When the coronavirus concerns still lay more on the periphery, a couple of weekends ago, we drove to Minneapolis for a jazz concert. But what we found was an intriguing musical diversion at our hotel. One that contrasts with our current need for “social distancing.”
When we rounded a corner to the Crowne Plaza, we were amazed at all the traffic; cars pinning the curb of the sprawling five-story complex. What could this be?
After my husband dropped me off, to check in, one worker came out and whisked away my suitcase, so I could stand in line. The lobby was crammed, the sound of strings piercing the air.
I came to find out this was the “Winter Weekend,” sponsored by the Minnesota Bluegrass Old-Time Music Association, started in 1975.
Bluegrass: the music I’ve heard in spurts, like in the film "Brother, Where Art Thou?," including the music of Alison Kraus. I’ve never seen so many people carrying cases for violins, guitars, banjos, mandolins and bass. Most were middle aged, but there were young people. The group seemed to promote the transfer of this music to the next generation, with children’s jam sessions.
Jam sessions bloomed throughout the lobby and on the second floor. By the fireplace, but away from the rooms. Freely, people jumped into groups to play or sing. I loved the picking and the amazing skill. This music is the product of years of training and hard work, far from the pop charts and dance moves of much of today’s music. Even without drums, there is the bouncy rhythm, that often comes from the low tones of the stand-up bass.
I told one silver-haired woman at an information table that, “It just makes me want to move.” She chuckled and said, “Then you’ll have to be careful, or you’ll start clogging.”
I was gob smacked by the friendliness. Cheery conversation popped up in elevators, and some even shared their stories. One man, in a wheelchair, who had recently fallen on the ice, said he’d been coming for years. “It’s like a family reunion,” he said. He and his wife live in a junkyard and raised sheep that “mowed” the grass on their farm.
It was an atmosphere of joy and almost instant inclusion.
Ironically, with its inclusion, it was not diverse. I only saw two or three other African Americans, among thousands, but that didn’t matter. I just felt like I belonged.
Bluegrass heritage has diverse roots. Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, with Earl Scruggs, of the 1930s and 1940s, were influenced by individuals such as Arnold Shultz, a black fiddler. The banjo came from Africa. With some roots from the United Kingdom, it flowered in Appalachia, and branched out; later, it even gave birth to Japanese bluegrass.
That weekend, I sensed joy. Unabashed joy. It felt like home. We even bought merchandise to support the organization.
I still can’t stop smiling. I hope for the shadow of COVID-19 to pass, and the opportunity for such “reunions” to return.