fortune to be at the birth of four folk music festivals– the Kindred Gathering (on the West Coast), Seattle Folklife Festival (WA), Summer Solstice (CA), and the Southwest Dulcimer and Folk Festival (AZ). I have also had honor to be included at the end of three others– the Great Black Swamp Dulcimer Festival (OH), the Bayou Dulcimer Festival (LA), and this past weekend, SAMFest in Houston, Texas.
I say honor because these festivals did not just fade away. They trumpeted their endings like at the walls of Jericho, like Susan Porter of Black Swamp, who gathered her friends and music companions together one last time, not to say goodbye, but to say, “This is all I can do. I wish I could have done more. I wanted to do more,” and by saying and doing, saw the walls between people come down. These festivals leave a vital and vibrant legacy to American music and, in particular, to the dulcimer– both hammered and mountain. They created a focus, a point of presence for the birth and rebirth of a culture. Our culture.
Festivals do more than preserve music, they celebrate it. They do more than teach music, they change lives– and always for the better, even if the beginnings of these changes are causes for soul-searching and heartbreak. Festivals put people’s feet on a path toward a greater understanding both of themselves and of the world around them. Diverse peoples– educators, engineers, artisans, craftsmen– all are brought together in a common cause, if only for a weekend. They provide a crossroads for touring professionals to meet each other. Where else could we do that? We who perform and teach are also students. We do not and cannot grow in isolation.
Festivals celebrate place. Like water, music is a fluid which defines the nature of the location in which it happens, imprinting the character of their creators. The emphasis here is truly on the word, character. For such indeed are those who create and step into the role of ringmasters of these events. To a person, they will say it is thanks to the many volunteers that the festival happens at all. There is no arguing that. But, without the lightning rod of these characters, those energies forever dance in the heavens and are never coaxed to earth except by random happenstance.
Chuck and Peggy Carter were SAMFest’s lightning rods. For ten years they hung a big Texas star over Houston and over the dulcimer world. Every year they coaxed the lightning down from those humid, towering Texas thunderheads, harnessing an energy which guided a generation of new musicians and sustained the livelihoods of the previous. And they did it Texas style– big, generous-hearted and openhanded. Thank you, Chuck and Peggy, from all of us whom you have touched.
I don’t know if Dan Landrum knew the Carters were going to make public their decision to end SAMFest last Saturday night. But whether or not he did, he nevertheless arranged a fitting grand finale. Most of the evening’s performers had been invited back onto the stage as he opened with an airy, Amazing Grace. Moving from solo to ensemble, the piece segued to a playful, I’ll Fly Away, changed keys, picked up tempo and became, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. After two verses, the “band” held a c-sus four pedal tone while Dan reprised, I’ll Fly Away, worked it into a new theme, and then everyone together broke into the most bombastic, breakneck speed, Ode to Joy, yours truly has ever had the pleasure of being part.
Quite fitting, I’d say, for SAMFest was truly an ode to joy– a celebration of music, an unbroken circle of friendship, and an amazing grace. As I write this, here in the cool Northwest sitting under the Jefferson Pine in my backyard, when I close my jet-lagged eyes, lightning spills out of a tropical, darkening sky while Texas unfolds beneath me as I fly away.