February 2000

v The The Winter Songfest Diaries - Jack Cole

This past weekend I ventured into new territory - the Five Oaks Conference Centre in Paris, Ontario - to attend my first Winter Songfest. This annual event began several years ago as The Winter Woods, and featured a weekend of music making, complete with classes and workshops. This year, as in the past couple, there was no official staff - just 30 or so people who wanted to make music together. This is my diary of the weekend.

Friday James and Margaret (from the Old Chestnuts) are also going, and after much confusion (centred around me coming home from Boston that day) James and I set out a little late. There had been snow earlier in the day, and while our trip is quick and uneventful, other folks from Toronto and further east had more difficulty traveling. Margaret had arrived in time for supper, but alas we do not. As we get there the Friday evening Song Circle is setting up. The great room is filling and the fire is crackling. The sound of E/B/G/D/A/E fills the air.

Apart from us three Old Chestnuts and one or two others, this is mostly a gathering of people from the Toronto Song Circle. That circle is different than the one we are used to in Kitchener. For one thing, in the circle of 30, there are perhaps 4 passes. Everyone else has a song. I am one of the passes. The talent in the group is rather amazing, and it's truly a case of being completely entertained by the music, as the focus moves around. There is an abundance of instruments - four or five banjos, lots of guitars, a steel guitar, a couple of mandolas, drums, accordion and so on. All expertly played, and seldom played alone! A 'tight' group of very fine musicians.

After the once-around Matthew asks if any of the passers want to reconsider. A nice gesture, and one I finally have the nerve to take advantage of, thanks to James asking me to sing a particular song. With so many amazing songs forthcoming, I find it very tough to come up with something appropriate! A request helps.

In the tradition of the Toronto circle there is no applause at the end of songs. I've never been comfortable with this; I'm a feedback kind of person. But I am beginning to understand the point! In a group this talented there is no question of the performance being `pleasing' (whatever that means). That is simply taken for granted. This frees the circle to appreciate the subtleties of the story and the way it is told. Listen closely at the end of the song and you will here a pause, then a few sighs of delight. That's the feedback. Kinda' nice if you are self-confident.

After the first round a cookie break is declared, and incredibly it's 11:30! Those who missed supper raid the fridges for leftovers. About half the folks disappear off to their rooms, and the rest engage in some jammng - mostly 50's and 60's rock and roll! Fun. I stumble off at 12:30.

I had noticed the spare set of sheets with the towels on my bed. A considerate, if a bit embarrassing, touch I thought. Shows just how stupid I can be. So there I am at 12:30 making my bed. Quickly and poorly. My only consolation is that James (my roomie) didn't catch on either, and he's still singing!

I don't know what time the music stops, but it's a bit later. James comes in and makes his bed in the puny light of the bed lamp.

Saturday Well, the mattress was good, but the pillow sucked. Too small, too lumpy, and covered in plastic to keep our heads safe from deadly germs. It crackled all night. Mental note to bring my own pillows next time.

It's 8 AM and thankfully Matthew got breakfast moved to 8:30. Even so, there are only a half dozen of us there on time. They ring a bell for all meals, hung just outside the dining hall, downstairs below the great room. A nice civilized ring. A few more people dribble in over the next half hour.

Breakfast is simple - cereal, toast, fruit and something hot. Bacon, eggs, French toast, sausage take turns over the two mornings. Coffee seems popular.

The snowfall from the night before is stuck on all the trees and the sun is sparkling down. Five Oaks is on a large, wooded property, with a significant stream running through it and into the Grand River. There are trails from the main hall, across afield and into the woods. From there they meander along the banks of the creek. To the right one can walk to a bridge over the road; to the left there is a longer walk to a dam across the stream and on to the Grand. The stream is free running except in a few interesting spots, where it has barely frozen over and is wearing a coat of snowflakes. As the bright sun pours down and the morning warms, the ice cracks and heaves and shatters, moving on downstream.

By contrast, the Grand is completely frozen over, save for a few feet nearest the shore. At this point the Grand is quite, well, grand - several dozen feet wide. It's really tempting to try to find a way out onto the thick ice, but thankfully I'm less stupid in the daylight.

With the snow on the trees and bushes and ice like frosting, and the sun blazing in the bright blue sky, more than a few campers are out with their cameras. I pass several setting up along the banks, reveling in the unexpected opportunity to freeze winter. Campers are out singly or in small groups; there are probably a couple dozen wandering the creek bank over the course of the morning. When my tractionless boots skip out from under me going down the hill and I crash on my back, I'm glad no-one else is there to see how slowly I get back up!

