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Sore Fingers: Recollections of a Week at Sore Fingers Summer School, Oxfordshire, England, in April 2012
Carl Jones
2013-02-12

[Ed. Note: This is a longer version of an article that appears in the Spring 2013 issue of Fiddler Magazine.]

What would you say if I invited you to join me for a week of extreme physical duress, self induced sleep deprivation, focused group anxiety sessions, jubilant exhaustion culminating in fingers worn to the nub? Whew!! Sounds too good to be true? Well, those who attend the appropriately named, Sore Fingers Summer School, in England achieve the above results with flying colors. Hundreds of kindred spirits who love old-time and bluegrass music, from across Europe, flock to this music camp for classes, workshops, concerts, and late night jam sessions in the pub. Sore Fingers is the premier event of its kind in the U.K. and it has been garnering international recognition for good reason.

Sore Fingers is held in Kingham Hill School in the lovely Cotswolds area of Oxfordshire, England near the towns Chipping Norton and Stow on the Wold. The Cotswolds region is known for a light colored, stone that almost all cottages, buildings, and stone walls in the region are made from. This distinctive stone, the lovely gardens, roses climbing up doorways, and hedgerows between properties give a village feel to the surroundings. 

Sore Fingers is organized and “helmed” by the inimitable John Wirtz and his wife Moira who manage to keep everything running smooth with a casual and, dare I say, zany flair. When the camps originator, Andrea Waters, retired in 2003 it was a natural progression for them to run the week starting in 2004. From the camp start-up in 1996, they were in charge of the “technical services” – teaching mike techniques, staging, and doing the sound and lighting. They still teach these skills and prepare scratch bands for professional presentation on what is sometimes their very first performance.  John and Moira manage to make everyone feel comfortable while encouraging them to work hard and to laugh along the way.    

Originally Sore Fingers was inspired by and based on a camp held in Elkins, West Virginia - Augusta Heritage Workshops Bluegrass Week. John says an ongoing goal has been to bring over top notch U.S. players and performers from the bluegrass and old-time scenes to share, instruct, and inspire students. All the camp participants are geared up for a fun, albeit intense week of classes. With an ever growing attendance, and many regulars singing the week’s praise, calling it a success is an understatement. Caspar Cronk, an avid old time musician and saw player par excellence has attended every Sore Fingers Week since it started. He couldn’t remember exactly how long the camp had been going. When asked if it was the seventeenth year he quickly replied, ”Hell, I don’t know!” Caspar said the reason he always came back was that,  “It was such a “happening,” and, “…occasionally, one even learns something!”

The week we attended in April 2012 started out brisk and chilly but soon the sunshine appeared revealing a lovely panorama of nearby villages dotting the countryside. There were 290 attendees at the school, plus 30 staff including tutors who taught 21 courses. My partner, Erynn Marshall and I taught the old-time fiddle and banjo classes.

The tea consumption alone was astounding – breakfast tea followed by a mid morning tea break, with a soon to follow lunch (more tea), an afternoon tea break and dinner sliding in thereafter (last chance for tea).  Snacks  and tea were adeptly and pleasantly served by Alice Coleman, Miranda Sykes, and Josh Clark  - all great musicians in their own right. Even more impressive is the amount of music playing and instruction “squeezed” in between all the tea parties!

The camp’s food was also highly palatable and why wouldn’t it be with custards and gravies abounding? There was a nice choice of salads, fruits and even vegetarian sausage for breakfast. Many potato dishes, meat pies, fresh Yorkshire puddings and other good comfort food fare were there too as anyone would expect of U.K. cuisine. With so many attending the week, however, there was an inevitable lineup or “queue.”  Janet Beazley and Chris Stewart’s singing class helped considerably by periodically visiting and serenading those held up in line. That along with cafeteria station adjustments, (moving the busy hub of the tea table away from the food line), shortened wait time even more.

The staff for the week was a grand line up for sure. Guitar instructors Grant Gordy  from David Grisman’s Quintet, and John Lowell - Montana based singer songwriter and ever solid flat picker, (coming back for his 5th week at Sore Fingers). The bass was taught by the highly acclaimed Missy Raines. Missy certainly put in her share of picking as she sat in on many of the week’s performances and demonstrated rock solid timing , great tone and compositions. Dobro classes were “slidingly” steered by the ever tasteful stylings of Mike Witcher who later in the week wore a Sherlock Holmes topper “sleuthingly “ well (a gift from his students). There is a bit of mystery in his playing and hopefully he has kept the cap in his wardrobe line-up.     

On the mandolin front was none other than 2009 IBMA player of the year, Jesse Brock, (of Flamekeeper / Audie Blaylock & Redline notoriety), who could play amazingly clean and as fast as a greased pig or lightning or possibly a combination of the two! I also heard he could do am amazing imitation of Bill Monroe flatfoot dancing! I’m sorry I missed seeing that. Equally adept was Rex Preston, (Scofield Units/Miranda Sykes), known for thorough technique and proudly picking his F-5 Phil Davidson mando with daunting skill.

