In Toledo, Washington, it’s time for the Mount Saint Helens Bluegrass Festival again.
Toledo is in Lewis County, on the way to Washington’s most famous volcano. The town is named after an old steamer that once plied the Cowlitz River, and it’s near where the “Cowlitz Convention” was held in 1851, when settlers north of Columbia organized the movement to separate Washington from what was then Oregon Territory.
The Mount Saint Helens Bluegrass Festival is produced by the non-profit Washington Bluegrass Association. It begins at noon on Friday August 12 at Kemp Olson Memorial Park in Toledo, where the public can camp overnight. The first Mount Saint Helens Bluegrass Festival was held in 1982, and this is the 37th year.
The festival producer is General Cothren. “General” is not a rank, it is his first name; he is from North Carolina and came to southwest Washington about 70 years ago and graduated from Napavine High School.
Cothren took the time a few days ago to fix his golf cart – which as everyone knows is an essential tool for producing an outdoor music festival – to describe what makes bluegrass “bluegrass” .
“It’s just, you know, banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle and bass and you have great music,” Cothren told KIRO Newsradio. “Everything is acoustic.”
Bluegrass comes from the southern United States. It’s traditional music whose roots go back at least a few centuries, and its influence can still be heard in country, folk, blues and rock. Bill Monroe of Kentucky popularized bluegrass beyond its geographic roots beginning in the late 1930s through radio and then through records.
In the Pacific Northwest, around the same time – due to the Great Depression, World War II, and other social and economic factors – many “Tar Heels” (or people from Carolina from the North, such as General Cothren’s parents) moved west in search of opportunity. Many settled in the Puget Sound area, working in agriculture, forestry, and manufacturing. Along with their personal possessions, these American migrants brought bluegrass — and banjos and mandolins — with them, settling in mostly rural areas of western Washington and making music for enjoyment during their time. free.
Vivian Williams is 84 years old and is a violinist. She and her late husband Phil, who played the banjo, lived in Seattle for decades. They had met at Reed College in Oregon in the 1950s, married in 1959, then moved north. Phil Williams, who died in 2017, was also a lawyer. He also wrote a history of bluegrass in the Northwest which was posted online several years ago and remains an invaluable resource for understanding how the music spread here.
Vivian Williams told KIRO Newsradio that around 1960, she and her husband began participating in Tar Heel “hootenannies” to learn and play bluegrass with other amateur players. Both were partly inspired by what Vivian jokingly calls the “Folk Scare”, when people like Pete Seeger and groups like the Kingston Trio and Seattle’s Brothers Four led a popular revival of folk music in the American recording and broadcasting industries.
Williams says bluegrass was popular in and around the Skagit Valley, and other areas of Snohomish, Skagit, and Whatcom counties.
“Darrington was kind of at the center of it all because there was this couple that lived up there and it was Fred and Alice McFalls,” Williams said. “And Fred was a good banjo player and a really nice guy, and his wife was a good cook and a very, very nice person, and they just organized these gatherings of musicians.”
Fred McFalls, who should be better known and remembered, is a legend who started playing bluegrass in his native North Carolina. He had moved to Darrington in the early 1950s and worked full time in the lumber industry, but he did so much to share his love of music with the likes of Vivian and Phil Williams. Fred McFalls died in 1996; Alice McFalls died in 2014.
Fred and his wife Alice deserve a full documentary on the impact they had on bluegrass and the North West. Vivian and Phil Williams deserve one too. Both were accomplished players who once accompanied Bill Monroe when he played a few shows in the North West in the 1960s, and Phil was an inveterate recording enthusiast who made tapes of live shows and hootenannies. The couple also founded a label called Voyager Records to share their love of folk music. Vivian Williams recently donated her entire tape collection, including many rare and unique local recordings, to the Smithsonian Institution.
Vivian Williams says annual summer gatherings of people who had moved to Puget Sound from places like North Carolina and Missouri were commonplace 50 years ago, and they still featured bluegrass and other folk music.
These events, such as the “Tar Heel Picnic” and the “Missouri Picnic”, seem to have disappeared, but a whole series of bluegrass festivals began to emerge in the 1970s, inspired by and soon after the era of Woodstock and the local Sky River. Rock Festival, the Snohomish County gig that preceded the famous Empire State mud and all those New York hippies by a year.
Along with Toledo this weekend, Darrington has its Bluegrass Festival in July and Bellingham has theirs next month. A complete list of Northwest bluegrass festivals is available from the Washington Bluegrass Association.
Tickets for this weekend’s Mount Saint Helens Family Bluegrass Festival in Toledo are affordable, but bring cash, as the event is not set up to accept credit cards. Food will be available for purchase at Boss Hogg’s Barbecue in Winlock, the neighboring house of the giant egg.
General Cothren says the best day of the event for bargain hunters is Sunday, when the music starts at 9.30am and will feature many of the artists who played Friday and Saturday.
“We have four bands playing gospel on Sunday,” Cothren said. “It’s all gospel music, and it’s free.”
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