THE 6TH ANNUAL North American Jew's Harp Festival was the first I was able to attend, so I'm not going to be able to make comparisons (biggest? best? twangiest?), just to report on what I observed, like an anthropologist dropped into the middle of some exotic culture.
The Festival occupied the weekend of August 15th to 17th, 1997. In the Eagle Valley Grange Park, on the edge of Richland, Oregon, the organizers have found a perfect place for the Festival, with shady places all around the perimeter for camping, plenty of space in the middle for parking, a food booth, and a great performing place--stage plus a substantial shed open at the sides to every breeze.
Jew's Harp Guild Executive Director Janet Gohring and husband Bill were everywhere. I suspect that they had had themselves cloned for the Festival, but I never actually saw two Bills or two Janets in one place at the same time. In their turn on stage they provided one of my favorite spots in the whole Feetival--their revival of the classic 1930 recording of "Jew's Harp Bill," with Janet on piano and vocal, and the 1997 reincarnation of Bill on harp.
Numerous others contributed to setting up and running the Festival. The sound was in the expert hands of Dan Gossi and Mark Poss. They recorded more than enough public-domain material on multiple-track digital tape to make up a CD, and hope to be able to issue one. Wayland Harman was equally indispensable as the M.C.
The amount of music making was incredible. The stage was occupied continuously on Friday and Saturday from 10:00 a.m. till late in the night, and for some hours on Sunday as well.
The most notable revelation that I received was of the depth and excellence of the Northwest school of Jew's harp playing. It's pretty safe to say that there is no other part of the country that has such a concentration of fine players. Were these people always there, just brought out of hiding by the Festival, or did the Festival generate them? Don't ask me. In any case, the number of very competent players is large, and there are among them some world-class virtuosos. Comparisons are odious, for which reason I won't name any names. Well, one that I was really impressed with--John Gossi. The 1997 Festival was John's third; he joined in the jammin' with aplomb and great competence. Oh--I didn't mention that he's eleven years old.
Actually taking part in the jammin' was a new experiebce for me. I had previously known how to do it only in theory. In all, I suppose I spent three hours at it. For someone like me, who mostly doesn't know the country repertory, the Jew's harp is the perfect instrument to play. They tell you what the key is, you get out your harp in that key, and it seems to sort of magically absorb the harmonies, even when you don't know what they're going to be. It's probably a bit better, though, when the harp's melody agrees with the changes of the piece's harmony.
I had the pleasure of organizing and directing (if that's the word with a composition where everybody's more or less on his/her own) the world premiere of Alex Lubet's Grand Heroic Universal Symphony Number 9 ("The Trump Triumphant"), with 17 Jew's harpists, two bull-roarerists, and a didjeridooist.
Another highlight for me was the Band Scramble. All the registered players of whatever instrument were divided (at random?) into six groups of around 8 or 9 each. On Saturday each of these bands rehearsed a bit, and then did its thing during an hour set aside in the evening. I said I'd avoid comparisons, but since my contribution to it was minimal, I'll admit that the band I was in, the Eagle Creek Gully Jumpers, was the best. We wowed 'em with dynamite versions of "Chatanooga Shoeshine Boy" and "The Crawdad Song."
And so much more! Workshops galore, stuff for sale (Lois bought a Clackamore and enough T-shirts to clothe all our family out to third cousins; my prizes were two fine new Gohring Jew's harps in unique rustic wooden cases, and four kubings).
I'm going to be nasty now, and expose the Festival's dirty little secret. The official rule is that every public performance must include at least one participant on Jew's harp. But the fact is that from time to time, someone would start off a sesssion with no harpist! I don't really mean this as criticism, just as another demonstration that our noblest ideals are hard to live up to in the real world.
It was a real pleasure to see old friends (2--Gordon Frazier and Larry Hanks), to meet people I had known only by correspondence or as subscribers to VIM (many, including Jules DeGiulio, the Gohrings, Mark Wetzel the wizard of the wheelie, and the memorable, delightful Velma Bilyeu), and a passel of remarkable folks that I hadn't known at all, or only from such places as Pluck and the Internet. My universal observation was strongly confirmed--that Jew's harpists are remarkable people in every way--warm, smart, talented, the choicest people imaginable to have as friends. What's cause and effect here? Most likely all those vibrations passing through your jaws and skull have highly beneficial effects on your brain.
Next year, Lois and I will be putting all our resources (a polite word meaning "money") into going to the International Jew's Harp Congress in Molln, but in 1999 I expect to be back at Richland if not yet too old and decrepit.