And the merry love the fiddle

Fiddlers in the woods: Musicians, dancers and listeners Gather each year, with the idyllic scenery of the Warren Wilson College campus as the background. Photos courtesy of Jim Magill

For the good are always the merry
Save by an evil chance
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance …

— William Butler Yeats, “The Fiddler of Dooney”

The Swannanoa Gathering has lured its share of legends in its 20 years. The folk-art workshop series, held each summer on the campus of Warren Wilson College, has hosted Mike Seeger, David Holt and Fiona Ritchie, host of NPR’s Thistle & Shamrock.

This year’s instructor list includes folk musicians from all over the world, including fiddler Rayna Gellert, Irish guitar player John Doyle, Grammy winners Janis Ian and Kathy Mattea and folk divas Catie Curtis and Patty Larkin.

How does director Jim Magill secure such talent? It’s simple. “Really, I just ask them,” says Magill, who is also an instructor, performer and coordinator of Celtic Week at the Gathering. 

“If I can talk to the artists themselves, and tell them about the Gathering, they are usually very interested in participating. Depending on where the particular artist is in his or her career, they may be ready to give back to the music community. They may find a week in one place very appealing, they might love teaching, or they might love the idea of getting to spend a week jamming with their peers and contemporaries that they never get to see on the road.”

And, there’s a lot of repeat business. “It’s not hard to get an instructor to come back, once they’ve taught here,” Magill adds. The Gathering has earned a reputation over its two decades. Maybe in the beginning it was trickier to get folks to come out. But now, with its five summer weeks of jamming, instruction and performance, the Gathering isn’t a hard sell.

And so they did

The story goes like this, according to the Gathering’s catalog: “One day in late November, Doug Orr, the newly appointed president of Warren Wilson College, called up Jim Magill, an old folk music friend, and suggested they get together to discuss an idea Doug had. Over lunch, they brainstormed the rough outlines of a series of week-long workshops in various types of folk music and dance to be held in the summer on the Warren Wilson campus, to be called The Swannanoa Gathering.

Doug had recently received a Presidential Leadership Grant from the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation, which provided funds for one-time start-up programs, and some of those funds were designated for the Gathering. Jim would become the program’s director and report directly to the college president.”

And so they did. With support from the college, the Gathering has grown from its initial 93 participants to more than 1,200. Other music programs and concert series have fallen victim to budget cuts or low enrollment, but not so for the Gathering, which has a wait list this year.

The Gathering attracts all kinds of players and participants, young and old, traditional and progressive. Fiddle instructor Rayna Gellert is well-known in the local old-time community for her understated instrumental prowess. Gellert co-founded the all-female old-time/folk band Uncle Earl. Currently she’s working on her solo-project, partially recorded in town at Echo Mountain Studios, and appears on tour with Abigail Washburn, Scott Miller and Toubab Krewe.

Gellert carries her fiddle across many genres. She’ll teach traditional styles during Old Time Week. But she can also share the stage with rock bands, percussive jam bands and everything in between. Gellert has been involved with the Swannanoa Gathering for more than a decade, beginning when she was a college student at Warren Wilson. She speaks very highly of Old Time Week’s coordinator, Phil Jamison, explaining how he encouraged her to get involved with the Gathering and helped her discover a love of teaching fiddle. When asked what makes the Swannanoa Gathering such a special event and what about it keeps her involved she said, quite simply, “the people.”

Talking to participants and staff (and even the feel of the website, with its stories of what the participants have been up to since last year), is that of a family get-together — a week of visiting, connecting, learning, catching up and, of course, playing and listening to music.
      There is an emphasis on Appalachian roots and Scots/Irish heritage, but the workshops gather all sorts of traditional music. This year brings a presentation on Indian santoor music by Nandkishor Muley, as well as instructor Patrick Landenza teaching ki ho’alu, Hawaiian slack-key guitar and traditional blues instruction by Rev. Robert and Bernice Jones.

“This beautiful valley and this unique college have provided an environment where magic can happen, and year after year it does, as friends old and new gather, mingle and share the music they love,” Magill writes in the Gathering’s 20-year retrospective. “Most importantly, our folk traditions have been nourished, strengthened and passed on to new generations of musicians and dancers.”

— Stacy Claude is a local musician, freelance writer and author of Asheville Roots Music Review at avlrootsreview.blogspot.com.

what: The Swannanoa Gathering
where: Venues on the Warren Wilson College campus
when: Through August 6. Full schedule at swangathering.com.

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