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Upper Potomac Fiddle Retreat celebrates traditional music, dance

By Staff | Jan 18, 2019

Community members join in a contra dance, accompanied by musicians from the Upper Potomac Fiddle Retreat in the War Memorial Building on Jan. 5. Courtesy photo

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Every winter, Shepherdstown Music and Dance and the Upper Potomac Music Weekend organization host a music weekend dedicated to fiddle music.

Held this year from Jan. 4-6, the weekend drew attendees from around the Eastern Panhandle and country, according to Director Joanie Blanton.

“People driving across the country have seen it online, and attended,” Blanton said. “We’ve had people come from England and Germany and Scotland and Japan to attend the weekends, as well as all over the United States. But most of the students who come live in a 200-mile radius of Shepherdstown.”

The Upper Potomac Fiddle Retreat features many important names in the traditional music world, and this year’s retreat was no different. Workshops were taught by Irish fiddler Joe DeZarn, Old Time fiddler Rachel Eddy, Quebecois fiddler Pascal Gemme, Scottish and Irish fiddler Sean Heely, New England and English fiddler Jaige Trudel, guitarist Adam Broome, banjo player Brad Kolodner and hammered dulcimer player Ken Kolodner. The variety of styles of music and musical instruments taught throughout the weekend is similar to previous years’ — one of many reasons why attendees return to the event, year after year.

“The average number of weekends that students have returned to attend is nine, while others have attended as much as 25 weekends,” Blanton said, mentioning the weekend’s students–whose were of all ages and experience levels–seemed pleased with the weekend’s teachers and events.

“Almost every year, I hear lots and lots of positive comments, but this year everyone was very enthusiastic about the teachers and performers,” Blanton said. “At least five students said, ‘I have been to everyone of these fiddke retreats, but this is the beest in my mind.'”

Over the years, Blanton said she has seen the weekend’s popularity rise and fall with the changes in the public’s interest in traditional music and dance. While at one time the weekend was so popular, Blanton had to rent out every available classroom space in town to accommodate the weekend’s large number of attendees, the event is currently at a smaller, more manageable size.

“Between students, teachers and people who came to the evening jams, it was all told about 100 fiddlers involved throughout the weekend,” Blanton said. “There were some people who only came to the Friday night jam, there were people who did the whole weekend and some who did one or two classes.”

The music and techniques learned throughout Upper Potomac Fiddle Retreat were displayed, during the Jan. 5 Fiddle Summit concert at the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church. Three jam sessions continued after the concert until around midnight — one at Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church, one at Blue Moon Cafe and one at the Shepherd Student Center. But the music wasn’t completely over. On the morning of Jan. 6, a contra dance music workshop was held, where fiddlers learned some contra dance tunes to play in the evening, when members of the community joined them to dance along with the lilting tunes in the War Memorial Building.

“The dance was the biggest one we’ve had in several years. We had lots of new dancers, and am enormous open band,” Blanton said, mentioning students and teachers from the fiddle retreat were part of the band. “We had three different sets of music during the contra dance. We had an old time set, with the biggest band and simple, old-time tunes; we had French Canadian tunes, led by Pascal from Quebec; and then we had the New England contra set, which was performed by the class that had met all day. So each set had a distinctive flavor.

“The main thing — there are two things that I see being predominant goals for the weekend. One, for the musicians to build better skills. And the second is to build more community, because all of these things are being done together,” Blanton said. “It’s not just a group exercise, but a social activity, where people get to know one another. It’s a wonderful, tight-knit community from all over the country.”