RiverJam Romp’s music camps bring together people who love to play, dance, and listen to traditional music from all over the world.
Courtesy photo
RiverJam Romp’s music camps bring together people who love to play, dance, and listen to traditional music from all over the world.

RiverJam Romp forges a musical tradition

In its second year, the music camp, born in a ‘post-pandemic surge of creative energy,’ moves to Marlboro in September

MARLBORO — Formerly home to Marlboro College, Potash Hill, a campus of buildings - historic and new, all striking in their New England vernacular architecture - offers all of the amenities and ample square footage for the nurturing of the arts.

Thus, it's a perfect spot for RiverJam Romp's second annual summer camp slated for Friday, Sept. 8 through Sunday, Sept. 10.

RJR launched in 2021 in a post-pandemic burst of creative energy among four friends: Peter Siegel, Mary Fraser, Amanda Witman, and Louisa Engle.

"With a common commitment to building inclusive communities," according to riverjamromp.org, "and a desire to recognize and uplift locally-rooted music and dance traditions, we put our heads together and dreamed up RiverJam Romp [since] our local traditions have essential roots... across rivers, mountains, valleys, and state lines" from southern Vermont eastward to the Monadnock region of New Hampshire and south into the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts.

In this, its second year, Siegel says that he and organizers hope that the RJR's bringing the music camp scene to the Brattleboro area will become a tradition.

"So many of the staff go elsewhere to teach" that the founders realized a local gathering of such talents would be welcome, he says.

"This is a bit of a homecoming event," Siegel adds, noting that the organizers have been inspired by a number of music and dance camps, including Maine Fiddle Camp, Pinewoods Camp, The Ashokan Center, John C. Campbell Folk School, and Meadowlark Music Camp.

While such events serve their regions - and their local arts economies - they require significant travel for enthusiasts from this area who want to participate. Thus, the creation of a new traditional music camp on local turf is a relief to the carbon footprint, too.

The thrust of the camp, according to Siegel and Witman, is to honor, preserve, and revel in old traditions and, at the same time, to let them morph into here and now, to create something unexpected and totally new, to make space for fusion and innovation among a host of traditions - "from the South, from the Caribbean, from West Africa, from the world," Siegel says.

Taking the model inherited from established camps elsewhere, "we want to slowly add to it, expand on it - bring in a drum circle, for instance, or even bring in contact improv sometime down the line," he explains.

Witman said that "evolving the traditions is a big piece of what we believe in."

"We have many locally-rooted traditions here that never cross paths, so wouldn't it be so cool to see Irish fiddle get together with African drummers and to see - to hear - what will happen?" she suggests.

Siegel adds that "we are rooted in tradition, but we're not holding on tight. That's what's tearing our world apart now. You can respect and love these traditions, but you don't have to cling to a field recording of 1923. You can take it into the future wherever it goes."

A musical agenda

The weekend starts, after check-in Friday, with an all-comers jam followed by dinner and an open-to-the-public dance led by New England Dancing Masters (Andy Davis, Mary Cay Brass, Peter and Mary Alice Amidon) and a post-dance jam.

On Saturday, participants will engage in two workshops before lunch, after which there'll be a staff concert, followed by another workshop, a pre-dinner song, another public dance, and a post-dance jam.

Sunday, again, participants will engage in two workshops before lunch and "September Pole," a processional and dance in the afternoon before departure.

Teachers for RiverRomp Jam '23 include a host of noted locals:

Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, of Brattleboro, whose choral arrangements and compositions are rooted in their lifelong immersion in the harmonies of Sacred Harp singing, African American spirituals and gospel, pub singing, other spontaneous group harmony singing, and American and English folks songs.

Having led choral harmony workshops at major traditional music festivals and choral singing workshops at home and abroad, they're key players in the Guilford Community Church and the Hallowell Singers hospice choir; their choral arrangements are sung by hundreds of choirs throughout the United States and the United Kingdom.

Mary Cay Brass, of Athens, found traditional music as a child when Croatian neighbors invited her to join a children's folk dance troupe. Later, while studying ethnomusicology at the University of Minnesota, she encountered numerous folk dance groups at the height of the folk music revival in the 1970s.

As a Fulbright Scholar, she worked with ethnomusicologists and conducted field research in Croatia and soon thereafter began immersing in New England contra dance traditions. After moving to southern Vermont in 1984, Brass played regularly for contradances in Greenfield, Massachusetts and throughout the country, and she led international performance tours with Village Harmony.

• With a passion for traditional New England contra dancing, David Cantieni of Deerfield, Massachusetts, has led workshops and played dance music for years on the Irish-style wooden flute, Breton bombard, oboe, sax, and pennywhistle.

Cantieni has performed with bands Swallowtail and Wild Asparagus. His appearances include Celtic Week at Swannanoa Gathering; Northern Week at The Ashokan Center; Summer Heritage Workshops in Elkins, West Virginia, among others.

• Founding member of New England Dancing Masters Andy Davis of Brattleboro calls traditional New England–style contra and square dances for dancers of all ages and abilities. For decades, Davis has taught music and dance in Vermont public schools and in summer camps, playing accordion and piano for jigs, reels, polkas, marches, and waltzes.

Composer of a variety of dance tunes and songs, Davis has published books and recordings for the teaching of New England traditional dance. Among a host of credits, he performed for three decades with John Roberts, Fred Breunig, and the late Tony Barrand as Nowell Sing We Clear.

