The music of Ireland and Scotland is woven deep into the life of the southern mountains of the United States. It is also a thread that runs through the history of the Swannanoa Gathering in Asheville, North Carolina. This year, Celtic Week at the Gathering will offer the chance to learn Irish fiddle from Liz Carroll, Andrew Finn Magill, Martin Hayes, and Liz and Yvonne Kane, guitar from Donal Clancy and John Doyle, flute from Kevin Crawford, Cape Breton fiddle from Kimberley Fraser, harp from Billy Jackson and Grainne Hambly, Scottish song from Ed Miller… and that’s just part of what will be on offer.
Twenty-one years ago, then president of Warren Wilson College, Doctor Douglas Orr, obtained a grant for a one off program that became the seed of the Gathering. Orr had been part of a folklore society in Charlotte which presented the Celtic band Hot Shandy, of which Jim Magill was a member. When time came to implement the grant, Orr asked Magill to take charge. Two decades later, Magill is at the helm of a summer adult education program which in addition to Celtic Week includes week long programs focusing on Old Time Music and Dance, Contemporary Folk Music, Guitar, Fiddle, and other subjects.
It’s a lively yet relaxed time of sharing music which instructors look forward to as much as their students do. “ I believe this summer is my fifth time at Swannanoa,” says Kimberley Fraser, who teaches Cape Breton fiddle. “I look forward to it so much because I know I’m in for a week of the most amazing music. The faculty line up is always stellar. and and the Warren Wilson campus is a gorgeous backdrop.”
Location and Talent
Magill points to those two things — an attractive location in the mountains of North Carolina and the level of instructors — as reasons why The Gathering continues to prosper. “The instructor staff really has the biggest part to do with that,” Magill says. He looks for people who are well enough known that people will want to come study with them and who have the skills to teach. Also “they have to understand what we do here,” he says. “Our mission is to pass along folk tradition. We’re educating the next generation of tradition bearers, and their audiences.”
The week-long format and the ability to choose several classes is a draw for students, and instructors like this as well. Cathie Ryan, who teaches classes in Irish traditional song and in Irish mythology and folklore, points out that for students in both her classes last summer “ the conversations just got deeper as the days progressed, so that by Friday everything was just at a really lovely level of their own communication. With the mythology class, for example, they were taking the stories in all kinds of different directions. In mythology especially, you really have no idea exactly when it was written, why it was written, so it’s all open for conjecture, and I love exploring those ideas, having the time to explore those ideas, with my students.”
In addition to the classes, there jam sessions, talks, and all the informal interaction which make up a week of sharing music. Though registration begins in the spring and many classes fill quickly, there are no registration deadlines for the Swannanoa Gathering, so you might still find a place for this summer’s Celtic Week, which runs July 15 through 21 — or you might want to begin thinking about your plans for next summer.
At the the Swannanoa Gathering web site, you may find out information about Celtic Week, about the other music weeks this summer, plans for future summer programs, and about a series of concerts with top Celtic musicians that the Gathering sponsors at the Diana Wortham Theater in downtown Asheville.
Kerry Dexter has been following music through Celtic lands for more than two decades, and writing for publications including CMT, National Geographic Traveler, Strings, and The Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas. You may find out more about her work at Music Road.