Some of the other stellar teachers on staff included the aforementioned very talented, Chris Stuart and Janet Beazley who taught singing. This was their third time to be on staff at Sore Fingers and they added a bit of frivolity, whimsy, and beyond, which was a great addition to the camps light hearted atmosphere. Banjo motivation was in full swing, being ably spear-headed by Richard Bailey of Nashville’s Steeldrivers fame and Texas native, Danny Barnes, who did very much his own thing – a mesmerizing style of banjo picking that inspired, bewildered and amazed everyone. From the U.K., and also wielding a five string, Richard Collins played some great originals and was known to be in the middle of many a good jam with folks like singer and guitarist, Gary Payne and fiddler, Greg Smith. Richard kept his class busy and working hard on some great rolls. I know this because his class was right next to my old-time banjo class! I’m proud to say my class was diligent, persistent, and managed to learn a lot with fun prevailing.  At least that’s my take on it!

The room on our other wall was echoing the bluegrass fiddlers being led by Becky Buller, (featured in Fiddler magazine spring 2012), who charmed the campers with her enthusiasm, versatility, and performances throughout the week. Richard and Becky’s students were outside collectively laying down a pretty convincing “Wheelhoss” before the week ended. Often in our class I’d hush the banjos for a moment, (not an easy task!), and say—“Lets see if we can tell what the fiddles are playing.” We never could!  I imagine they were busy bluegrass licking it or something and I’m sure they probably had the same result if they stopped and listened to my class in action. They, of course, may have chosen not to listen to 19 clawhammering banjos doing hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides next door.

A record setting number of folks enrolled in Erynn Marshall’s old time fiddle class and she soon had them all fiddling a nice variety of standard & cross-tuned pieces from Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia. Erynn even managed to get four classes together later in the week for a big hillside musical throw-down. The old-time banjos, bluegrass basses, flat-picking guitars, and old-time fiddles were playing “Boating Up Sandy” and some were learning how to catch it on the fly, so to speak. A big happy group of about 90 folks having a big time on a big hill--smiles were running rampant.

Each instrument had beginning level classes led by Dan Norton (Mandolin), Laura Carrivick (Fiddle), Gary Payne (guitar), and John Breese (banjo). This helped with another big part of the week for many; being part of a “scratch band.” Many did this for the first time. Anxiety is not unusual, but was quelled admirably with guidance from scratch band tutors, Jason Titley, Roland Emmanuel and others. I was inspired by the progress all the groups made as the week progressed, (especially the group in the copy room which I frequented for afternoon class prep). Confidence was strong as they all performed wonderfully at the end of week concert. Greg Smith coordinated the bands and they received stage coaching advice from John Wirtz, and top notch treatment from sound guys, Joe Rusby and Josh Clark. The student concert is the biggest, most attended and anticipated event of the week.  

A remarkable facet of the camp is how talented the folks are that are assisting or taking the classes. Roland Emmanuel, singer and mandolinist in Roots and Galoots, is an avid blue grass player and promoter as well as very active in teaching and keeping Welsh language and song alive and well. He leads a regular bluegrass picking’ session back in Wales and has really made a lot of folks happy doing so. He assisted Chris and Janet in their singing class of 35 hearty voices, one of them being his wife, Ruth. It was her second time at Sore Fingers and for her “it was all about the people--making new friends and having a good time together.” Roland had this comment: “Bluegrass opened up a complete new world for me following my first visit to the Sorefingers camp. It gives we mortal pickers in the U.K. the opportunity to meet and learn from quality musicians of the bluegrass genre. [The tutors] show us how it’s played, and we try to emulate them.  Even more important are the alliances that are kindled through meeting our friends from across the Atlantic.  The world is getting smaller, but the music is growing stronger here.  Long may it continue to flourish!” 

Andy Mackenzie, who came for the week from northern Wales was taking Grant Gordy’s guitar class for the week.  He had been a regular sideman for John Jorgensen for several years and is quite adept in the jazz world.  Andy was seeking “immersion” in the bluegrass genre. He said, “It’s quite like learning another language in that you have to commit to totally absorbing it.” I asked both Grant and Andy what their favorite chord was at weeks end. For Grant it was “a G triad with a G# in the bass”—“very evocative—“ he mused.  For Andy, it was, “A great big open bluegrass G” !

John Wirtz describes the overriding policy for the week simply to be, ”If it ain’t broke, we don’t try to fix it. The daily schedule is hardly changed from the one implemented in 1998!” He continued:

I think the most significant change was the slow jam. I always felt this was a complete waste of time with students going into it because it was a comfort zone.  By Friday, they were doing the same thing as Monday, playing slowly whilst a tutor read out the chords!

