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.


A fiddle is only as good as it plays


This  fiddle I saw at the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival. The lady bought it in the 1970s. She thought it was a Vuillaume. Maybe.


The name Vuillaume could mean anything. It’s like finding a fiddle in your grandmother’s attic, peering through the f-hole and seeing a  Stradivarius label. Probably not a real Strad. Lots of people have made lots of money selling instruments with phony labels. And musicians tend to give their instruments distinguished pedigrees.


But whatever this fiddle’s ancestry, it is a lovely piece of work, with a beautifully carved scroll, and cunning carved corners on the back, and Celtic-looking purfling. The scroll does place it sometime during the 19th or early 20th century—a time when ornamentation was popular on all things, and ornamented scrolls decked out many fiddles.

I’m not a violin connoisseur, so I didn’t know enough then to look closely at the painting on the back to see if it is inlay, painting, or both.

The most important things about a fiddle are how it feels when you play it, and how it sounds. An instrument can have the beauty of Grace Kelly, but if it shrieks like a toothless angry old witch, then it’s of no use.

The owner of this fiddle treated it with the casual attention you’d give a favored pet. It sat next to her as she sat listening to the music. She carried it around, cradled in her arms. She loved it. She said it had a great sound.

That’s all that’s important.

The music in your bones

Watercolor color study
Watercolor color study

Last night after the session wound up, after the last Irish jig and reel danced out across the floor, after the last polka whirled by and the last hornpipe bobbed out for the night, after the flutes were swabbed  clean and the fiddles wrapped and stowed in their cases., we musicians fell to talking a bit about Irish music.

We talked about how we came to this old and eccentric style of music in this land of pop melody and commercial jingles. Nearly every person at that party came into the music during a crisis in their life (many of us, it seemed, found it while ending a bad relationship). We found solace in the music, friendship in our instrument. “When I feel down or troubled,” C. said, “I tell it to my fiddle.”

How well I know that type of long conversation with my flute.

Not everyone who comes to Irish music is an emotional refugee looking for comfort. Some are lucky enough to have been born into the music, and wise enough to continue playing their legacy. Others just enjoy the intellectual exercise of learning stacks of tunes. And most of us love the camaraderie and community that comes from playing this music with others.

But I’d wager that for lots of musicians, the music is more importantly a place of comfort and safety. The familiar tunes are like favorite stories  we tell ourselves when we’re happy, scared, bored, or sad.

No matter our level of competence, just to sit quietly by ourselves and play this music is to have a relationship with the tunes and with our instruments that is as deep and serious as our relationships with our spouses, our children, our parents.  I guess because ultimately, it’s a relationship with ourselves.

Reynard’s accordion

Reynard's accordion 2009 Margaret Sloan Watercolor
Reynard’s accordion
© 2009 Margaret Sloan Watercolor

The accordion has gotten a bad rap in this country, thanks to cheesy lounge lizard music and guys in glittery suits. But there are other sides to this instrument, facets that do not include champagne bubbles and Lady of Spain. Accordions have morphed into something new whenever a culture touched them.

I like accordion music, particularly music played on the button box. Particularly Irish music played on the button box (no surprise there), although I’ll take a good French Canadian reel too. English country music on the button box sounds great. And don’t forget accordion is a staple in  Cajun music.

It makes sense to me that a fox should play the accordion. And the fellow in this painting reminds me of a fox.

Raynard the fox was, in European folklore, a trickster, a shape-shifter, a magical animal. May Day seems like a day he is in top form.

I like to think of my Raynard  attracting fluffy white rabbits with his accordion, wooing them with a rockin’ reel or a seductive waltz on dry-tuned reeds and then…well, what he does with the bunnies when he catches them is best left to your imagination. I can assure you that my Reynard doesn’t bite their little heads off, and that they’re pretty happy to have been caught.

May day Morris dancing

The Palo Alto Baylands before dawn on the first day in May is a chilly place, quiet except for a few startled shorebirds and the shuffling of feet. People gather in the parking lot, talking quietly between yawns. Later there will be revelry, laughter, and silliness, but right now they wait. And just before the sun comes up, men carrying deer horns emerge from the darkness to dance to a haunting tune in a minor key.

