By Peggy Bellar
Like my great-grandmother, grandmother and mother, I grew up fluent in the language of music. Within my immediate family we played: piano, violin, cello, French horn, flute, piccolo, and marimba! When family and friends got together music was a part of the landscape…mom plunking out a tune on the piano, dad on violin, everyone singing and whoever happened to bring an instrument joined in.
Playing music at group gatherings is a time-honored tradition and I am happy to report that if you live in my hood (up a dirt road in Andes) there are plenty of opportunities to find some peeps making joyful noise together! Just last week, I attended three such gatherings and here are the results!
First Up the “FA, SO, LA” crowd in Fleischmanns:
My fiddle-player friend Teddy told me that I had to check out these folk. She called them ‘shape note’ singers who sang a cappella and used some sort of special musical notation system. “Haunting and robust” is how she described the sound.
Thus my quest began! On a bitter cold Wednesday evening, I made my way to the River Run Bed and Breakfast in Fleischmann’s to hear these shape note singers in person. When I arrived, everyone was gathered in a circle, chopping their arms to the beat, holding a book called “The Sacred Harp” and singing in a mysterious, four-part, a cappella harmony. Before I had a chance to take it all in, Ben Fenton, the leader of this group, thrust a book in my hand and insisted that I join in. I spent the next hour, chopping my arm, singing this beautiful poetic, primitive music and having a lot of fun.
Afterwards, Ben explained that the tradition of shape note singing was born in the 1820s in New England and that it still continues today in community singing groups. Many of the songs come from an 1844 musical book called “The Sacred Harp”.
At one time, shape note singing was considered “peasant-like” because the simplified notation system that uses basic shapes and syllables — fa, so, la, mi – made it easy for everyday folks with little musical instruction to quickly master sight-singing.
So how did Ben, living in a small village in upstate New York, stumble upon a tradition that, except in the rural South, had practically fallen into obscurity? It was the Civil War movie Cold Mountain, whose soundtrack features the Liberty Church Sacred Harp Singers from Henagar, Alabama. Ben was blown away and hasn’t quit, chopping his arm and singing harmonies ever since!
“It’s not performance art”, says Ben, “but rather a community sing” and he invites all interested people with or without a musical background to come join in. Kids are welcome (plenty of games and books to keep them occupied), Sacred Harp music books are provided for the singers and once a month they serve a pot luck dinner!
Weekly Community Singing
6:00pm – 8:00pm
River Run Bed & Breakfast,
882 Main Street, Fleischmanns NY
Want a comprehensive introduction, check out the upcoming week-long singing school:
Margaretville Singing School
For more information:
Second up…The Slow Jam in Pine Hill
On Friday night, I ventured out once again in the record-setting cold in search of more magic-making music. I found it at the Pine Hill Community Center and their monthly Slow Jam. In a brightly lit room full of board games, hula hoops and books there was a circle of chairs and music stands set up. In the center was a table with a big jar marked “donations”. One by one people dropped in; a fiddle player, a flutist, an accordion player and a guy that I know from my local hardware store who brought his banjo and mandolin.
When they launched into the first song “Whiskey before Breakfast” ,I knew the evening would be entertaining. The group (which has ranged in size from 3 -35 musicians) focuses on Americana music pre-1940s. A typical night might include some western swing, american standards and bluegrass favorites.
Jeanne Palmer, an accomplished, classically-trained violin player, founded the group. Jeanne played seriously as a young girl and then abandoned it for nearly 40 years. When she picked up a violin again as an adult, she became interested in fiddle music.
Jeanne started attending a Slow Jam in Manhattan where she shyly hid in the back for nearly a year before joining in. But once she started there was no stopping her. So much so that she decided to organize a Slow Jam at her beloved home in the Catskills.
What I enjoyed most about the Slow Jam was the camaraderie. Everyone jumped in and had fun, leaning new music, playing old favorites, swapping stories and passing a winter evening together.
The Slow Jam is open to all, most songs are taken at a slower pace, and there is no audience and no pressure. Grab your acoustic instrument and head on over to help them celebrate their second anniversary next month.
Catskill Mountains Acoustic Slow Jam
2nd Friday of every month
6:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Pine Hill Community Center
278 Main Street, Pine Hill NY
Third Ones a Charm
My journey in search of community music groups ended in a charming historic lodge with a big wood-burning stove to take the chill off the evening.
What can I say, the evening was as magical as the setting. The group included some very accomplished musicians and singers. But no matter what level, all were made comfortable with their motto: check your ego at the door.
But like many magical things, it is also mysterious. While all are welcome, they don’t advertise (and wouldn’t allow me to disclose any details).
How do they get a group together for ten years now? Word of mouth. My advice in locating them – grab your instrument, go make some joyful music with other friends here in Delaware County and maybe one day the secret will be revealed.
Peggy left her (awesome) job in NYC as Director of Special Events for DIFFA: Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS to live and work in the beautiful Catskills. Her days now consist of teaching a community donation-based yoga class, learning how to chain boulders to a backhoe and helping folk find their own beautiful homes upstate through Prudential Fox Properties. She is a southern girl from Mississippi (it was a Woody Allen movie that sent her packing to NY) and has a cult-like following for her red-velvet cupcakes.