In a Sow’s Ear 6-21-10
June 21, 2010
Travel on Montana Highway 89 southward from Great Falls or northward from Interstate 90 near Livingston, and you will find yourself in the Little Belt Mountains. The road swoops and curves like a skinny blacktop ribbon between tall stands of pine and edges past Monarch, Mont. Blink and you’ve missed it.
Monarch – current population just shy of a couple hundred souls – is located at the junction where two gulches join Belt Creek. The village was once a prosperous gold-mining town. There’s still gold in Monarch – gold of the joyful kind. Gold to make the spirit tremble with pleasure. Gold at the end of the rainbow. It goes by the name of Montana Old Time Fiddlers Camp held annually for two weeks in June.
Feeling a bit like a greenhorn venturing into foreign territory, I took fiddle in hand and signed on for a one-week hitch. Each day started with breakfast in the lodge followed by group classes in the string instrument of your choice – fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo, cello – at all levels of ability. I was in the beginners’ bunch which will likely be my niche for the rest of my time on the top side of the grass.
Students came in all ages and sizes (the under 17-age youngsters herded around by relatives or chaperones). Music resonated everywhere. Musical terms flew around the camp like a convention of chattering magpies. For five days, conversations contained words like “progression,” “chords,” “tunes,” “minor chords,” “circle of 5ths,” “tuning,” “vibrato,” “bowing,” “tablature,” “key of A,” “Key of D” on and on … ad infinitum. “Low finger, third finger, second finger” – these are not descriptions of rude gestures, but a teaching method to indicate where you put your fingers on the fiddle strings.
Each day, after a full schedule of group classes and workshops, the evenings focused on concerts given by the professional instructor-musicians. Rafters rang and pine trees swayed to the beat of musical styles from all parts of the States, Canada, Scotland and passing planets. Did that end the day? Certainly not. A dance followed – dance music played by instructors and any student who wanted to sit in.
To keep the Camp afloat and prospering, the Fred and Jeanne Buckley family – originators of the camp and chief ramrodders – depend partly on volunteer help, plus doing much of the work themselves. Jeanne operates the kitchen; she and her staff produce three squares a day and several hundred cookies for afternoon “cookie break.”
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Fred uses a bicycle to dash around Paul Revere style from location to location which can be in a building, on a porch, around the outdoor fire pit (in sunny weather) or in a tent.
A major fund-raiser for the camp’s operating expenses is the Wednesday night auction. Besides a generous number of outstanding items from businesses and individuals, there’s donated “services.” Such as offering a “wake-up” serenade. The buyer can deem whomever he chooses – friend or enemy – as recipient of a serenade from a fiddle or other instrument (perchance a trumpet at four in the morning?)
A particularly auspicious donation turned out to be somebody’s beard. Which is to say that Tex (not his real name) sported a neatly trimmed, but lush chinful of handsome black beard. Tex had volunteered to have the winning bidder’s initials shaved in his (Tex’s) facial hair. And the bidder, as well as anyone interested in seeing hair fall off, could watch the shaving process as well as make helpful(?) comments. Plus Tex had to wear the furrows in the follicles for the entire following week’s camp.
A top auction moment occurred when one instructor suggested “Send a Kid To Camp.” The audience responded by pitching in 20 dollar bills till the cost was covered. To obtain applications for the scholarship, please contact Fred Buckley, Camp Director, 319 Old Divide Road, Roundup, Mont., 59072.
Sadly, I am “youth challenged” which makes me ineligible for the above mentioned scholarship, but I’ve started saving for next year’s go-round. If the creek don’t rise and I don’t croak, I plan to show up, fiddle at the ready. Maybe by then I’ll have mastered that basic fiddle tune: “Old Joe Clark.” And maybe not. In any case I’m going for the gold in Monarch next June.
P.S. Tex’s beard-shaving brought in a satisfying potload of money. Apparently suffering sells.