I hanker for a hootenanny

I was too old to be a hippie, but I couldn't help getting caught up in the folk music craze that swept our country in the 1960s. Because of my Kentucky heritage, I had long been steeped in old Appalachian ballads - so it seemed natural that I should buy a cheap guitar and enroll with other strummers and pluckers in evening classes at a local high school.

Everyone knew that the best inexpensive guitars could be bought right across our border in Tijuana, Mexico. So my husband and I made the run down there. It was no problema in the '60s. We spent an hour looking at the jai-alai games, ate lunch at our favorite restaurant, and spent the rest of our time wandering the stalls of merchandise. There were hundreds of guitars for sale, strung up above the striped serapes, painted clay piggy banks, smelly (but beautiful) leather goods, and gimcrackery of all sorts. We plucked here and we plucked there and finally found two that sounded right to us. They cost $10 each, two of the best investments of our lives.

We gave our daughter one of the guitars as a birthday gift, and she spent entire days in her room teaching herself to play, barely coming out for school and meals. She was a natural. Within a few months she had mastered the basics, and was soon hanging out at McCabe's Guitar Shop, learning more difficult strums and riffs from advanced students. Not so her mother.

I was still struggling with C chords and "Down In the Valley," but slowly climbing to higher musical pinnacles, such as "All the Pretty Little Horses." I was having the time of my life.

My husband, meanwhile, had bought a banjo and was taking private lessons. He was shy about practicing in front of the rest of the family, and would close himself in his "office" in the back of the house. I could occasionally hear him twanging away and singing off-key. We were forbidden to disturb him when he was practicing.

I sang folk songs whenever and wherever I had the chance. I rocked babies to sleep singing "Hush, Little Baby." I played and sang this lullaby for my twin infant grandsons as they crawled on the floor of our family room. Early one evening as we all sat around, reading and watching babies, we were astonished to hear little David, age 11 months, humming "doo da-da daaa-da, do da da" as he crawled across the room.

"Did you hear that?" his mother whispered. "He's singing 'Hush, Little Baby'!" I plucked the tune gently and, sure enough, little David continued with his doo da da's, unaware that his family was already planning a career of musical greatness for him.

We were invited to parties and told to bring our instruments. I was happy to comply, and Joe, though not yet ready to perform, always came along. With little urging, I could now lead a group in singing "This Land Is Your Land," "Skip to My Lou," "Down In the Valley," and other old favorites requiring no more than four chords. I had a good, strong midrange voice, and would sing loudly as I strummed, so it didn't really matter if my playing was somewhat defective.

After some months of lessons and practicing, we were invited by Joe's banjo teacher to attend a hootenanny at his house in the mountains. Of course we accepted. A hootenanny (for those who don't know) is a wild good time with folk instruments and singing. I don't know the origin of this strange and odd-sounding word - but neither does the dictionary; "of fanciful origin," the entry says. My conjecture is that the shortened version of the word is "hoot," as in "It was a real hoot." That is still somewhat in use today among us older folk.

The night was cold in the canyon. As we entered Andy's home, we were greeted with the mouth-watering aroma of spiced apple cider simmering on the stove. His wife, Jill, handed each of us a steaming mug. "It's great to have you here," she said. "Have some cider. It'll warm your cockles, whatever they are." She laughed. "We never have anything more stimulating than this in the way of drinks. We want to concentrate on the music."

As we sipped, we wandered into the living room and met other guests. There were students from our classes, as well as neighbors and family of the hosts. Kids ran about, or snuggled on parents' laps.

A series of chords being struck on a piano called us to attention. "Time for music, everyone!" shouted Andy. We all took seats - on chairs, on old overstuffed sofas, and on the floor. The tuning of instruments began. Plucking and strumming commenced, interspersed with murmurings of "Ashley, you'll have to get off Mommy's lap now, Mommy's going to play!" And other instructions to the various children.

"Let's start with 'Home on the Range,' " said Andy. "Everyone knows it, and the kids love it." He called out the chords as we sang and played, with only fair success. "Once more, everybody sing, and that means you, Joe."

Joe, embarrassed, muttered, "I can't carry a tune."

Several men chorused, "Neither can we."

We laughed; and from then on everyone sang and played. We played until midnight, with breaks for refreshments and for the bedding down of children. As we lingered over our final farewells, standing at the doorway, gazing up at millions of stars in the crisp black night with music still ringing in our heads, we agreed that this had been one of the finest parties ever.

We went to other hootenannies in our "folksy time," but none as exciting as our first. I became so confident with my guitar that I often took it with me when substitute teaching, to lead my class in singing lessons. Later I bought an autoharp and took it along, also. My students loved to take turns playing it as we sang ballads from a Pete Seeger songbook.

But the times they were a-changin'. Some of the changes were not so good, and some were wonderful. I count the folk singing among the wonderful.

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