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Music on the Hill

Ah, sweet July! Summer is in full swing. There's a young man working in the garden. He's listening to some hillbilly grass; frailing banjos and droning fiddles; distinct and mesmerizing. The combination of the music, the weather and the all around feeling good activates deep gratitude and brings me right back to a magical period in my life. Somewhere in my thirties I had some righteous fun playing in a bluegrass band with my mom but the genre's influence on my musical soul was already 2 decades old at that point.

I was 10 years old when I first stepped a bare foot on a place I affectionately call 'the hill'; a family farm in upstate New York. The year was 1977 and the now popular northeastern festival known as Greyfox was then a smallish gathering called the Berkshire Mountain Bluegrass Festival. That year was the first annual and I returned for many years afterward. A beautiful gem in my formative summers is mostly how I see it now. Comparatively back then things were always more complicated. My step-father’s alcoholism and drug addiction colored our every experience. My mother, sister and I never knew what to expect. At any given summer, the three hour car ride to the festival could have been a fun, music-filled family journey or a torturous, fear-filled cry fest.

Every year, upon arrival at the entrance to the foot of the hill. A happy, animated man with lots of black fuzzy hair and a beard fitted us all with the bright yellow plastic festival bracelets and dramatically wave his flag toward the camping areas. This man, to me was some sort of mystical, whimsical gatekeeper. His nickname was indeed, 'Fuzzy'. He was all hair and smiles behind his dark sunglasses. Every summer, the sight of Fuzzy would awaken a lovely feeling of warmth and anticipation. The brightly colored plastic bracelets carried the same energy for me that Fuzzy did and I always kept mine on long after the festival was over.

There was most certainly always a family fight when it was time to set up the campsite. My step-father would have been drinking since 6 am at that point, whether he was driving or not, and became mean and belligerent as he bossed us around. Ugh. That sucked. It was harsh enough to deal with the humiliation in private but having our shame exposed to the other campers was potentially debilitating.

But as soon as sister and I could break away from the embarrassing drama, the magic would begin. With every rapid bare footfall down the hill, the drunken ravings diminished and the sights, sounds and smells of the festival rushed in.

For the next four days, with the occasional check-in with mom, we were free range kids. We formed our own soulful tribe of young wanderers; many with whom we would annually reunite. Later as teens, we would roam the late night midway; socializing with vendors, musicians, artists and music lovers all.

The featured bands were consistently incredible and the campsite pickin’ was always top notch. Acoustic instrumentation and hair raising harmonies permeated every breeze and every golden sunray. People danced unabashedly with sloshing paper cups of beer in their hands. Some years, when the sun began it's descent behind the layered rows of rolling hills, the applause would begin and continue to spread across the hill and down to the main stage area. Soon, over two thousand people would be completely united in a standing ovation of an astonishing sunset.

Much later, curled up in my tent, I would listen, wide-eyed to the night time sounds that seemed to blend into one audible force. Because my mom was a bluegrass musician, there were always amazing late night sessions of music and laughter happening just outside the translucent walls of my nylon cave. I wished it would never end.

The Sunday morning gospel show was always bittersweet. The beautiful, spirited singing and playing signaled the inevitable knowing that it would all soon be over and we would be packing up and leaving. But I would savor every last moment for as long as I could before finally bringing myself to the family campsite for the final departure. Time to say goodbye until next year. The ride home was usually remarkably peaceful; each of us in quiet contemplation of our individual experience.

There was often an emotional release that happened at the end of the festival experience. My mom called this the 'big boo-hoo!" There is crying, but not so much for loss. It’s more about a rush of gratitude; a pure appreciation and thankfulness for the opportunity to experience being a joyful, playful human for a little while.

Even as I got older, these summer forays were always minimyth adventures filled with magic. From the first spotting of Fuzzy the gatekeeper to the final, heartfelt goodbye to friends and then, the big boo-hoo to validate my humanity.

Do you remember a magical time from your own childhood? Do you know that you can conjure those feelings anytime? Are you aware of the power that is available to you when you do?

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