Updated by ParentMap staff, June 2012
Hailing from Appalachian hollers, the Puget Sound region’s burgeoning old-time and bluegrass scene reels in generations of new listeners. If your family seeks a new beat, you’ll find plenty of opportunities on street corners and at square dances, in cafes and community centers.
Swing your pint-size partner
At the monthly Greenwood Family Dance, it’s easy to forget you’re in too-cool-to-smile Seattle. After all, Birks-and-socks-wearing grandmas face moms in chic skirts and leather boots, toddlers hold hands with big brothers, and there’s not a scowl in the room. Dozens of heads turn as the caller explains the how-to of the do-si-do. He nods at the fiddler and the small room springs to life, twirling, stomping and swaying.
When missteps occur — a foot to the shin, or a squashed toe — partners laugh it off. This dance scene is anything but intimidating.
Sarah Suhadolnik, the mother of 4-year-old Samuel and 7-year-old Tessa, says she loves bringing her two children to the dance, because few opportunities exist for families to dance together. “There’s ballet or tap,” Suhadolnik says, “but that’s just the child, not the community.”
“The kids are totally into it,” agrees Charmaine Slaven, clogger extraordinaire for The Tallboys Old-Time String Band, often seen busking at Seattle-area farmers markets. After watching Slaven, children often want to learn a few steps themselves. “Quite a few kids show up for my regular workshops,” Slaven says. “They always pick it up really fast.”
Show some pluck
Kids are increasingly tuning into fiddle playing, says instructor Stuart Williams. If your children aren’t excited about classical violin lessons, they might appreciate the fiddle’s welcome attitude toward improvisation. Fiddling has become so popular in recent years that openings in the Old-Time Fiddlers’ Association’s annual workshop (held during the summer in Kittitas) sell out immediately, with families trading strategies on getting into next year’s event.
“It’s a different approach of playing by ear and personalizing your music,” Williams says. But it’s not necessarily easier, he adds. “Through the process of learning from old-timers, the rigor is passed on from person to person.”
Jamming alongside other children and adults, kids discover the magic in music. “It’s fun to play by yourself or with other people,” Williams says, “not drudgery.”
“Old-timers fear that young people will not discover their type of music and it will be lost,” says Tom Massey. Massey runs the monthly Kent Bluegrass Jam, which welcomes young fiddle aficionados (one of many bluegrass jams in the area). “I especially try to encourage youth to come out and perform from 3 to 4 p.m.,” says Massey. And to sweeten the deal, dessert and other treats are offered.
Stay for a spell
Seeking more venues that welcome little listeners? Several summer bluegrass events put on a great show. The Ollala Bluegrass Festival offers camping, on-site food, live entertainment and opportunities to learn a tune or two. Another hot ticket: the Fiddle Tunes festival in Port Townsend, where kids can learn from pros, and all ages can attend nightly shows. “There’s always a whole slew of little kids at Port Townsend,” says Slaven.
Low-key cafes also host musical acts for whiling away the time. Stop in at Ballard’s kid-friendly Smokin’ Pete’s for a piece of pecan pie and live bluegrass on select Thursday nights. And up in Lake Forest Park, Third Place Books frequently hosts a variety of live music (including the Milner Family Fiddlers) while eavesdroppers of all ages sit in and sip hot chocolate.
But really, why do kids love old-time twang so much? Fiddler Oliver Abrahamson, age 9, offers a simple explanation: “‘Cause you know, I just like it.” He pauses, and then adds: “It makes me want to laugh and dance.”
Lora Shinn is a Seattle-based writer and mother.
SUMMER BLUEGRASS FESTIVALS
- Fiddle Tunes, Port Townsend (June-July)
- Darrington Bluegrass Festival, Darrington (July)
- Bainbridge Bluegrass Festival and Family Fair (July)
- Olalla Bluegrass Festival, Olalla (August)
- The Tallboys (all-ages performances, festival links)
- Seattle Folklore Society (performances)
- Smokin’ Pete’s BBQ, Seattle
- Third Place Books, Seattle and Lake Forest Park locations
- Bluegrass from the Forest Festival, Shelton (April): email@example.com
- Northwest Folklife, Seattle (Memorial Day weekend)
- The Kent Bluegrass Concerts and Jam, Kent: firstname.lastname@example.org
OLD-TIME AND BLUEGRASS: WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
- Old-time music is participatory and group oriented, played for dancing or in a jam-type setting. Jams and dances, many of them for all ages, can be found at Old Time Seattle and Washington Old Time Fiddlers Association.
- Bluegrass is old time’s showy buddy, with plenty of solos and fancy fingering. Information on area events, jams and festivals is available from the Washington Blue Grass Association.