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The Fifth Course


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I cannot remember the last time I posted to my blog. Life got very complicated in mid-July only a few weeks after starting a new job. Then teaching at Columbia College (Sonora CA) started in late August. Suffice to say the second half of the year has skipped by without my being able to play much music or stop and reflect --in text-- on events in my personal life.

But here we are near the end of the year, and I have resolved to play more music and write more. Here is the first installment on that promise.

I left Modesto on Friday evening, near dark. I needed a weekend to escape from both work and life. A recent invitation from some friends to come to the farm to eat, play music, and dig potatoes seemed not only novel but down right enticing. I jumped at the chance.

The gathering clouds and my easterly travel made the sunset seem abrupt. In the quickly gathering darkness I started to worry a little about getting lost. I had only been to the farm once, so I was a little worried I would miss one of the many forks in the road. But my memory served me well. I arrived a little after full dark just in time to partake of the evening meal and announce the arrival of the rain.

After dinner we opened the jam. Ken and Meg brought guitars and mandolins; Steven brought his fiddle and a guitar; Lucy brought a fiddle; Richard, one of our hosts, had his guitar, numerous flutes, and harmonicas of almost every key on hand; and Lynn, our other host, got out her tenor banjo.

I had thrown a pair of mandolins in the car before leaving town. I decided not to take a guitar, knowing that Ken and Meg would have theirs on hand, and wanting to use a hybrid mandolin (a mandola strung up with thinner strings and tuned up to EBF#C#) as a vocal accompaniment.

Most everyone in attendance has some familiarity with Celtic music. Richard and Steve are regulars at local Celtic sessions, Ken has played with several Celtic groups around the Holidays and at Sonora’s Celtic Faire. So that’s the direction the evening jam took. Somewhere between the long workday, the furious packing, and the 2 hour drive I spent too much energy to play unfamiliar music long into the night. I bowed out at about 1 in the morning and sought my bed.

Saturday dawned gray and late. Warm, comfortable, cozy, and dry I was in no hurry to leave the confines of the futon I spent the night on. I could hear the rain on the tin roof and remembered that the neighing of horses (complaining about the weather, I later learned) had actually lulled me to sleep. I grabbed a book and read a few chapters before hearing the purposeful footsteps of my hosts and fellow guests.

After a hardy breakfast (I wondered if this is how farmers eat all the time), we donned our heavy work clothes, garden gloves, hats, and boots. The light rain was not a deterrent to digging potatoes. I learned that it was actually an aide as long as the heavy rain stayed away: no dust, fewer bugs, easy digging. So we cheerfully commenced to separate the tasty little tubers from the earth.

Lynn, showed us how to loosen the soil with a large garden fork, look for the dead potato vines, and dig the potatoes free of the dirt. The work was not difficult, though it required us to be on our hands and knees most of the time.

We knocked out a few rows in about 4 hours before shuffling back to the house for a late afternoon dinner. (Shuffling was all we could manage in boots and jeans weighed down by both water and muddy dirt.) We stripped unabashedly on the front porch and sought warm dry clothes inside. The grungy boots, socks, blue jeans, coats, and hats stayed out on the porch laying on benches and hanging from hooks. It looked as though a troop of Civilian Conservation Corpsmen had dropped the contents of their packs in front of the door hoping someone would take pity and do a little laundry.

Following dinner (leftovers from Friday night and a fresh assortment of late summer vegetables) the instruments came out of hiding and the small valley in the foothills rang again with the sounds of reels, airs, and an occasional jig.

The rest and the work had served me well. I stayed on top of the changes with a little help and tried to learn a few of the tunes as they went by. Make no mistake, I couldn’t play real Celtic music to save my life. But some prompting from the Richard and reasonable tempos from Steve kept me in the game. The occasional non-Celtic song from Ken or Meg allowed me to rest a bit in a genre I know much better. So the combination of the two things made the extended Saturday jam a much more rewarding affair.

After a supper that consisted entirely of pumpkin and strawberry pie, Lynn announced a musical game. When a letter of the alphabet is announced, players sing a song whose lyrics start with that letter. Points can be awarded to the first singer and anyone who knows the song can join in for points as well. We had a blast with it, singing songs from Broadway shows, the Beatles catalog, the folk tradition, etc.

After the game, we picked out instruments back up and jammed some more. But the day’s exertions started to get the better of me, and my concentration began to wane. After that my eyes refused to stay open. Finally I took the hint and retired.


Sunday morning. Early. Lucy, another guest, and I are the only ones up. We gingerly climbed back into yesterday’s work clothes, and we are in the first ones in the garden. The dirt is soft and cool beneath my hands. It carries the moisture of the past two days and the coolness of last night’s cloudless sky. My knees sink a little every time I shift my weight to reach for small golden prizes in the ground.

In a little while the rest of the group will join us, bringing insulated cups full of hot coffee. And we’ll finish digging up the potatoes before eating another amazing meal. After that will be the necessary return to reality. But for right now I have my hands in the soil, the sun on my back, and music in my head.

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Acoustic Adventures


  1. DoubleG's Avatar
    Sounds like the perfect way to spend a weekend and get away from the world for awhile.
  2. Daniel Nestlerode's Avatar
    Thank you DoubleG, it was indeed.