Instead, we run a structured slow jam. On the first day, the session is with the full group and they are taught a couple of songs increasing in difficulty (waltz, three chord, four chords, etc). Before the end of the session, they are split into small groups which are closer to a band formation and they then slow jam by themselves just as bands would practice. The beginners’ tutors would work with the groups and help them surmount problems and issues. By the end of the week, most groups will have moved forward from being totally lead to being somewhat independent.

This was tried this out in 2011 for the first time and though we were expecting a bit of a revolution from the students, they quickly realized the new formula was much better. Proof of this is that one such group entered the student concert this year. That’s progress!”

Early in the week, Jackie Kempton, who is known for fiddling, sporting a smile, and abundant energy to boot, handily organized the tutor showcases or mini-concerts and promotions which were a lot of fun and well attended by the campers. It was an opportunity to be creative with group names among other things—the night Erynn and I performed we were “Nude Beach” — (a sure draw we felt!) and Chris and Janet were “The Soggy Bits.”  How’s that for an evening’s entertainment?

One of the weeks performance highlights was watching Grant Gordy and Mike Witcher joining Rex Preston and Miranda Sykes for a set which I can best describe as superbly “meshed” singing and picking. I felt lucky to be there. Another “note-able” memory was seeing Becky and Erynn fiddling up a storm in a staff performance donning patriotic tea cozies on their heads and making them seem a reasonable fashion choice. That may have been the start of a new fashion craze! 

One great aspect of Sore fingers is how unique groupings of great musicians form spontaneously and are encouraged. The concerts often feature some great camaraderie and amazing music being played every eve. Ample supplies of snacks and highly varied libations (for those inclined), do not impede this process in the slightest!

After the concerts everyone would head to the onsite pub which was always highly populated with whistle wetters, fervent jammers, and interesting characters galore. Some of the most enthusiastic picking of the week was to be found here. Yes, there are a few pints consumed and indeed, they are rather enjoyable after a long day. People come here to relax, enjoy each other’s company and to play up a storm. There was also a great opportunity to learn a new, bad joke or two as well.

One thing evident throughout the week was everyone was quite happy to be at Sore Fingers and there was no real concern as to whether the music was old time or bluegrass or any category really. The great players have gotten to be so good because they just love to pick and jamming was definitely winding it’s own way without strict genre concerns.  In the pub jam one night I heard a bluegrass song, followed by an old-time tune, then a country song, (-a hard to forget title—DON’T ROLL YOUR BLOOD SHOT EYES AT ME) and then an old swing number. Chris and Janet noticed this as well. They said; “what stands out about the experience is how the people really love the music. They’re funny, extremely good natured, and all are welcome with no boundaries.”

Another nice facet to the week is the sight of young musicians attending on scholarships having the time of their lives.  Aneirin Jones, one of the 2012 recipients,  was often seen fiddling and belting out songs with fervor throughout the week. His comment about the camp was: “I thought it would be a lot like Christmas, but it was even better!”  

As you can tell, I could go on and on, but I hope you have at least gotten a hint of what Sore Fingers is like. Of course the best way to know is probably to just go! Following the trail of Caspar Cronk who “saw” the benefit 17 years ago and knows a lot more than he lets on. 

Some of the roster for the upcoming Sore Fingers Week 2013 (April 1st – 5th) will include Fletcher Bright (bluegrass fiddle), Dirk Powell (old time fiddle), Bill Evans  and Noam Pikelny (bluegrass banjo), Chris Coole (old time banjo),  Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore (singing), Eric Thorin (bass),  Billy Cardine (dobro),  Jesse Cobb (mandolin), and more.  Check out the web site for more info:  www.sorefingers.co.uk

Huge thanks to John and Moira Wirtz for their on going hard work and love of what they do and to everyone that attends and supports the week in so many ways.  May it continue to prosper, inspire, and make fingers ache as big grins appear.

                                                                                                            – Carl Jones

[Carl Jones started playing guitar and writing songs when he was ten years old, inspired by seeing Roy Rogers picking and singing on television. He played bluegrass music in college and started attending many festivals, where he began what was to become a life-long pursuit of learning traditional fiddle music and making up “ditties.” This led to a study of the banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and various styles of guitar. Eventually he toured as a multi-instrumentalist with James Bryan along with Norman and Nancy Blake as The Rising Fawn String Ensemble.

Carl teaches at many music camps around the country and abroad. He has had songs recorded by The Nashville Bluegrass Band, Kate Campbell, Rickie Simpkins, and others. He often plays and tours with Alabama fiddler James Bryan and as a duo with fiddler Erynn Marshall. Carl has also been known to join Bruce Greene and Don Pedi as they meander through some great old Kentucky tunes. The 2012 CD Cricket’s Lullaby by James Bryan and Carl Jones, and a mandolin DVD, Old Time Mandolin Tunes and Tips, are available at
www.dittyville.com or via email: carljonesdittyville@yahoo.com.]