Heaven, happy home above, Heaven, land of peace and love Oh, it makes me feel like traveling on . . .
The words came lilting up from the hollow behind backstage, through tall stands of hardwoods shrouded in mist.
It was the field pickers, still at it at 2 a.m., despite spitting rain and the long day spent playing and listening to the pros play at the Indian Springs bluegrass festival.
I was still awake because in my haste to get the guitar out and working I'd put off raising the tent till long after dark. Then I'd picked a rotten spot and when the gullies started to form I was in one.
One of the constants of Indian Springs is that it always rains.
Another is that it's inevitably the most friendly, well-organized and pleasant festivals hereabouts. Even the musicians like it. It's one of the few where they can count on getting paid with checks that don't bounce.
And they can expect not to have to put up with half-naked, doped-out kids boogieing in front of the stage, dogs running through the wiring, beer-drinkers growing loud and obnoxious and hippies clacking their spoons out of time with the music.
Indian Springs is upon us again. Bluegrass fans will be heading out for the KOA campgrounds just west of Hagerstown Friday night. They will look forward to three days of picking, camping, cooling dips in the muddy farm pond and hours upon hours of listening to the likes of Buck White and the Downhome Folks, Bill Clifton and Red Rector, Wilma Lee Cooper, the McPeak Brothers, the Country Gentlemen and the Country Gazette, fresh in from the West Coast.
A couple of months ago I was roaring down I-95 in Virginia and stopped for a pair of lady hitchhikers. They were muddy and burned-out from a weekend at the first festival of the year at Union Grove, N.C.
"Good festival?" I asked.
"Far out, man. We got so drunk we took a ride with some guys and ended up in Baltimore. We're still trying to get back to Lynchburg."
Union Grove is dead, wiped out by the drinkers and the wild-eyed dropouts looking for a Woodstock with roots. Through some serious and steadfast application of rules and regulations, Indian Springs lives on.
The founder and perpetuator is Pete Kuykendall, editor of the monthly magazine Bluegrass Unlimited and former banjo player with the Country Gentlemen. He has an Indian Springs ad in his own magazine this month, and there is a careful addendum:
"NO dogs; NO drugs; NO alcoholic beverages."
For those who like to sip a beer with their camp supper, it's not as bad as it sounds. According to Gary Henderson, local bluegrass lorist and helper at Indian Springs, the rule applies to the stage area specifically. "If a guy wants a beer at his campsite nobody's going to say anything."
But don't let him around the stage on Sunday morning when the gospel groups gather for one of the few religious ceremonies left that is genuinely moving.
I'm so glad it's real
To whom do we owe our thanks for bluegrass festivals? As luck would have it, to one of the participants at this year's Indian Springs. Bill Clifton invented festivals when he put the first one together in 1961 at Luray, Va. That's right, 1961.
While bluegrass owes much of its popularity to the fact that it sounds old, it really isn't. It's a meld of black blues and mountain folks' country music that came to be when Bill Monroe coined the name back in the late '40s.
If Monroe is the father of bluegrass, Clifton is something of the lord of the manor.
He's nearing 50 now, the hair is thin and his big smile crinkles the skin around his eyes. His clothes are British, high-styled pleated woolen trousers and belted jackets.
At first glance you'd take him for some of the things he's been. Ex-Marine officer, former stockbroker, for three years a Peace Corps official in Mindanao, the Philippines, holder of a masters degree in business from Virginia.He's the son of a successful stockbroker and the grandson of a tobacco scion and former U.S. ambassador to Belgium.
Clifton's tried all these things, but he always comes back to bluegrass. He's the bluegrass ambassador to Europe, operating out of the home he took in Forest Row, Sussex, 15 years ago.
All winter he tours Europe as a solo act, carrying the American music with him. That was all he wanted until five years ago, when Kuykendall asked him to come back to do Indian Springs. Each year since then his summer stay has lengthened, and now he does the complete circuit. He's thinking about moving back for good.
Since Clifton has never been fond of orchestrating bands, he generally takes his rousing baritone voice with him and lets local folks worry about backing him up. But this year he's organized a trio for the circuit with two other bluegrass legends - Don Stover on banjo and Red Rector on mandolin.
Stover's a West Virginian who made his mark in Boston, where he shared the stage seven days a week for 18 years at the Hillbilly Ranch next to the Trailways bus terminal. He backed up the Lilly Brothers, and stopped only when they retired.
Rector is from Knoxville, where he's been playing from 5 to 6 a.m. every day since 1959 on a local TV show. Live, that is.
"These guys are pros," said Clifton.
Indeed they are. Rector's lilting mandolin phrases are perfectly timed, ingenious. His tenor singing is on the mark. Stover's banjo playing is rock-solid and his corny jokes bring back days that will never be again.
Worldy attractions don't thrill me,
My soul stands a chance of relief. PICKIN' DATA
Indian Springs bluegrass festival runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday at KOA campgrounds, Indian Springs, Md. The Indian Springs exit is the third one west of Hagerstown on I-70, and the campgrounds are half a mile from there.
The fee is $12 for all three days, including camping site, or $7 for Sunday only. No one-day tickets Friday or Saturday, to keep folks from buying one-day passes and staying all weekend.
The highlight for me is the 10 a.m. gospel show on Sunday. Sacred music is bluegrass at its finest. Friday the stage show runs 7 to midnight or thereabouts; Saturday, 1 o'clock to midnight; Sunday 10 to 6.
The Fire Department has snack bars, but a sloppy joe diet gets old quick. Best to bring along a cooler and a charcoal grill.