It takes a community to keep a tradition alive- and only a generation to lose it. As Ray Bradbury said, “You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” The same is true with music. With the advent of the internet, recordkeeping of cultural and artistic mediums has become exponentially easier, yet without direct engagement, some of these mediums are fading into the vague shadows of history. Such is true with Old-Time music. Without passing on the tunes, learning the dances, or even just having a public platform to share the traditions, Old-Time music faces the challenge of being passed down, not as a footnote of music history, but in young people’s hearts and in their blood.
Fortunately, opportunities to experience this part of our culture still exist, including in the heart of Colorado’s Front Range. Just recently, hundreds of people flocked to the festival put on by the Central Rockies Old-Time Music Association (CROMA). Tucked away in the hills outside of Berthoud, Colorado, the festival is hosted at Parrish Ranch. Originally established more than half a century ago for people from across the country to learn and practice square and folk dances, the property is an Old-Time paradise now, complete with a dance hall, a dining room for workshops, a beach, and even an open-air kitchenette for tent campers.
What’s notable about Old-Time (including this particular festival) is how community-oriented the culture is. In addition to a festival-wide potluck, three nights of barn dances, and even a pancake breakfast on the last day of the festival, CROMA offers diverse workshops for people to learn something new. Rina Rossi, the bass player for The Bootlickers, and the caller for the Thursday night barn dance, noted the impact of these opportunities: “I think what makes it so different from other festivals is that you can learn how to participate through workshops, and that’s what gets people to come back: because they’re engaged.”
Workshops are not just limited to people new to Old-Time dancing and playing. Sammy Lind, fiddler and banjo player for Foghorn Stringband, approaches workshops in a way to help veteran players augment what they already know and do. “Playing the music so much, I hear things that are common struggles for people, and I like to share ways I’ve found my way out of them. I still consider myself to be a student, and I was really, really serious about it when I did start to learn it at 18 [years old],” he said.
In addition to these formally organized activities and performances, a major part of the festival is the jam scene. The tunes started early in the morning and lasted well past the sun coming up the following day, and they were even joined (and initiated) by the performing artists. As Lind put it, “The festival is made for people to just hang out together in different jams, and it kept happening for us. I got up to get coffee and I ended up jamming, and when I was going to pack up and take a nap, I ended up in another jam, and [that’s] just how it happened all day until I went to bed around two in the morning”. The intimate size of the festival certainly makes it conducive for artists and attendees to sit interspersed in the same circles, blurring the lines of a typical festival’s artist-versus-ticket-buyer distinction. For me, it was both humbling and an honor to sit in with artists I admire so much, and for them to be so casual and welcoming for anyone to join. I truly felt like part of a community at CROMA.
Some worry that Old-Time is struggling to survive, but Rina, who got involved with the Old-Time community in her college years, offered her take: “Nationally it seems like there’s a really healthy age demographic where there’s lots of 20 and 30 somethings, and every age group is represented, but it seems like in different localities it varies. Some people will say, ‘We don’t really have a lot of people who are younger in our scene’, but up in Minneapolis we really do have a lot of young people coming in,” she said. As long as opportunities like the CROMA festival exist to continue fostering a sense of community for all ages, Old-Time will endure the passage of time.
To learn more about Colorado Old-Time jams, community barn dances, upcoming festivals, and how you can support the Central Rockies Old-Time Association (nonprofit), visit the CROMA website.
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All photos per the author. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.