Last July I sloughed off all my obligations for a long weekend and headed for Evart. Evart, you say. Is that a person? A place? A thing? It is, after all, a noun, so it must be one of these. If you guessed from context that this is a place you’re the winner, but it’s much more. It’s the location of a dulcimer festival, and from all the evidence the largest one in the world; but it’s much more than that even. Lemme tell you about it.
Osceola County, Michigan, is more flat than hilly. Mighty lot of pine trees, and it can be dusty. By no means well-off economically. But Evart boasts the best mineral water you’ve ever tasted, pure and cold right out of the ground. There are commercial agreements with Coca-cola for some of it. Folks don’t want to lose their aquifer, but it’s good money into a sparse region.
I go for the festival, and not just because I’m an avid hammered dulcimer player. This place has become a musical/cultural crossroad. The Original Dulcimer Players’ Club was founded in 1963, and by 1973 they called their big meeting in Evart a festival, and the grand-daddy of hammered dulcimer festivals was born. It wasn’t very hard to attract also the fiddlers, guitarists, and banjo players to the festival because, as I have said, the region is a crossroads. Pioneers traveling west across the great lakes, immigrants from Scandinavian countries and northern Europe into Canada heading for the Great Plains, commerce to and from the upper Midwest to New England and back made the environs around Evart a natural gathering place in the past to swap stories, court a companion, learn new dances and dance tunes—fiddle tunes, dulcimer tunes, from all over the world. And it still fulfills that promise. I’ve heard Polish, Cajun, Hungarian, Russian, French, English, Irish dance tunes, Western Swing, Appalachian, New England, Ozarks, and Upper Midwest tunes, all in this one place. There has developed a Midwestern “style” of playing around Michigan, and even two ways of tuning the hammered dulcimer that are unique, one from Illinois and one from Michigan. Henry Ford—the Henry Ford, sponsored a dulcimer-based dance band that played at his mansion—now the Ford Museum—during the thirties. Because of the migration patterns Michigan has come to possess the largest number of hammered dulcimer players per capita of any U.S. state, and so Evart serves its old purpose of attracting players from all over America for this long weekend.
People begin showing up at the county fair campgrounds a week in advance, to get together, gossip, swap tunes, cook on campfires, dance, and have fun. On the festival weekend Friday night, a part of the first stage show is a massed dulcimer gathering. Weeks prior, four or five tunes had been posted, formerly by mail, now by Internet, for everybody who wishes to learn, and they come together Friday night to perform them. This festival holds the world record for the number assembled—nearly two hundred hammering at once. It’s a sight and a treat. But the ultimate experiences there are the music sessions that go on until three, four o’clock in the morning. I had tunes with an old friend from West Virginia that I didn’t even know was going to be there; we had a very satisfying—mostly Irish--session with two Michi-ganders and a Hoosier. I played “knock-down-drag-out” Evart style dulcimer for two days—a way of playing encompassing Western swing, New England, and Midwestern heritage rolled up into one. Let’s see. In that session Saturday there were three hammered dulcimers, three fiddles, two guitars, a banjo, a c-melody saxophone, an upright “dawg-house” bass, and a guy on a musical saw. Good way to live, making music. If more people did it maybe we wouldn’t have so much fighting and wars.
Levee Breakdown/Jefferson City Hornpipe by Cathy Barton and Dave Para
Billy in the Lowground by Bill Robinson and Friends