You are walking up a country lane. A bonfire crackles. Kids are rolling down a hill and racing into the woods. You smell dry leaves, smoke and pecan pie. And now, just as you discern the silhouette of a barn, you hear the sound of thumping on a wooden floor and fiddles and banjos playing. This isn’t the barn dance you heard folks talking about at the Blind Pig one night, the kind where college students dressed in hillbilly attire head to a rural location on chartered buses to drink and carouse. This is an actual barn dance: the kind of event that flies under the radar of local music media and reporters.
And it’s not what you might think, either. There are no square dancers with frilly skirts here. The musicians are those you see around town, playing gigs at the Iron Post or on the porch of Strawberry Fields. In the crowd of dancers, you might see teenagers and college students, grandmothers and professor-types. There is a twenty-something, fully tattooed and pierced, dancing barefoot with a man wearing a Kelly green polo shirt. And a mom with a baby in a sling do-si-do-ing with a developmentally disabled senior citizen. The fiddle tunes are powerful and driving, and more often than not, haunting. A caller walks the crowd through the steps of the next dance, some folks needing more help than others, until there is a general feeling of understanding. Above, in the hayloft, kids are sitting, legs dangling down over the dancers. The caller signals to the band and the fiddler saws out a beat, and it seems the entire barn begins to move and twirl, at first tentatively, and then with a kind of hypnotic groove that brings dancers back to these events, often for the rest of their lives.
Welcome to the world of traditional American music and dance (often called “old-time”). For many musicians and music-lovers, once you get a taste of this raw experience, you are hooked for life. Some musicians have defected, in fact, from punk or alternative rock bands, turned on by the energy and participatory nature of the music. There is no stage, no recording deals, no pressure. Volunteers set up the sound system. Folks bring desserts or potluck contributions for the break. There’s community band night, open-stage calling, and spin-off jams and house parties. When out-of-town musicians, callers or dancers need housing, locals step up to the plate. And all of this happens without much publicity or notice from the outside world.
Certainly, bands and callers with national reputations will pass through and play the dance, with only the local old-time community taking notice. For example, earlier this month fiddler Frank Ferrel played a barn dance in rural northeast Urbana that rocked my socks off. Mr. Ferrel is well known in the folk and media world, having served as one of the first directors of the legendary festival of American fiddle tunes in Port Townsend, Washington. His recordings have been chosen by the Library of Congress for their select list of top 25 American Folk recordings. He hosts an NPR show, as well as Emmy-nominated and awarded shows on Maine Public Broadcasting Network. His recent work directing documentaries on topics as diverse as home childbirth and Native American swimming programs have also garnered him critical support. A musician of his stature could easily have appeared on stage at the Krannert Center. But he probably wouldn’t have wanted it that way.
When you play a dance, you are enclosed in the arms of community, for better or worse. There is no fame or fortune to be had, only the satisfaction of being part of a larger, but fleeting, moment of musical bliss that connects people instead of separating them. It’s not that this kind of music resists commercialization, certainly more than a few old-time artists have recording contracts and booking agents, it’s just that the structure of the music is accessible to most musicians, and it is most often played for dances, thereby assuring wide participation.
I’ve seen it time and time again: old-time musicians, dancers and callers will travel across the country to find that barn in the middle of the woods where they can connect with each other and find themselves in the process.
Live old-time music and dances can be found here in C-U by visiting http://www.prairienet.org/contra/, although you might have to wait until spring for the next barn dance!