by Brandon Hennen
Sherman New York—It was10:00 pm Friday night. A rolling wave of thick fog unfurled before me as I walked the gravel pathway leading into the woods. As in a dream everything seemed slightly askew. A barrage of music noise and the general mayhem of the people from the stages in the field below only excited this feeling. One of my friends jabbed me in the arm with his elbow and said, “There’s your inspiration,” pointing to the eerie mouth of the woods and all the people pouring out of it. As we headed to the campsite and into the chaos of glow stick waving hippies and dealers standing by the side of the path offering reasonably priced “trips” in the form of tabs, cookies, brownies, chocolates, and more. I knew this would be an experience that would not soon be forgotten. It was The Great Blue Heron Music Festival, and I had arrived.
The annual festival is a three-day orgy of music, art, workshops, and gatherings of all types of people, many of whom are engaged in bohemian lifestyles reaching far beyond the event itself. It is set in the rolling hills and forests of the Amish country that surrounds it. I am a skeptic by nature, and my thoughts on so-called hippies and the hippy lifestyle are far from sympathetic. I am also one that lives beyond the pale of conventionality, so with this exception, I do find a common thread with these free-spirited types. Therefore, I let go of all preconceived notions and hurtled full force into the experience of the moment.
As we trudged along the dirt and gravel path carrying our packs of clothes, sleeping bags, and blankets, I could see that on both sides of the road were a myriad of tents set up throughout the woods that seemed to stretch endlessly. My friend Mick, who’d arrived much earlier in the day and came to greet me and the friend I drove up with, Ryan, had already set up tents for all three of us. Our site was about fifteen to twenty yards into the woods to the right of the path at the bottom of a small slope. We decided that after a long drive from Pittsburgh, PA, we would relax before beginning the evening’s festivities. No sooner had I set my things in my tent and cracked open the first beer than we were greeted by a stranger.
“Hello, little man!” my friend Mick said in the clownish persona that he often employs. It was a little boy, maybe eight years old, wearing a country and western hat and dirty, little blue jeans with a t-shirt to match. He apparently wandered over from the camp in front of us, foraging for some sticks on which to cook hot dogs and smores. Ryan quickly broke a few slender twigs from a small tree to which he had fastened a kerosene lamp and handed them to the boy. That was the only act my friend needed to perform to secure the loyalty and devotion of this little beggar. Anything the boy needed or anytime he would come around our camp, it was Ryan to whom he would cling. From the boy’s camp we saw a shadow approaching.
“Hi, I’m this little guy’s mom,” the woman said as she approached our camp. The boy saw his mom and quickly scampered back to his campsite, sticks in hand. The woman was fairly heavyset with long, thin brown hair tied up in the back. She wore a grey poncho and what looked like red pajama bottoms with no footwear. After noticing that her gaze continuously came in contact with our cooler of beer, I offered her one and she accepted, sitting down in some leaves and dirt on a small incline above the fire pit. She explained that her son and daughter would be there till late the next day, and that her husband was at home with their infant child. She told us that normally they would travel to these festivals as a family, and it was her philosophy that that environment was healthy and good for raising a child. In fact, up until just recently when the newborn came, they traveled four months out of the year to various festivals. This was her tenth visit to the Blue Heron Festival, which she couldn’t stop raving about, stating that some of the other big ones were becoming commercialized. I had to take her word for it, as I was a novice to the whole festival scene.
We talked for another fifteen minutes or so and she parted from our company, moving back to her temporary home to attend to her children. My friends and I quickly sucked a few more beers down and took a couple stiff shots of Jack Daniels to loosen the limbs before heading up to the road. “Where are we headed?” I asked, again not realizing that in this self-contained transient village, it really didn’t matter because I was already there.
There’s a Korean in my Tent!
The main stage could be seen as we emerged from the woods. It was set below the road about fifty yards at the bottom of a slope. Beyond the main stage were rows of campers, little wooden cafes, and just beyond those was the lake. There was a good crowd gathered to watch the band that happened to be playing, but I was given to understand that another much smaller stage maybe fifteen yards from the main one was “where it was at” on Friday night. It was canopied by a large tent, and the band Donna the Buffalo, whom this festival was basically spearheaded by, was to play their zydeco music long into the night. Zydeco, for those who may not know, is of American roots and is a fast tempo form of Creole dance music that originated in Louisiana. It employs an accordion, washboard, fiddle, drums, and guitar. This, I was told, would be a good kickstart to the night.
Wrapping around the main stage from the road we made our way through what I will call the “square,” which was basically a patch of land where vendors set up their stands. Everything from food to sweaters and artwork were on display for purchase. I stopped at one tent to peruse their merchandise. A large couple in tie-dyed shirts with grey hair and sunken eyes sat on chairs at the back of the tent by a cardboard table and cash register. I assumed they were the merchants. My eyes flicked passed trinkets and hand carved wooden objects such as flutes and little stringed instruments resembling tiny banjos. Looking at the price tags of many of these items, it became clear to me that so-called corporate vendors such as Coca Cola and Old Navy would have had rather affordable products in comparison. Unfortunately, handcrafted does not always equal quality. The product will always be only as genuine and good as the artist or craftsman that created it.
