Great folks and great folk music

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It’s 9:45 on a cold, wintery Wednesday morning at Denison. And as it is every Wednesday, Slayter Hall, the campus student union, is swaying to the rhythm of bluegrass. The music is emanating from the lower level of the snack bar area that has affectionately been called “the pit” since the building’s construction 50 years ago.

A group of a dozen or so musicians forms a circle, each cradling a fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, bass, or autoharp. One gentleman is gently tapping a Djembe drum. Most of them are singing; and everyone’s having good fun.

And a number of fans are there, as well—mostly spouses and friends. They, too, sing along on a few of the tunes like the World War I-era “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” and some are even moved to get up and do a bit of impromptu dancing.

Made up of people who live in nearby communities, the loosely bound group began playing together at Denison 22 years ago. On this Wednesday, one of the founders, 89-year-old Bob Kunkle, is there playing his fiddle. The music swings from bluegrass to country to gospel and back again, and each musician, in turn, picks his or her favorite number. The others join in immediately.

One of the favorite soloists is nine-year-old Addy Hiltner, playing her half-size fiddle. A student of Denison music professor Andy Carlson, Addy plays the “Yellow Rose Waltz” and “Chestnut Waltz,” earning enthusiastic applause from everyone. Addy’s older brother Justin is a sophomore at Denison majoring in music. He played banjo with the group when he was younger.

On one of the walls of the pit hangs a handsome tribute to the musicians and their music. It’s a painting by alumnus Allen Schwartz ’70, titled “Empty Chair at the Jam Session,” that was a gift from English Professor Emeritus Bill Nichols and his wife Nancy.  The painting marks the group’s place in Slayter and in the life of the college. After all, this delightful tradition has existed for decades.

Thanks, folks, for the tunes and for the down-home ambiance. See you next Wednesday.

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