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NGI Recipient: Micah Walter

Session Attended: Country Dance and Song Society - Harmony of Song and Dance (2018)

It’s been just over a week since I left camp, and it feels at the same time as if it’s been forever and as if the experience is still with me. It was such a pleasure to enter into the space of Pinewoods, and I’d like to think that I’ve taken some of that back with me.

When I came to Pinewoods, I knew I was entering a special world; it wasn’t just a place where there was amazing English and American dancing (though it was), or where talented and generous players shared their music with the campers (though it was that too). Here was a whole community, a culture. Some people found their home here and returned year after year. Others, like me, were experiencing it for the first time, but I could still feel the sum total of special experiences that had taken place on these campgrounds. The swimming at Long Pond, the gathering every evening, the nightly dance in C?—all of these helped me feel that what I joining was larger than the sum of its parts, more so than any evening dance or weekend festival had done in the past.

One of the most special of these experiences for me happened during the evening dance (I believe it was on Thursday, but the days all blurred together!) when we were forming square sets, ready for a rollicking American dance. All of a sudden, the caller fell silent, and a hush spread across the floor. I made my way to the pavilion’s edge to hear the soft tones of a fiddle and a group of dancers in the woods. “Abbots Bromley,” I overheard someone say. I had never heard of the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, and it seemed to me that it was the Fair Folk coming from the woods, just happening across our pavilion as they danced according to their wont—as if they were checking on us and glad to see us following in their footsteps—before going their own way.

Of course, now that I know that Abbots Bromley has a historical tradition, I appreciate it in a different sense too. It makes me glad to know that the tradition of dance instruction at Pinewoods dates back to 1933, and that it connects so strongly with even more long-standing folk practices.

Earlier in the week, I had been jamming after the dance (discovering that I could play keyboard, passably, with other people!) and took a break to listen and watch. Another camper started to play Money Musk; instantly a line formed, and happy faces moved up and down in balancing lines to the music. On Thursday, I experienced the joys of getting to dance Money Musk for the first time, and in a minute’s time I felt I finally became integrated into the metaphorical smiling set. The old-fashioned ways are important for helping us understand our traditions—but they’re also fun!

What I learned from the expertise of others was an important part of my Pinewoods experience. But I also learned how I can share my own knowledge and expertise with the rest of the community. I am an active Sacred Harp singer, so I was pleased to see that there would be shape-note singing on the porch after lunch each day. I was looking forward to it as a sort of “comfort food” after all the less familiar forms of music-making I would be engaging with over the course of the week.

As it turned out, there was only one other camper who was an active participant in the Sacred Harp community; many others were curious, or had sung other types of music, or had heard about shape-note singing, or had sung a few songs from The Sacred Harp in other contexts. I volunteered to pitch or key for the singing. The first day, things were a bit tense for me: I was figuring out how I might appreciate other peoples’ background while sharing my own, and (more concretely) we weren’t sitting in a hollow square— we weren’t facing each other.

On subsequent days, however, we began to form a square and face ourselves, negotiating our shared space more explicitly, and by the end of the week I was thoroughly enjoying myself and feeling genuinely comfortable. “That’s a nice one!” a singer would comment after we’d sung a particularly enjoyable tune that’s less familiar outside dedicated Sacred Harp contexts, and it pleased me to know that people were able both to sing the familiar and to learn the unfamiliar. At mealtimes towards the end of the week, several campers expressed appreciation for helping to lead the shape-note singing, and knowing this has made me feel more at home with the Pinewoods community and the folk community at large.

Playing (and calling!) on Campers’ Night was similarly a thrill. I’ve played fiddle for most of my life, but only once before for a community dance. I loved being able to participate so fully in the culture of music and dance here, a culture whose presence I had felt so strongly earlier during the week. Afterwards I spent quite a bit of time in the bookstore, looking for resources that would continue to inspire me to put my energy into folk music, making sure that I continue to connect with others through it.

I could enumerate yet more details of things I learned and joys I experienced with campers and staff alike, but it is really the big picture that has made the strongest impression. I’m reminded—in a way that I’ve never quite felt before—that folk singers and dancers are a community. Pinewoods is a place I want to come back to, and maybe even more importantly I’ve learned that these are people that I want to know better and come back to.

I would like to express deep thanks to CDSS and the New Generation Initiative for making it possible for me to go to Pinewoods: it just may have been a life-changing experience.