• With a fond memory of dancing through a long tunnel of clasped hands during an elementary school contra dance, Louisa Engle of Brattleboro grew up to be a fiddler and fiddle teacher who is passionate about bringing together musicians and dancers of different ages and abilities.

She has taught at the Brattleboro Music Center, Maine Fiddle Camp, and Nelson Elementary School and has called and played at family contra dances throughout New England. Currently into Maypole dances, claw hammer banjo, and alternate fiddle tunings, she's helped run the all-night Brattleboro Dawn Dance for over a decade.

Julia Friend of Brattleboro is a singer of pub songs, sea shanties, and ballads. Embracing the power and vulnerability of the human voice, she's an occasional performer at folk festivals and is happiest swapping songs and blending harmonies in dark corners in the wee hours of the night.

She co-authored the Country Dance & Song Society's folk singing starter kit, helped launch Youth Traditional Song Weekend, and cheers for singing in all genres.

• Having explored many styles of music, especially jazz, guitarist Yann Falquet of Brattleboro has developed a personal guitar style for Québec folk music, inspired by the playing of accompanists from Brittany, Scandinavia, Ireland, and North America. His involvement in Québec's traditional music scene has brought Falquet to perform on numerous recordings and to tour Canada, the U.S., Europe, and Australia with his trio Genticorum.

Lissa Schneckenburger was raised in a small town in Maine and moved to Brattleboro as a young adult. Starting fiddle at age 6, she grew up in the New England contradance scene, developing an extensive repertoire while playing for dances, teaching at numerous camps and festivals, and touring with bands such as Halali and Low Lily. Her music showcases a range from traditional New England dance tunes to original songs inspired by her experience as a foster and adoptive parent.

Peter Siegel, of Brattleboro, founding member of The Gaslight Tinkers, presents music deeply rooted in American traditions while spanning the globe. Over the years he's shared the stage and been mentored by Pete Seeger, Jay Unger and Molly Mason, Utah Phillips, and Noel Paul Stookey, among others.

A bandmate with bluegrass powerhouse Michael Daves and poet Alicia Jo Rabins in the '90s band Underbelly, he also contributed to and recorded on the Grammy-winning Seeger album Tomorrow's Children. He's published songs in Sing Out! magazine and in The Portland Collection.

Teaching in public schools and writing songs and theatrical productions with children for the last 20 years, Siegel has also written for the site Edutopia on social curriculum and music educational practices. A CD, Peace Place, produced with students from Symonds Elementary School in Keene, won a Parents' Choice Award in 2012.

Cedar Stanistreet grew up playing both classical violin and traditional fiddle music, and he studied violin performance at the Crane School of Music. For the past 10 years, he's played for contra dances across North America with a number of bands, including Nor'easter, Cardinal Direction, Maivish, and Cloud Ten.

Stanistreet, of Brattleboro, also repairs violins, violas, and cellos.

Amanda Witman of Brattleboro is a singer, song leader, instrumentalist, and event organizer. An advocate for inclusive, community-based music where players and singers at all levels are encouraged and supported, she founded and co-leads the monthly Brattleboro Pub Sing and helps organize the annual Northern Roots Festival.

She sings with Vermont-based quartet Big Woods Voices, performing detailed, original arrangements of poetry and songs.

Steve Zakon-Anderson of Hancock, New Hampshire has been a caller and organizer for contra dancing for almost 40 years, and he has also been a chef at various locations from Fiddleheads Cafe in Hancock, New Hampshire, to MacDowell artists' residency in nearby Peterborough. Having been chef in the past for Northern Roots and RiverJam Romp, Zakon-Anderson will be cooking for RJR at Potash Hill this year with his wife, Bettie.

Among the 30 RJR workshops: Gospel Harmony Singing By Ear, Exploring the Ukulele, Backing Crooked Tunes, Storytelling through Song, Cider Songs and Cidermaking, Adding Groove and Lift to Your Fiddling, and Discovering Bob McQuillen Tunes.

First year at Potash Hill

While its first year attracted 80 participants of all ages from around New England and Québec at its Green Mountain Camp site, this year the capacity is greater at Potash Hill where dining, lodging, workshops spaces, and outdoor nooks abound.

"We're delighted to have River Jam Romp here for a weekend of song, dance, and community," says Brian Mooney, managing director of Potash Hill. "Potash Hill is a special place with a long history of bringing people together for creative exploration, education, and the forging of lasting friendships."

Mooney, who graduated from Marlboro College and later taught writing there, said that "we always keep this in mind as we continue to make progress towards the goal of putting the campus to productive use and making it self-sustaining."

River Jam will be followed in October by Boston States Fiddle Camp.

For more on Potash Hill and upcoming events and programs, visit potashhill.org.

Community dances will be open to the public on Friday and Saturday nights on a sliding scale ($10-20 suggested). Friday night's dance is especially suited to families with small children. To participate for the full weekend or to purchase a day pass, go to riverjamromp.org. Financial aid is available. Registration includes housing (dorm or tent camping) and meals, along with all workshops, dances, jams, activities, and a staff concert. Commuters are welcome. The price is the same no matter where one sleeps.

Looking ahead, RJR organizers say their vision is much bigger than a single camp. They want to develop other events "to support and carry forward musical community, collaboration, and the evolution of traditions" under the umbrella of nonprofit, Southern Vermont Traditional Music, Inc., which also co-sponsors Village Dance and the Brattleboro Dawn Dance.

This The Arts item by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.

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