The rough melodies of an impromptu jam session with a fiddler, guitarists and a banjo player proved the perfect companions to the late February sunshine outside the Old Capitol Building across from Sylvester Park late Friday afternoon.
Old-time musicians, steeped in the traditional songcraft of Appalachian folk music heard in square dances, have come to Olympia from far and wide for the Oly Old-Time Festival, which started Thursday and runs through Sunday.
The festival includes workshops at which musicians and music fans can learn how to play the washboard or be a square-dance caller. The afternoon workshops are held in the Urban Onion Ballroom across from Sylvester Park downtown and at the First Christian Church on nearby Franklin Street.
Tonight, musicians and dancers will get together for square dances with live music in the Urban Onion ballroom, said Emily Teachout, one of the co-founders of the festival.
Teachout said the festival, now in its fifth year, keeps growing as traditional Appalachian folk music and square dances grow in popularity, particularly among young people.
On the sidewalk across from where the jam session sprang up Friday afternoon, two musicians from Alaska — one carrying his fiddle, the other a banjo — caught up on old times.
Tom Paul, of Juneau, Alaska, said he knows Katya Kirsch from the Alaska old-time music scene, but he didn’t know that she’d be here in Olympia for the festival.
“There’s not a lot of old-time musicians in this part of the country,” he said. “So we generally run into each other.”
When asked what brought him to the fesitval, Paul said, “a friend of mine from Seattle told me I should check it out,” he said. “I met about eight people in Olympia last night.”
Kirsch, who lives in Alaska and Port Townsend, said the festival is a good size, intimate enough so that musicians can join up and play together and make new friends. “It’s a young festival, and that’s good,” she said.
When asked what she was going to do Friday night, Kirsch answered, “I’m going to go to the concert and jam and sing.”
Inside the Urban Onion, Kelsey Nelson, 27, relaxed Friday afternoon with a group of friends who all drove up to the festival from Portland. Earlier, Nelson had participated in a square dance calling workshop run by Fred Park, who came from North Carolina and is considered one of the experts of his craft.
Said Nelson, “A lot of my friends play in the old-time music scene in Portland, and I have some friends here.” Nelson said she and a group of friends go to square dances once a week in Portland.
Nelson said she appreciates the history and the culture of old-time music. “It’s the oldest form of storytelling,” she said. And one of the great things about square dancing is that anybody can do it, she said.
“Square dancing especially, you don’t have to know how to dance at all,” she said. “It’s super accessible.”
Other workshops Friday included a basketweaving class — it took about two hours for participants to make a berry-picking basket — and instruction in how to play rhythm on a washboard.
Outside the Urban Onion, John Hatton had a table set up where he was selling books, CDs and instruments, including vintage ukuleles, mandolins and guitars. During Park’s square-dance calling class, he told the attendees, “This is secret knowledge. You can talk about this with each other, but you don’t tell the dancers.”
Teachout said Park will call a square dance for a “big dance” and concert in the Olympia Ballroom Saturday night. She called Park a “master square-dance caller and storyteller.”
“His dances are really unique, and really fun,” Teachout added. “He always creates magic.”
As Teachout spoke outside the Urban Onion Ballroom, another group of jamming musicians seated in a semicircle provided soothing musical accompaniment. Teachout said having musicians meet up and play together is what the festival is all about.
“They meet up at events like this and say, hey, we know we have some songs in common, so let’s sit down and play,” Teachout said.