Abbots Brumley Horn Dance (Thaxted version)  Watercolor on Arches paper
Abbots Bromley Horn Dance (Thaxted version) Watercolor on Arches paper

This is Morris Dancing, an English style of folk dance that is very old. No one is quite sure how old it is, but evidently records dating back to the 1600s mention it. It’s almost died out several times—Cromwell and his puritans put a temporary halt to it, then the industrial revolution bled people from their culture and nearly killed it—but was revived in the early part of the 20th century. How ironic that it’s had another revival in this age of technology killing culture. In fact, it may be that technology has helped it grow (although some predict a decline),  and now Morris teams all over the world clash swords, shake bells, wave hankies, and dance to the music of accordions and fiddles. They dance to help the sun rise on May 1, a brilliant endeavor, and a happy one. Then, I believe, they go have some beer.

The dance I’ve painted here is the Thaxted version of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance.  The Thaxted version is haunting, mystical. You feel like you’ve stumbled upon some primitive rite in the midst of the megalopolis. Like an ancient god will spring from the bay mud and perhaps accept  a sacrifice as the dancers make their moves. It’s deliciously chilling and meaningful.

But the Thaxted version an after-market dance. The original, still performed in Abbots Bromley after something like 800 years, is lively, fun, and a little goofy. Danced in daylight. Lot’s of bouncy tunes. To this Yank, Monty Python springs to mind. In the best possible sense, of course.

This is a study for a larger painting I have in mind. As always, I imagine I’ll paint it many times before I get it to the place I want it to be.

If you’re up before dawn on May 1, find a Morris team near you and go help them dance up the sun.

Anxiety and accordions

Last night I was waylaid by anxiety. You know the feeling: heart racing, mind jumping like a monkey shrieking at each imagined worse case scenario.

It felt something like this:

Colored markers on slick paper
Colored markers on slick paper

Well, I wasn’t actually feeling quite this armageddon-ish, despite world events cascading towards something scary in a most remarkable manner. Instead,  my anxiety was of a personal nature, stemming from the feeling of falling behind, of not painting enough, of not moving fast enough towards my goal, of being too lax, too lazy.

Part of this stems from late night reading of artist blogs, stories like Middle of Nowhere, about a toymaker in the UK, or Andrea Joseph’s sketch blog, that has lovely drawings in such a beautiful style. I admire these artists, and  they give me something to stretch for, to be sure, but also they make me feel so far behind.

So, since the bed was making me feel prickly and itchy, I got up at 1 a.m. and drew this fellow.

Accordion player number 1
Accordion player number 1

It’s my first pass at a painting I want to make of a Morris accordion player on May Day. However, this fellow looks too innocent. Too farmboy to play a diabolical instrument like the accordion.

This is better. I like his smirk. I like that he looks like a magician. The Morris dancers say they dance to keep the sun coming up on May Day. Some days I think it takes a magician to do that. I’ll start painting him this evening.

Accordion player number 2
Accordion player number 2

Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp

Fiddlers at a session
Fiddlers at a session

What a way to ring in Saint Patrick’s Day. We spent a week at the Friday Harbor Irish Music Camp on San Juan Island. It was brilliant. These drawings were done one night during a session, in dim light, while the music was rocking along.

I didn’t get much drawing done at the camp. It was too exciting to draw; the music, wild and free, trapped me, and so I just played music, pretty solidly, for six days. Art took a fiddle class from Liz Kane, and a music theory class from Randal Bays. I took flute classes from Catherine McEvoy, one of my favorite flute players. I fell in love with my flute all over again.

Catherine McEvoy playing the flute. She looks demure, but her music is powerful.
Catherine McEvoy playing the flute. She looks demure, but her music is powerful and strong. Not ladylike at all.

For the last few years, I haven’t been playing music much,  concentrating instead on painting, and so I had fallen out of the groove of playing. But a week of music brought it back: how much I love the music, love playing my flute. Don’t know how I’m going to balance music with painting, and still go to my day job.

If you haven’t heard of Catherine McEvoy, check out this video. She’s amazing.