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, music happens. Music always happens. There is invariably someone in the great room looking for a song. Usually 6 or 10 gather around and get going in a free form circle. Margaret's usually there, diligently working on her banjo. A few other regulars who just can't get enough music. I'm in there too, mostly listening and chording along. There are many other rooms in the hall, and people find places to practice, teach, share. Tin whistles in the Chapel. Dulcimers in the Library. Sleemans in the walk-in fridge. Scrabble in the Great Room, over in the corner.

Except for a break for lunch, the day passes thus. Lunch is good, topped off with rhubarb custard squares. Some people eat more than one square. I won't name names, but at our table we stayed until everyone stopped eating them. We were very late...we also had fun with middle names.

Some folks run into town for the essentials (more Sleemans, Doritos, a Globe and Mail). More walks. The music junkies among us are starting to notice that our fingers hurt and our voices have never sounded quite like that before. A couple of people are napping (!) in the middle of the Great Room. Linda is giving neck rubs. A "Lightfoot Hour" is suggested and some old Gordie songs are sung.

Most people here are old enough to have bought those Gordie songs when they first came out. That's a polite way of saying "as old or older than me"; I would guess the age range is about 30 to 70. It's nice that we all know the same music, but it sure would be nice to be passing it on to a younger generation.

About 5:30 they ring the bell again and dinner is served. Tonight the meat eaters get steak and onions. The herbivores among us get pasta with veggies. There are also salads, a couple of vegetables, potatoes. Good food, topped off with tiramisu. Need I say more?

Shelley has come to camp to call the dances. She's one of the more `mature' people there, and a small woman. And she can probably dance us all under the table. Earlier in the day the Dance Band was born, and learned to play a few tunes together. Nearly everyone else comes out to dance. We have an hour of breathless fun, especially with a dance where the "extra" women play a game of musical chairs for male dance partners. Lots of laughter. The Dance Band ends their set with an un-scheduled set of rock and roll, which also proves popular!

Another great song circle, just like the night before. James starts off this time with a familiar song, and it's fun singing a harmony part that I actually know! The rest of the circle does harmony like they were born singing along in the delivery room. But softly, in respect of the leader. Just listening is a treat.

Once around and it's break time. Not even 4 passes this time. But more crash after break, leaving a smaller circle that dwindles slowly down. No rock and roll tonight; just people's favourite songs. At 1:30 I have to crash, but I hear later that the circle went for another 2 hours, and eventually turned into a "worst song" competition.

Sunday Margaret lasted 'til the end of the circle, and is up before the squirrels. We all briefly hate Margaret, but then she brings us coffee and we praise her instead.

A "Bill Gallaher Hour" happens, as a few of us flip through his songbook. As people wander in and make requests, we do some songs twice. No one minds, the songs are so great. Nikki and Bob play "Four Rode By", the other song about the Wild MacLean Boys. People scramble around to tape songs that they want to learn. Reid limbos. And at noon we have a quick lunch (with leftover desserts!), pack up and clean up our rooms, and gather in the Great Room for three final 'parting' songs and a goodbye.

From 6:30 Friday until 2 PM Sunday. You better be a folk music junkie. And if you are, you better be there next year.

v Last Month and Next Month at OCSC! - Jack Cole

Attendance dwindles. That's it - no more 'phone ahead' intimidation. Call if you like, but also just come if you like! We will fit everyone in if at all possible.

About 17 people came in January, and we had a blast with songs about singing. Again, pretty well every song on theme, and again at least one Newbie!

The theme for February 26 is "Dreams" - both dreams of the heart and dreams of the head. Dreams that come true and dreams that go up in smoke. Please try to plan your songs ahead so that you are prepared to lead them! This is a pretty fertile topic, so I expect lots of songs will be offered! But remember, the theme is just a suggestion; songs off theme are just as welcome!

v Some Events in The Area (as space permits!)

Feb 17 Boathouse in Victoria Park presents Alfie Smith. Feb 24, Spooky Moon.
Feb 18 Black Walnut Folk Club, Laurel Room, UW. $3. Open mic. With host. Third Friday of each month.
Feb 25 Eve Goldberg, Folkway Music, Guelph. 163 Suffolk St. W. $8
Feb 26 Old Chestnuts Song Circle Dreams. Arrive between 7:30 and 8 PM. 578.6298.
Mar 2 Grand River Dulcimer Club. Folkway Music, Guelph. 163 Suffolk St. W. 7:30 $3. 519.763.8092 or dale.mills@sympatico.ca
May 13 Aengus Finnan, Old Chestnuts Song Circle, $10

v About this newsletter..... It's emailed if I have your address. It's on the Web at http://www.mgl.ca/~jhcole and available at OCSC and BWFC get togethers. Also available by regular mail, but for that I request a few stamped envelopes or a contribution to postage. Call 578-6298 for more information. Typing this in the middle of the night. See, I am stupid. See you on the 26!

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