Sunny, breezy and Saturday morning — at the end of the picnic table, Tony Pisano plays the first run of a dance tune from Quebec. Lightly and rapidly on piano accordion he leads into La Bastringue, and fiddles, mandolin, guitars, standing bass and bodhran come in around him.
I’m feeling for notes on tenor recorder. I know the tune, but it has been almost 10 years since I learned it at a fiddle jam in New Hampshire. The muscle memory comes back with the sly, teasing choruses. French Canadian music often feels like innuendo with a straight face and knowing eyes.
We move from tune to tune as one player or another fingers a few bars or calls out a name — Civil War marches, Southern reels, Irish jigs and ragtime. We seem to be playing for ourselves and the upside-down trees and the volunteers by the front door, but around the corner the line stretches to the gate. We are in the courtyard at Mass MoCA, ringed between the tables and the low brick wall around the restaurant patio, a local group waiting at the start of FreshGrass.
Mass MoCA’s annual bluegrass festival has been growing, year by year, and last weekend (Sept. 16 to 18) more than 50 musicians performed on three stages and in the galleries. The Saturday would bring young musicians from the Berklee School of Music, blues master Ruthie Foster, Celtic vocalist Aoife O’Donovan and classic folk from Old Crow Medicine Show and the Infamous Stringdusters.
This festival stretches the definition of bluegrass to invite contemporary musicians with traditional instruments, traditional tunes and rhythms and finger-picking sound, and original tunes and worldwide influences — the kinds of sounds and influences bluegrass has gathered in since its beginnings.
American folk music has grown across the last 500 years from people who lived here and listened and played together on the back steps. This summer I have talked with musicians about some of these influences — composer and viol da gamba Jordi Savall before his concert at Tanglewood and Craig Harris at the Great Barrington library traced the sounds of American Indian drum and melody and Spanish guitar evolving from the Middle East. And years ago professor Ernest Brown at Williams College showed me the movement of West African percussion, call-and-response and harmonies into spirituals and slave songs, blues and jazz — and the stringed instruments that evolved into the banjo.
This weekend brought them together. I was standing in line at the poetry booth — give us one word and we’ll give you two poems — when I heard the trumpets. And they drew me across the bridge to the central courtyard for the music I most wanted to hear.
When I wrote about FreshGrass for Berkshire Magazine, I had a chance to talk with Rana Santacruz. He describes his music as mariachi bluegrass. Born in Mexico City, he has lived for almost 15 years in Brooklyn, N.Y., and has formed a band there with banjo, bass, fiddle and percussion and his accordion chords.
He sang in Spanish, in a warm tenor that filled the old mill complex, and between the songs he told stories about them. A wolf called in the dark. A balladeer traveled around the villages singing to hapless women. A man and woman met in the garden in the Plaza de la Flor. A lover looked for the kind of small metal trinket sold in the market as a charm: St. Anthony to find something lost, a part of the body to heal an injury, or to make someone fall in love — a heart.
Around me people clapped the beat. A couple turned each other and spun in the few feet of open space by the state. Laughter was tangible in the air, and I was sitting up tall at the edge of my plastic chair, moving to the music and wanting to get up and dance, if the close-packed courtyard had had the room. Many of the tunes had a traditional beat, a fast contradance waltz or a polka, and it got me on my feet before the end.
When the set ended I walked away on a high to wander the food booths and try a black bean burger with golden onions from a locally sourced café in Keene, N.H. The cream for the coffee came in a glass bottle. “People ask, does it really come from the farm?” said the woman handing it to me — “Yes. It really does.”
I brought it into the small courtyard with the third stage and sat against a birch tree, looking down the flood chutes of the Hoosac River and listening to Bernice and Mariah Lewis singing “Normal’s Just a Setting on the Washing Machine.” They performed as the Ladies’ Auxiliary Ukulele Orchestra (along with bass player Dale Ott).
And then, as British folk-rock-electronic trio Lau took the main stage, I went looking again for poetry. A fiddle lifted on tune named for a bare nub of an island in northern Scotland and melded into tranced-out electronic sound shifting like waves. And at the poetry tent, people were still waiting in line.
Two women sat behind two colorful typewriters and a basket of bright scraps of paper — Maya Stein and Amy Tingle with the Creativity Caravan from Nutley, N.J. Cassandra Cleghorn, poet, senior lecturer in English at Williams College and associate editor for nonfiction at Tupelo Press in North Adams, joined them later on. Each person gave them a word, and the two poets would consider and feed a new sheet of paper into the typewriter and write in a staccato duet. Each one took time, and people were waiting willingly, even for half an hour and more.
I was thinking over the day, looking for a word to give them, and when my turn came I offered them counterpoint — in music, it means two melodies played together, not a main melody and a supporting harmony but two equal voices.
And this was another high point of the weekend. I came back the next day to hear Roseanne Cash sing ballads of the sunken lands in Arkansas and a young couple in the Civil War. And Brooklyn band M Shanghai were swinging new music with a frontier hope and sadness — we’re leaving Oklahoma — playing washboard and spoons with an informal glee that drew people into their courtyard in crowds.
But I will remember Amy and Maya reading their poems to me softly with Lau across the field. Amy smiled as she looked for balance before the scale tipped. Finding such softness / is the strangest test. And Maya looked from sound to silence and movement to stillness, something of the song still being sung.
Photo at the top: Spontaneous dancers join hands at FreshGrass. Photo courtesy of Mass MoCA