Seven years ago, some friends in Pittsburgh invited me and my hack-banjo skills to a summer music festival in the hills of West Virginia, at a place called Clifftop, near New River Gorge, in the middle of the state. (This was before Dave Bernabo and I made Moundsville on PBS, which precipitated the creation of this blog.)
Clifftop, an annual participatory 10-day event formally known as the Appalachian String Band Music Festival, blew my mind. I had never been in a musical environment so welcoming and open. At first, I walked around with my banjo, timidly sitting down on the outside of jams, afraid to play, until friendly strangers told me that was a fine notion. By the end of the week, I was jamming aggressively, making mistakes, sinning bravely, and having the time of my life.
“The Appalachian air was warm, and the moon rose full over the hollows,” I wrote on Facebook at the time. “Brilliant, world-class fiddlers, and banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass players bounced around the tents, circling here and there twixt the pines. The jams, day and night, were inclusive, and the skilled musicians generous. I was touched.”
This year, I returned to Clifftop for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic, and wrote about it for the Daily Yonder, the excellent online magazine that covers rural America. I described the feeling of walking around Clifftop at night as “a sweet stereo sound bath of fiddle tunes spiced with bluegrass, cajun, and honky tonk, and country classics”.
I also paid tribute to my friend Fred Crouse, who died this year.
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.
I moved to Pittsburgh from Brussels in 2011, and one of the many journeys that move precipitated has been a musical one. I had never played an instrument before and, once settled in Western Pennsylvania, started playing the banjo. I invited friends to my house to play in a song circle.
In my 30s, by every indication tone-deaf, I took singing lessons, a journey I described in this audio essay. But that, still, is merely an individual fancy. What makes Clifftop so special is the communal enrichment of making music and culture together.
For the last years, my neighbors at Clifftop have been Brian and Barbara, a couple from North Carolina who string up a circus tent in the hollow of the campground and play Cajun music and invite parties. Every year, they host a vaudeville open-mic dubbed the No-Talent Show. (Disclosure: I often emcee.)
This communal inclusion, more and more precious at a time of alienation, is what makes Clifftop, and Appalachia and West Virginia’s musical traditions, so special.
They incarnate the loving spirit of the hills, and the cultural tradition of a place that isn’t afraid to let everybody participate.
Here, the people sing, and music is for everybody.
John W. Miller