At 2am on the last night of the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop, Andy Hillhouse barged into the camp office where Morgan (a fellow camper) and I were jamming the blues on an acoustic bass and a resonator guitar. “There you are!” he said. “We’re going swimming. Do you want to come?”
Andy had been my Celtic guitar teacher for the past week. He’s from Vancouver, but his swarthy looks and evocative songs of lonely sailors made it easy to imagine him living on some limestone bluff overlooking the Irish Sea.
“Sure!” I said. I was glad to have an excuse to prolong my last night of camp with an adventure.
Andy, Morgan, I were joined by two other campers, Rachael and Katy. We grabbed some towels from the lodge kitchen and picked our way down the trail to the lake. The starshine and lights from the hall barely illuminated the swimming platform fifty feet from shore.
The water wasn’t terribly cold, but the night air had already chilled us. Gasping and howling, one by one we swam to the platform, lingered there for as long as we could, and then raced back to our towels.
As we huddled in our towels on shore, our teeth chattering, a sputtering fireball streaked across the sky, big enough to leave a smoke trail behind. “Wow!” everyone said in unison.
“Hey, I think the Perseid meteor shower is going on tonight,” I said. Another meteor scored the dark heavens. Several others followed a minute later.
“They all seem to be in that part of the sky,” someone said.
“I think I remember from my Astronomy class that the earth is plowing through a cloud of meteors, and that part of the sky over there is the Atmospheric Bumper.”
“Maybe it’s the cosmic fairy shooting meteors at the earth with her galactic pistol,” offered Morgan.
“That’d be a great band name,” I said. Another mote of dust exploded over our heads. “When I first started the class I kept calling it Astrology. My parents weren’t too happy about paying for their son’s Astrology education.”
Then we heard it: Guttural didgeridoo blasts echoing across the water, one 8th note per beat, keeping a perfect slow tempo. It lasted for a few measures, and then went silent. “What the hell was that?” I said.
“It’s a toad,” someone said. “You hear them all the time down here. It’s its mating call.”
“Let’s try harmonizing with it,” I suggested. We all burst out laughing. “I’ll take the 3rd. Someone else take the 5th, someone else the minor 7th….”
“That’s a great idea for a class,” said Andy. “To graduate, you all have to sing an E7#9 chord with the bullfrog.” We wait for the bullfrog to sing again, stifling giggles.
“Hunnnnnnh!” said the bullfrog.
“HUNNNNNNH!” we bellowed over the amphibian’s root note. It actually kind of worked. We cackled.
Andy said, “OK, next time, let’s alternate with the bullfrog. After it sings “Hunnnh,” we sang “HUNNNH” a minor seventh higher.
“It’s the intro to Purple Haze!” I said.
Later, we floated to the middle of the lake on canoes, lying back on the seats to stargaze. Across the water from the lodge came the barely discernable sound of singing. “Is that the Beach Boys?” asked Andy?
“God Only Knows?” I said.
“God only knows what I’d be without you…” sang Andy.
“God only knows what I’d be without you…” someone else sang in a round.
“God only knows…”
On Friday I returned from my first week at the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop. I expected a relaxing week of casual fingerpicking, swimming, and strumming Kumbaya around the campfire. Instead, it turned out to be a profound educational and spiritual experience. I returned home electrified.
I’ve got a bunch of photos of the week posted here.
Here’s an overview of how the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop’s three weeklong summer sessions work:
The camp is located at a retreat center about two hours from Seattle. It has a main hall where all 150 of us could eat together, a side hall we used as a performance space, and about 12 other cabins of varying sizes where we slept, took classes, and jammed. There are some mile-long hiking trails through the woods surrounding the camp, and an absolutely lovely lake, where I spent most of my hour-long afternoon breaks swimming and sunbathing.
Each camper selects two or three classes to attend over the course of the week. These classes meet once a day for about an hour and a half. Most of the classes had about eight students in them, which gave us all the opportunity to get to know our teachers and receive one-on-one help. I took an intermediate-level blues fingerstyle class, a Celtic guitar class which taught the DADGAD guitar tuning, and an advanced songwriting class.
Here’s a little story about my last night at camp. If you don’t see it above, you can click here.
My photos from the aforementioned trips are now available here.
Long time no blog! I’ve been traveling a lot this past month. My first adventure was a weeklong canoe trip down fifty miles of the Green River in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. Six friends, my sweetheart Christine, and I braved 100+ degree heat, quicksand, swarms of kamikaze mosquitoes, and severe cold beer depravation to explore this incredibly quiet, mysterious, and majestic place. I brought my beach guitar with me (a 1978 Alvarez), protected by its flight case, my sleeping bag, and a homemade dry bag. It was bulky, but singing Tom Waits’ “San Diego Serenade” under desert starlight for my friends made it more than worth the effort.
I just got back last night from my second trip, which was a four-day stay in a campground near Lake Tahoe, California. Days were spent climbing the granite cliffs at Lover’s Leap, one of my all-time favorite climbing crags, and during the mornings and evenings I visited with family members who live in California and drove to Tahoe to meet me. Mom brought the guitar I have stashed at my parent’s place, so I got to play around the campfire again. One of the highlights was singing “Yellow Submarine” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” for my four-year-old nephew Zachery, who has become a huge Beatles fan in the past year.
I love singing around the campfire, but I often feel like I’m not that good at it. It’s partly because I’m used to playing in a warm, well-lit room, while sitting in a proper chair. You’re bound to be sloppy when you’re sitting on the ground or in a camp chair, it’s too dark to see your fretboard clearly, and your fingers are stiff from the cold and from climbing all day. Another challenge is that I usually sing with music in front of me, so I’m rarely forced to memorize lyrics. I swear I’ve sung “American Pie” over a dozen times at campfires, and have succeeded in mixing up my marching bands and candlesticks and singing jesters and devil’s friends every time. Yet for all my dissatisfaction, people always tell me how much they love the music–they don’t care that much that we’re doing “American Pie Abridged”.
And there are moments of pure beauty, like singing “Country Roads” my first night at Lake Tahoe. It was after 10pm (quiet hours), so instead of strumming it like I usually do, I fingerpicked the song and we all half-sung, half-whispered the words we all knew so well. I sung a quiet, falsetto harmony over the chorus. The fire, the stars, the guitar, and the singing all came together, and I went to bed filled with peace and joy.