Mountain Music Workshops: At Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia, summer camp swings, sings the blues and tells the story of America's rich artistic and cultural heritage.

May 17, 1998|By Judi Dash | Judi Dash,Special to the Sun

Are you having a good time?" asked the man in my arms as we two-stepped around the wooden dance floor to the twangy strains of "All My Ex-es live in Texas." Concentrating hard on my feet and muttering "fast, fast, slow, slow," I nodded.

"Well," said my partner, "would you mind telling your face?"

I had forgotten the first rule of summer camp: It's supposed to be fun.

But then learning to dance the Texas Two-Step is serious business at the 26-year-old Augusta Heritage Center in the central West Virginia mountain town of Elkins. So is learning to make a blues harmonica wail, to belt out soulful gospel lyrics and to spin a personal tale in the style of the ancient griots (West African storytellers). Here, for five weeks each summer - July 5 to Aug. 9 in 1998 - the hilly 170-acre campus of Davis and Elkins College metamorphoses into a nonprofit music and arts school with nearly 100 workshops promoting America's multi-ethnic and racial heritage. The idea is to bring together masters of those art forms and students who want to learn them, so the traditions don't die out along with their practitioners.

Each week is themed - from blues and swing to Appalachian arts, Irish music and dance, English country dancing and bluegrass, Cajun culture and all kinds of vocal music. Weekly Elderhostel and Folk Arts for Kids (ages 8-12) programs tie into the predominant themes. Classes are complemented by daily roundups with lectures and demonstrations, and nightly concerts feature the wide-ranging talents of the music and dance instructors. Even in their off-duty hours, teachers can be found jamming with students and other faculty members or exchanging artistic insights during communal meals in the school cafeteria (where $5.10 gets you all you can eat).

I had signed on for Swing and Blues Week, taking most of my classes in Swing Dance - the bubbly Lindy, the rhythm-and-bluesy West Coast Swing and the Country and Western-style Texas Two Step - with a mini-class at night in beginner blues harmonica. I had no experience with swing, having come of age in the arm-flailing '70s. But I'd faked at jitterbug for years and longed to strut some flashy stuff when big-band music kicked in at weddings, and to join the couples twirling around the dance floor at my local C&W joint. The harmonica class seemed like a fun way to be a part of the week's steamy blues scene and the nightly jam sessions all over the campus. I figured if I could master a few notes and a half-decent whah-whah, I could quietly join in the background harmonies.

The setting was another draw. Nestled in West Virginia's Potomac Highlands, Elkins was just a short drive from the 900,000-acre Monongahela National Forest, a dense green expanse of hiking trails, swimming holes and steep ridges overlooking miles of mountain valleys, planted fields and distant hazy peaks. When not in class, I could explore the countryside on foot - a mellow chaser after stressful doses of dance instruction.

Augusta hooked me right off.

Even before the workshops officially started Monday morning, the place resonated with music. Walking to the registration building Sunday afternoon, I passed a trio of blues guitarists sitting under a shade tree, trading licks. A few feet ahead, 74-year-old tap-dance legend Earl Scoggins was holding forth before a group of enthralled Elderhostel participants, breaking into dance periodically to demonstrate some smooth move he'd mastered on the tough streets of Chicago in the '30s. And not far from that group, a young woman in white spandex shorts was gyrating her torso suggestively as she sang "I'm a Red Hot Mama" in a rich, throaty alto, accompanied by a mandolin player, who periodically let out an appreciative, "Yeah, baby."

That night, a square dance in the school's wooden, open-air pavilion gave the 500 students from the various swing and blues courses a chance to mingle before our specialties divided us the next day. Still later in the old stone ice house up a steep hill from the pavilion, a blues jam session got bigger and hotter as the night wore on, and Blues Week regulars who hadn't seen each other for a year got into the mood with bawdy ballads and soulful instrumental numbers. Leaning on the rails and crouching along the steps that wound down the three-tier interior, we observers swayed and clapped to the beat, happily losing ourselves in waves of sensations that intensified as the burgeoning crowd sent the room temperature soaring, and sweat poured down our bodies. When I reluctantly pulled myself away and off to bed at 2 a.m., the jam session was still in full swing (I counted 14 guitarists among the group) with vocal instructor Gaye Adegba-lola belting out the raucous "Baby what's Wrong with You?" Behind her, five women with tight pants and loose lyrics waited their turn at those classic female blues themes: I need, I don't get, I hurt.

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