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A Circle of Music
by Gwen Foor

The snow is falling faster now, or perhaps it just seems that way because of the strong wind pushing across Old Mission Penninsula, a twenty-mile long finger of sand, rock, and vegetation that splits Grand Traverse Bay in half. The blinding white flakes do little to darken my excitement; the anticipation of new faces, new voices, old friends, and familiar melodies. Another music circle, and my first Hogwash!

Ahhh, there's the house, a beacon of warmth and welcome on a frozen January afternoon in Northern Michigan. Great - still a few parking spots close to the back door. I grab my dish-to-pass and my guitar; I'll have to come back for my autoharp and canvas bag full of musical clutter. Necessary clutter, of course: picks, tuners, capos, notebooks, extra strings, a phone number here, a song title there. Serious stuff!

As my heavy coat is whisked away to a back room, the tiny kitchen greets me with delicious smells, hot coffee in steamy mugs, and the sounds of instruments being tuned in the living room beyond. Fielding my share of hugs, handshakes, and introductions, I make my way to one of many folding chairs placed between sofas, rocking chairs, and collapsible music stands. Slowly and methodicaly, each newcomer settles into his or her own little nook until everyone is in tune and ready to play.

Lois, our hostess, suggests we use the "round robin" format for choosing what to play. She then leads us in a familiar rendition of "The Otter Creek Music of Suttons Bay--on and offline, the best source for all your music Manistee River" by Michigan singer/songwriter Jim Crockett. Hammers bounce over dulcimers, bows glide upon fiddles, tongues tease mouth harps, and voices flow together like warm, sweet honey. For a few short moments, I am transported from the cold, harsh winter to a sunscorched sandbank along the Manistee. I smile at the power of music.


Over the course of the afternoon, obscure faces smile or sing themselves familiar as folks from as far away as Kalamazoo unpack guitars, fiddles, banjos, autoharps, mandolins, and harmonicas. It's the music that has brought us together and deepened our connection, the same "circle of music" that Leelanau County musician Pat Niemisto wrote about on his most recent CD, Sing With Me, I'll Sing With You.

I first met Patrick two years ago when I ventured into a small tavern in Cedar to check out a weekly "open mike" session. It was very similar to the coffeehouses I'd fallen in love with on the East Coast several years earlier. Having been raised on country, gospel and bluegrass, folk music's melodies rang close to what I knew, while its lyrics spoke to my rebel heart about truth, justice, and the struggles of common people like myself, circles of people inspired, comforted, connected, and validated by song. In this same spirit Pat approached me that first night, his burly frame reaching out a welcoming hand as he introduced himself.
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Since that evening, the circle of music has grown larger with each passing day. Musical opportunities abound year-round in Northern Michigan. Spring, summer, and fall bring folk festivals from Marquette to Ann Arbor. From dulcimer festivals in Evart to fiddle fests in Omer, it's a foot-stompin', knee-slappin' way to spend your weekends. In winter, small groups of dedicated folks refuse to give up their music fix just because of a little snow. The Bay Area Dulcimer Society meets twice a month, offering workshops and jam sessions. The Bayside Travellers Society meets the second Saturday of each month, dancing to old-time music performed by local bands. Cedar Tavern, Full Circle Recording Studio, and the Dennos Museum, to name a few, host Michigan performers like Joel Mabus, Claudia Schmidt, Jay Weber, Jim Crockett, Robin Lee Berry, Marianne Rivers, Third Coast, Cabin Fever, and Song of the Lakes. Folk music drifts in, out, and around Northern Michigan as surely as its summer sands and winter snows.

My thoughts drift back to the present and I recognize a tune I've sung a hundred times or more, "Will The Circle Be Unbroken". It's a folk standard sung in music circles across the country, and a fitting one with which to end my first Hogwash. Lois and her husband Buck, an autoharp craftsman, explain the gathering's unusual name. Six or seven years ago at Evart's Old Time Music Festival, a group of friends decided to extend their music circle beyond the summer festival season into the winter months. Needing a name, they chose the catchiest phrase they could find on a T-shirt that day, PREMIUM HOGWASH. Over the years, it's evolved into plain old Hogwash. But hogwash it isn't. It's folk music at its best, around campfires and woodstoves, in backyards, basements and living rooms--an unbroken circle of people and music.

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