A Week at Camp Watchurhook

By Jonathan Miller

"I get it. You're going to songwriter camp." That's what my friend from work said when I told him about my plans to spend a week of my vacation at The Swannanoa Gathering's Contemporary Folk Week, July 2530.

"Songwriter camp" brought to mind memories of Southern California's Camp Hess Kramer, with its rich kid campers sporting green-and-white beanies as they roasted hot dogs over open fires on the camp's little piece of Malibu shoreline.

As I packed the car with guitars, all the extra music stuff I thought I might need, suitcases and a raincoat as an after thought, I wondered if my friend's half-pejorative description would be accurate.

I wanted to meet other songwriters and hear their songs and for them to hear mine. Getting some lessons on songwriting and performance were important, too. Learning what to do to overcome writer's block was a biggie. I knew from the Gathering's Iiterature that there would be panel discussions with music industry people, to cover various business aspects for performing musicians who have to handle their own publicity, bookings, advertising and so on.

Six hours after leaving my house I was turning onto the driveway of Warren Wilson College.

Alter checking in, I unpacked, made my bed (like a good camper) and tuned my guitars. I said hello to other people hauling their stuff up to their rooms and checked the list of participants 53 students were expected for the week - before I wandered down to the cafeteria for the first scheduled event, dinner at 5 p.m.

After dinner, there was an orientation session, with a brief speech from the college's president, Doug Orr. He mentioned the two one-week sessions that had preceded ours, Scottish Week and Old Time Music & Dance Week and finished with a song to set the mood for the new session. This was sung with his wife, Darcy and Jim McGill, the Director of the Gathering. By the end of the song, everybody was joining in the chouss. I never heard a lecture hall sound so full!

After the meeting, we were asked to sign up for the two courses we wanted to take. I signed up for songwriting with Fred Koller, whose teaching approach focused on taking what we had already done and learning to do it a little better.

During the five days of the class, the other nine students and I learned about KoIler's songwriting techniques and got some useful tips. We played several of our own songs for the class and had them critiqued by a master of the trade.

Suggestions were given for rewriting and we were assigned to bring in the rewrites in a day or two. These assignments were invariably phrased, "Try it as an exercise." Koller emphasized the need to develop listening skills, so we could analyze songs we heard to see what made them tick.

Another assignment, given with no advance warning, was to take a song title suggested by one of the students, pair up with another student and co-write a song by that title in an hour. The amazing thing was how well we all did on this one, although Koller topped us all by writing his own complete song in less than the hour.

The other class I took was performance. I was assigned to Eric Garrison's section, which had three other students. Garrison's class focused on taking the stage, talking and tuning up between songs, setting the tone of the performance, working constructively with sound people during the sound check and the show, handling hecklers and so on. Students performed their own songs for the class and were critiqued after wards by the rest of the group.

Kristina Olsen taught performance with the view that the performer owes a debt to the audience in return for the incredible gilt of the audience's time and attention.

l think the staff was impressed, as I was, by the high level of musical ability and talent that the students brought to the Gathering. One student summed it up on Friday, saying, "If I hear one more great song, l think I'm going to be sick!" Most students at the Gathering played guitar; there were a couple of pianists, a lone harmonica player and a renegade college president who had been a staff member for Scottish Week who played hammered dulcimer and had a van full of percussion instruments. (For guitarists with inquiring minds: Martin acoustics were the most in evidence, with eight or nine Taylors and three or four Guilds.)

The Gathering's organizers arranged a daily series of panel discussions, featuring various aspects of the music business as seen by persons working in it. These discussions focused on the record business. Fred Koller gave two lectures on the music business for the songwriter and the business was a legitimate topic of discussion in all of the classes.

In the evenings alter dinner, there were open mike sessions at the campus on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday nights and an open stage in Asheville on Wednesday night. Also, there was a barn dance to which students were invited on Thursday night and the staff concert on Friday night, in which several students were invited to participate.

Sleep was the only commodity in short supply throughout the week. There was no shortage of warmth, acceptance and friendship among the students and be tween the students and the staff. The 53 students left with tips, tricks and tools for making better music and writing better songs and with memories of a week that was pure magic.