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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8:25 PM January 12, 2012

Richard Hood wrote:

Bob Kunkle and I founded that session. The original members were Bob, me, Elmer Yeager, Kenny Sidle, Oscar Ball, and Troy Herdman.

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12:05 PM January 31, 2012

Meghan Hofert Gebhardt wrote:

As a DU student, I used to make it a point to sit in the Slayter pit each week, studying while listening to this group. It was the highlight of my week, 2003-2007. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us!

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3:44 PM January 31, 2012

Patti Brown wrote:

Thank you, Richard. Without your efforts this group might never have had access to the Denison campus. And thank you to all of you who have kept this weekly session going.

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4:37 PM January 31, 2012

Janet Gleason wrote:

We now live in Dahlonega, Georgia and have been exposed to lots of country and mountain music. The children in our town have an opportunity to study Appalachaian music at what is known as ‘Pick and Bow’. They may attend a summer camp for a week in town. It is a wonderful program. Best of all, for five months every spring and summer on Saturday afternoon all you have to do is bring your instrument and sit with others in front of the Gold Museum and play. One person each week is volunteers to be the leader for the week. We are entertained by the group playing for our enjoyment. It is wonderful to sit in the shade of the trees and hear toe tapping music. Good luck on Wednesday nights! Have fun!

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8:40 PM February 1, 2012

lauren Campbell wrote:

One of my fondest Denison memories!

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11:22 PM September 8, 2013

J.R. Marselle wrote:

Great article! I used to go to this jam with my Grandpa a few times a year during my summer breaks. Lots of good folks I haven’t seen in a while.

My best memory was showing up there when I was 20 with my new Martin HD-28V guitar and after the first song, Troy Herdman asks if he could play it. He puts his early 1950′s Martin D-28 (worth 5 of mine) in my hand and takes my guitar, and doesn’t give it back till the end of the day :)

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