One of many jams at this years' festival. (Photo by John W. Miller)

One of rural America’s sweetest traditions, the informal music jam, is back this summer after getting frozen by Covid in 2020 and 2021.

As I once chronicled for the Wall Street Journal, banjo, guitar, fiddler, mandolin, and bass players jam in parking lots and gas stations, on porches, and playgrounds. It’s how culture and music have developed in rural America, away from the canned, stale, standardized culture we clicked for on screens during Covid.

The jam is where amateurs play for fun, pros try out new material, and culture ferments. It’s been around for a while. As John Steinbeck wrote in The Grapes of Wrath: “And perhaps a man brought out his guitar to the front of his tent. And he sat on a box to play, and everyone in the camp moved slowly in toward him, drawn toward him.”

I am a hack banjo player, whose only experience playing any music at all is jamming with other amateurs. Eager to resuscitate my habit after the pandemic, this month I drove down to Clifftop, West Virginia, to spend a week at the Appalachian String Band Music Festival, at Camp Washington-Carver, three hours south of my home in Pittsburgh. The camp, named after George Washington-Carver and Booker T. Washington, was built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration as a summer camp for African-Americans.

Clifftop, as the festival is informally called, was suspended in 2020 and 2021. Attendance was down this year, a bit below half the 3,000 to 4,000 who usually attend. I’ve been one of those since 2014, and it’s become one of my favorite things to do in the world. There are others like it, in Mount Airy, North Carolina Carolina, and Galax, Virginia, among others. I only go to Clifftop, which has one outdoor stage, where it hosts contests for specific instruments and bands, but that’s a sideshow. At heart, it is a participatory festival. People go to play, not watch. The camp is hilly and woody. And when you walk its pebbled paths amidst the pines, oaks, and willows, the effect is a sweet stereo sound bath of fiddle tunes spiced with bluegrass, cajun, and honky tonk, and country classics.

Almost all the music is classified as old-time, which is the traditional music of Appalachia. The songs are simple dance tunes, 30 to 45-second melodies repeated several times in a loop, with names that hearken back to America’s wild past, like Cumberland Gap, Cherokee Shuffle, and Barlow Knife.

I grew up in Brussels, where my dad played piano at the opera house, in a world firmly divided between people who played and people who watched. Although I was surrounded by music and loved it, I only started playing an instrument myself when I moved to Pittsburgh in 2011. The banjo and old-time appealed to me because, in its welcoming of beginners and participatory ethos, it made the statement that music is for everybody, even me. 

Each day of wandering around Clifftop with my banjo brings fresh miracles. A teenage girl playing fiddle with a parrot on her shoulder. Two men jamming while wearing horse heads. A jam which includes a small pipe organ sitting on the grass. Teens jamming with seniors they just met. There are jams at 4 p.m. and jams at 4 a.m. There is simply music everywhere all the time, under the stars. Clifftop breaks down boundaries. If she’s camped out next to you, the best fiddle player in the world might offer to play a tune. It’s like if you showed up to a basketball court and Lebron James wanted to play one-on-one.

“Look at those young guys go,” said Keith McManus, a fiddle player and headliner of one of the original bands invited to the first Clifftop in 1989, as we watched teenagers pounding out an old-time tune called Red Prairie Dawn. It was 3 a.m., and it felt like a rave. “But to be serious, this is how culture happens,” McManus told me. “The young generation takes the old stuff, and makes it their own.”

In my mind, this wild musical culture is one of rural America’s treasures.

It’s also part of a fermentation process that is at the heart of pop music. The country music business started in the 1920s, when New York City producers traveled south to record informal musicians like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter family.

One regular attendee is a North Carolina banjo player named Joe Troop. This year, Troop brought Larry Bellorin, a harp player from Venezuela who’s immigrated to North Carolina. Bellorin is a virtuoso and his duets with Troop were a hit and brought a different kind of sound to mash together with old-time music.

Troop is now a friend, as are hundreds of others I’ve met at Clifftop, under the stars, bathed in tunes, including a recovered heroin addict-turned-Methodist preacher, a 79-year-old who cooks steak dinner for 50 people, and a band of wild Louisville musicians I’ve camped besides for years.

One of my best friends was a Baltimore eccentric named Fred Crouse, who flew an Orioles flag and a goofy banner that said something like “Maryland’s 54th Irregulars.” Fred and I and a few others used to go on short day trips every year, in Fred’s Crown Vic. We visited old railway stations and local tourist traps. One year, we made a pilgrimage to the place where Hank Williams died of a heart attack in the back of a blue Cadillac in Oak Hill, West Virginia. We touched the monument and sang “Jambalaya”.

Fred had a weak heart, and this June, he followed Hank to heaven. On my last night at Clifftop, I took a stroll and thanked the universe for the return of music jams, I gazed at the stars piercing the dark mountain night, and thought about Fred. I knew him only in this one setting, as a fellow amateur banjo nut who found joy in playing music for fun. 

The food of love can’t stave off death, but it brought us and thousands of others together, singing and strumming and dancing into the night, keeping hearts on the sunny side in this vale of tears. 

John W. Miller is a Pittsburgh-based former Wall Street Journal reporter and co-director of the PBS film Moundsville

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