Music : Chilmark musicale, where everybody joins in
One of the most frequently praised aspects of Vineyard living is the strong sense of community here, and on Saturday night that was demonstrated with force. A crowd of close to 100 showed up at the Chilmark Community Center for an old-fashioned musicale.
Warren and Nan Doty hosted the evening that was entirely dedicated to music, with the emphasis on participation. There was little distinction between audience and performers. Everyone joined in. Ms. Doty stressed that the evening was not a concert but a "slow jam" where musicians of all levels could participate, and there was no need to be familiar with the music or the other performers.
Mr. Doty, who has played the banjo for more than 30 years, explained, "You pick an easy tune, start playing at a very slow tempo and announce the key and help new players get the key changes right. You do that for about three or four minutes and then pick it up to performance tempo and have a hot time."
Musicians were invited to bring an instrument and join in the jam, while others were encouraged to sing or keep the beat with egg-shaped shakers or rhythm sticks that the Doty's daughter, Laura, distributed. A core group was warming up as the room slowly started to fill up. Musicians with a variety of stringed instruments joined the semi-circle of performers. Non-musicians pulled up chairs to complete the circle, which in some places was three or four deep.
A variety of instruments lent their unique sounds to the mix. Along with a number of banjos, guitars, and fiddles, there was an upright bass, a dulcimer, some ukuleles, a mandolin and an unusual conglomeration - a harp guitar. Laura added the sweet notes of a flute to some of the numbers and Fred Hotchkiss played a large woodwind called a bass recorder.
Mr. Doty commented on his inspiration for the evening, saying, "This summer I spent quite a bit of time in the Blue Ridge Mountains with musicians. There's this welcoming come-and-enjoy spirit that I got in North Carolina and I tried to make it happen here." While attending a program at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, Mr. Doty connected with four musicians from Iowa and they formed a group that played at a contra dance down there. The Dotys maintained a friendship with the two Iowa couples and invited them to the Vineyard for the event. Along with Mr. Doty, they made up the core of the musicale.
The Iowans have played together for a number of years and, as a group with no name, they play informally for weddings and parties. Bettie Swartz is a master fiddler who was the Iowa State Fair grand champion fiddler last year. Her partner, Dan Pease, plays an assortment of guitars, including the unusual 1918 Dyer Brothers harp guitar. The unique instrument looks exactly as you might imagine - a standard guitar with a harp-shaped extension on the top. Leon Johnson is a multi-instrumentalist who is equally adept at the banjo, fiddle, and guitar, while his wife, Judy Johnson, makes an impressive presence as she plucks a large upright bass, which she refers to as a doghouse bass.
The music of the evening was primarily old-time music - American folk music with roots in the British Isles. Some tunes, like "Oh, Them Golden Slippers" and "Hard Times," were familiar, others like the Hobo's Lullaby were charming surprises. Not every song was played as a slow jam. There were lively performances of a number of tunes led by Mr. Doty, the Iowa visitors and Vineyard musicians, the Flying Elbows and Tristan Israel.
Mr. Doty also led a number of sing-alongs, some non-instrumental and some with accompaniment. A highlight was the haunting "Deep Blue Sea," performed a cappella. Mr. Doty sang the verses in his strong mellifluous voice and the entire crowd joined in on the simple melody. By the end of the song, sopranos, tenors, and basses had perfected their parts as if the group had rehearsed the song, and the hall was filled with the sweet sounds of dozens of voices harmonizing beautifully.
There were two sets with a break for folks to enjoy a dessert potluck and some socializing. Each set ended with a lovely waltz. By the second set the impromptu group had hit its stride and novice musicians had gained confidence. The crowd had also become more animated and the large group of friends and strangers had cohered into a musical unit.
As some of the slow jam songs progressed, the mood of the crowd was palpably in sync. A sense of quiet contentment prevailed as the crowd relaxed to the sweet strains of the strings and got into the groove along with the musicians. By the rollicking finale, the atmosphere had built to a joyous foot-stomping fervor. A few yee-haws could be heard after some of the livelier tunes.
Tristan Israel, a Tisbury selectman, has fond memories of growing up with hootenannies and sing-alongs as a part of his life. "This is something that I think is missing today," he said. "It brings people really close together. This wasn't a performance. It was more of a community event. Everyone participated. At a performance you're more detached from it. The good thing about this is - it's alive."
Nancy Jephcote of the Flying Elbows said, "I didn't move to the Vineyard for the ocean or the landscape. I actually came because I like the community and its values. They're not leaving it to the experts for the arts, they're just doing it."
Gwyn McCallister, of Oak Bluffs, is a frequent contributor to The Times.