Playing music in the pines at Kowana Valley Folk School & Lodge

Banjo Player
Moon in June at Kowana Valley Ranch

Last weekend I wrote this blog post from a tent in the Sierra Nevada while I listened to two flutes playing outside the door. They swung through an old Irish jig called “Out on the Ocean.” From a camp to my right, a mandolin tinkled and plunked through a completely different tune: a hornpipe called Little Stack of Barley. In the distance, a beautiful cacophony of fiddles, whistles, and banjos careered from reel to reel. Pigeon on a Gate into Swinging on a Gate into Cooley’s.

I live in a rare and strange world where people play music together. It’s old music that’s been with the human culture for a very long time, mostly Irish, but some American Old Time, some French Canadian, some English Country tunes. We play for no other reason except to make each other happy. No money changes hands; we play freely.

We play as conversation, not performance. We communicate through notes spooling out from our instruments, conversing with three-four waltzes, two-four polkas, six-eight jigs, and of course, the four-four stampeding eighth notes of reels.

Late night session

People who play this kind of music seek each other out because we are few. We form community where we find it. The community I’m part of is lucky; we found a home for our summer camp at Kowana Valley Ranch, an exquisite piece of property in a long valley just below Yosemite. Every year a bunch of us convene for a weekend of camping, swimming, dancing, eating, and playing a torrent of music from dawn to dawn.

The hosts, Lynn and Richard Ferry, welcome us with flute, banjo, harmonica, and guitar. They play too, when they are not managing their land or their guest lodge. They are the two thumping hearts of this celebration, keeping it alive and giving it the deep soul that makes it the favored event of the year.

I can’t invite you to our music party (it’s private), but I can tell you about the Ferry’s lodge, where you should plan to spend some vacation time.

The lodge is set at the head of a long valley, where little Bull Creek runs fitfully (sometimes it’s partly dry during summer) through willows and pines. To get there, you drive into the middle of nowhere, take a right, and wind down 5 miles of dusty, unpaved road. Once there, you’re off grid. Your devices have no place to connect, and become the door stops you wish they were. You will have to get your kicks from the flashing of birds, the sparkle of dragonflies, and the moon as it rises over the mountains. You can hike in deep forests or lounge beside a cold mountain swimming hole. Glorious nothingness can fill your days.

You can rent out rooms, bunks, or the whole shebang for large parties and getaways. If you play trad music, they might just break out their instruments and share some tunes with you.

Here’s the link to their ranch: Tell them hi from Maggie. And if you don’t know what trad music is, ask them to share a couple cds with you while you are there.

Perhaps you’ll be inspired to take up an instrument and learn to play (they have music workshops at the lodge). More people should play this old music, making all the hills and valleys across the land ring with people’s music. Not only the Irish, but Old Time, Cape Breton, Cajun; people’s music, stuff that’s not been predigested by a computer and corporate for our consumption, but real tunes that have traveled miles through space and time and arrive in our ears as raw as the day the earth was new.


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