- Crickets, Cicadas
Lying in my tent before falling asleep, the sight of the festival grounds neatly zipped away, I still hear the layers of music filtering in. Earlier in the evening, in groups scattered among the campsites, so many fiddle and banjo players are going at once—countless lines and runs of notes played by people who haven’t sat down together in weeks or months, meeting each other in the music with skill and energy and joy. A while later you might get it in triple stereo—one tune from over there by the big pine tree, another from past the porta-potties, another from the band contest on the stage over the hill. Trying to listen to all the tunes at the same time is a particular pleasure. Maybe there’s a family band practicing for the folk-song contest, and maybe this is the last time I will ever want to hear that folk song, but there’s still something tuneful and sweet in their rendition, and soon enough the family will go to bed, and the many sets of people playing will give way to one lone group playing big rowdy tunes with big bawling vocals, until there’s only the night quiet and the rustle of people moving around in a toward-bed way or a get-up-to-pee way, and the night insects making their own music, and all those sounds make it possible to imagine how the sky and the stars look, how I lie inside the shape of everything around me.
You could argue that my tent might as well be sitting on any patch of ground in the country. And maybe it could; fiddler’s conventions similar to the ones I’ve attended in North Carolina and Virginia, where people gather to play old-time Appalachian string-band music, happen across the United States and beyond.
But I feel, in those moments before sleep, more at home in place than I do at most times. In his essay “Green Banjo,” musician and ecocritic Scott Knickerbocker writes, “Old-time music . . . exudes a sense of place, long considered an important starting point in thinking and behaving ecologically. Indeed, perhaps the most environmentally powerful aspect of roots music in general is its uncanny ability to plant one in a place, at least imaginatively.”
Greg Reish, director of Spring Fed Records, a label based at Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Popular Music, agrees. Spring Fed has released old-time music from Anglo-American musicians and gospel, blues, and old-time from African American players and singers, and it has a regional focus, working primarily with field recordings in the mid-South. “It might be hard to theorize or to pin down,” Reish told me, “but there is this kind of innate sense of place, of landscape, that has shaped these musics, because they originated as the musical styles associated with particular communities, and [End Page 5] those communities live in a particular place.” That sense is especially audible, he notes, in field recordings: “There’s something about the ambience of the sound that can lend a sense of place to the mind’s eye of the listener. Studio recordings can have their own sonic profile, but there’s a certain neutrality to them. A field recording, even if it’s made in a home, you still get a sense of being there.”
In his essay, Knickerbocker recounts asking musician and ballad singer Ginny Hawker why she thinks people are attracted to old-time music. Hawker replies:
It’s close to the bone. It puts them in a place, and I think a lot of what they feel is that connection to a place. . . . If I were going to learn some other music from another completely different culture, I would want to go there, but if I couldn’t go there, I would want to hear somebody play that music who was very grounded in that place.
Music can be both an expression of connection to place and a reason for gathering in place: a double kind of common cause, a community repeatedly manifested in summer weekends in county...