When the skies open, fiddler Eric Lee begins to play and sing —
Rain — I don’t mind.
Shine — the weather’s fine.
It’s a warm rain, rare in the Northeast, the kind that soaks to the skin. Around Eric on stage the band has picked up the song, and the crowd on the hillside is singing with him. People open their arms and close their eyes. A man passing by hands me a poncho, and I slide it on to keep my phone and notebook dry, leaving my head bare.
The rain passes too quickly, and as it lets up the band picks up the old Beatles theme with Here Comes the Sun and songwriter Heather Maloney comes in with the lead, looking up the words on the fly. Around me everyone is laughing.
Sonia Rutstein of Disappear Fear leads a sing-along to Imagine, and all of us drip-drying on the hillside join in — you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
I’m standing in a field in Hillsdale, N.Y., by the workshop stage at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, soaking in the warmth. It feels like years since it’s been here. It has been years since I’ve been here, and like the folk musicians I’m listening to, I feel at home.
I first learned about Falcon Ridge from Eric Buddington, a North Adams fiddler who played with me in the early days of Rude Cider, the Williams College contradance band. He used to camp here every year and volunteer to help set up, spinning the weekend festival into a week of music. Rude Cider grew out of college contradances and introduced me to a world of dancing and informal jams and learning music by ear. That world became home long ago.
So it seems characteristic of Falcon Ridge that within 15 minutes of walking up this hillside I ran into two of the first people who brought me into contradance, though we hadn’t seen each other for nearly 20 years.
In my first year of college, Jen Laundy and Jason Myers were leading the college marching band and talked me into joining it with a plastic soprano recorder. They are among the first and warmest people I knew in the Berkshires. And when I first walked into a college contradance to listen to music, they were dancing and got me out of a chair and off the wall to join them.
And here we were on a hillside in the blazing sun while Patty Larkin sang a tune inspired by Sand Hill Cranes migrating on the way to Nebraska on Saint Patrick’s Day.
Falcon Ridge is made to get people out of their lawn chairs. The many and informal and overlapping events make it easy to wade into something new. And though the main stage brings in well-recognized folk musicians from Narissa & Katryna Nields and Vance Gilbert to the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, I found myself drawn at least as much to what I didn’t know to expect — Louisiana Cajun fiddler Gina Forsyth rocking the main stage with a chorus of Saint Anthony Lost and Found; the Gaslight Tinkers playing a mashup of Irish reels and Trinidadian songs; Peter Mulvey talking about songwriting.
He recalled a conversation with friend reading E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime — Mulvey asked whether Houdini was still in the story, and that off-hand joke inspired one of the few songs he has ever written in one sitting. When he has gotten out of the habit of writing regularly, he said, once he starts again he has to burn through the underbrush to get to the bare heart of what he wants to say.
“That’s when things come to you whole,” he said.
That bareness and confidence filled the hot afternoon.
In the dance tent, the Gaslight Tinkers launched into a rocking high-speed Star of Munster — one of the first reels I ever learned to play — while Paul Rosenberg called an impromptu dance that sent couples helter-skelter around the floor, looking for other pairs to join. He called the room to switch partners on the fly, and when my new partner and I couldn’t find another couple we spun each other around in circles, laughing out loud. Spontaneous delight is the soul of contradance.
A tall woman in green with long silvery hair waltzed with me, as naturally graceful as I am not, and I concentrated on feeling the skimming rhythm in my bare feet.
And then I happened by the Workshop Stage again. The ASL sign language interpreter was signing casually to a companion in the front row, and as Eric began to speak between songs, she took up his words, and her expression and motion mirrored his feeling so beautifully, I found I was watching her as I listened. She amplified the music for me.
And then the rain began. Sonia was singing Leonard Cohen as the first drops fell, and every breath we drew was hallelujah. The accordion came in low, like an organ, and as the rain came in earnest she looked up with a long and gentle breath and said — “it’s ok.”
In the photo at the top: A songwriter performs informally among the booths at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, N.Y. Photo by Kate Abbott