Thursday, September 25, 2008

Letter To An Old Friend

Dear Michael,

So great to talk to you recently, and I can't thank you enough for hosting my son on his journey to San Francisco. You asked about Winfield, and, as is my habit, I got pretty carried away with the answer. But then, we have over thirty years of catching up to do.

That little festival that we saw arise from the turmoil of the sixties has grown almost immeasurably since you left the land of sunflowers and catfish and ventured off to leave your mark on the world. Even I, living forty miles away, for many years have given way to the exigencies of raising a family and maintaining a business that required my full attentions in late September . I wasn't among the faithful when the campgrounds fell silent as the towers fell in New York in 2001, nor was I there to cheer the performers who rented cars to dash across the country under silent skies to their beloved Winfield. I was also absent during the sad and tragic death of Brian Redford in 1997, which brought the festival staff to it's collective knees in grief and put the future of our festival in serious doubt. But, I had gathered my musical wits about me recently and can now bear witness to the great flood of 2008, which turns out to not be so much about water and mud, but about the very part of our soul which makes this such a central part of our life. That one week camped at Winfield Lake showed us, in great relief, exactly why we go year after year - decade after decade - not for John McCutcheon or Tommy Emmanuel, as great as they are, not for Marley's Ghost or Hot Rize. We go for only one thing - ourselves - our community. Sure, Doc Watson and John Hartford brought us together in the beginning, along with Bromberg, Crary, the Blakes and all the rest, but it was a true community that was built up around this collective tradition of a music that heals the body and the mind, in much the same way a prosperous town would be built up around a sweet and steady flowing spring.

I shared some wine with some young folks from Valley Center just before I left on Sunday. They have yet to discover the music of John Hartford or even Doc Watson. Will they someday? Quite possibly. Will it matter if they don't? I don't think so. The Fast Food Junkies or Truckstop Honeymoon or the Bennett Brothers may be all they need. I know those folks were there the night before when Craig Dermer and Cody Bennett stepped into the middle of that field of Bluestem and played some of the most raucously sublime music that I have ever witnessed in all my years on this planet - it profoundly changed me and how music works in my aged brain - I can't imagine what kind of path it must have started them on. What's funny is that I had a complete field recording unit a few feet away in my tent - and right now I'd love to have the recording so I could learn the songs - but at that moment I could not do anything but be IN that moment - to exist only within that miracle of human spirit and song that is our reward for all the struggles of the rest of the year. As our fellow travelers stumbled in, drawn in like bees by the pure sound of molten honey, my companion and I sat at our dinner table and witnessed the beating heart of our musical heritage, passed down from fiddle to bow, father to son, friend to stranger, tramped across broken sod and frozen mountains, carried on backs through floods of great pain and great loss, packed in boxes and rucksacks across oceans when our homes could no longer hold us, and down strange and forbidding rivers as we searched for new ones.

This music needs no stage, no microphones, no sound board, no producer, no road manager. All it requires is an open space of Little Bluestem, a moon rising over a Kansas lake, and a few musicians with a story to tell. I wish you had been there, Michael, to see what you and Stu and all the others got started so long ago. I'm betting that that highfalutin' newspaper you write for will let you off for a few days next September, if you ask early enough, and I'll commit right now to finding you a tent and some sleeping bags. Pull that dulcimer out of the closet, I know you've still got it. Go back and read " Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me" again if you have to. Do whatever you've got to do to get your sorry Okie-to-Oakland ass back here where it belongs. In Kansas. In September. In Winfield.

Sweet dreams,


P.S. The photograph is by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee, from his amazing collection at



Craig said...

Hi Tom,

Thanks for the kind words re; the jam me and the Bennet brothers had in your 'front yard' in the bluestem. It was for me hands down the highlight of the weekend to get to sing and play with those guys again. I still get all goose bumply when I think about it, and reading your eloquent description just doubled the goose bumps on top of each other. I also appreciated how well you've expressed everything I love about Winfield. I readily agree with your insight and comments about our 3rd weekend in September community.

Thanks again,
Craig Dermer,
Portland Oregon

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