As I scanned over hideously made sweaters with various drab color schemes which seemed to clash with one another and material that molted right in the hand at the slightest touch, I wondered who would actually fork over the large stack of bills being demanded for such items. “I’ll take the green and brown one in XXL and the blue and purple one in the same.” I looked to my side as a tall, large man of maybe thirty in a dark tie-dyed Grateful Dead t-shirt made his request. He wore cargo shorts and wore a pair of flip-flops. Parked on top of his puffy, ovular head sat a pair of blue-blocker sunglasses. Of course, it is only midnight after all, I thought to myself.
I continued browsing until I came to a small table with various colored crystals. Noticing that I had become motionless, as many a good salesman will observe as a sign of interest in the finest boutiques, the portly lady merchant got up from behind the table and waddled over. “That’s the Mother Earth crystal,” she said in a solemn, almost hushed tone. She went on, her hardboiled egg-shaped face completely devoid of irony. “It brings all elements in line with your body and soul, promoting good health.” I responded with a question, “So this will keep me healthy?” She nodded and continued, “Not just physically, but spiritually.” I looked at her and then at the bag of Doritos she had at the foot of the chair she had just come from. “Health is relative I suppose,” I said, smirking and thanking her for the information. It was time for dancing.
Just outside the dance tent we examined the crowd of about three hundred who were moving and dancing to the zydeco music blaring from the stage. We decided to just dig into the crowd, prying our way toward a small empty spot by the rear entrance of the tent. The atmosphere was absolutely alive with electricity. The heat and excitement mingled with the tight, furious playing of Donna the Buffalo and filled the tent with bristling energy. The band seemed to pour out copious amounts of infectious musical power, transferring all of it to the people lucky enough to come into contact with it.
As I danced further into the crowd, a girl with long, black hair and a sixties style polka dotted dress grabbed my attention. She was an Asian girl, maybe of Korean descent, who danced right in front of me like some crazy twisting chick on an early episode of American Bandstand. She was pretty and slight of features, and her enthusiasm looked unstoppable. She turned towards me and we danced together in a style that can only be described as a combination of the charleston, the twist, and some other crazy style not yet thought of in pop culture. After a few more songs, I asked her if she wanted a drink, and she was all for it. She motioned her friend to follow her, whom I hadn't noticed until then. Her friend was a taller, blonde girl with a plain face and a little chunky in size. I gathered my friends and we retreated to a little enclosed alley just outside of the tent.
The two girls sat on bales of hay and we fellas stood in front of them. Conversation flowed manically as a bottle of whiskey and a joint were passed from person to person. We said we were from Pittsburgh, and the Korean girl smiled and said, “Yeah? We’re from Buffalo. Is this your first time here?” My friends explained they’d been here before, but I admitted that I was new. We laughed and talked about music; the cities of Buffalo and Pittsburgh; where we’d been; and what show and events we wanted to see the next day. When the smoke was gone and the bottle half drained, I decided it was time to go exploring. “Where are you off to?” my friends asked. “I’m off a-hunting,” I replied. They asked for what, and I shook my head and said, “I’ll know once I bag it.”
I walked back up the road to our campsite, grabbed a bottle of wine from my duffle bag, and made my way back to the road pushing further on into the woods. Around a bend I saw a wooden house with a large wooden deck. A sign above the doorway of the house read “Café in the Woods.” A sign beside the door had a list of all the music bands that would be playing on the deck which was designed to be a smaller venue for bluegrass and old tyme musicians. I wandered beyond this and went deeper into the forest until I heard a sound. Either it took me getting closer to it to reach my ears or my mind only now began to refocus on reality and away from delirious perceptions. It was a drum circle. Now, dear readers, I will take this moment in the story to inform you that I am not a supporter of the drum circle. In fact, quite the opposite is true. For every drum circle taking place in the world at this minute in the name of positive collectivity there is misspent energy that could be devoted to the creation or destruction of ideas, art, and philosophy. But I must confess, I was not concerned with these thoughts for too long, as the repetitively droning and primitive beats lured me closer.
I stood staring at the fire that climbed ever higher up the sturdy logs perhaps forty feet in height and forming a teepee. Like fiery fingers of a child clutching at its mothers dress, the flames seemed to want to reach for the sky itself. Behind this were the bongo thumpers, maybe thirty all together. They huddled beneath a rickety structure with a thatched roof. A swirl of drumbeats blasted into the night as if they originated from no single source or spot yet reverberated all around. A circle of spectators surrounded the bonfire with silent fascination. A half dozen or so twenty-something-year-old guys and girls sprang forth out of the crowd and into the circle, jerking and dancing with ferocious intent around the fire. The guys were shirtless, some with streaks of paint on their faces, while the girls were generally scantily clad. As the frantic pace of the drumming intensified, so too did the stoned, wild movements of the dancers.
After about twenty minutes of this, the rhythm and beat of the drummers slowed and began seemingly going in the opposite direction, as if a river's flow suddenly reversed in midstream. With this change in direction, the dancers, as if somehow acutely attuned to this sea change, reversed the direction in which they moved round the bonfire. I continued taking swigs off my wine bottle and one of the dancers, a slender, pretty girl saw this and without breaking stride, moved over to me as I stood off to the side of the circle. She had on a swim top and a thin, blue skirt that opened up on the side and hung just below her hips. Her movements seemed hypnotic as she came closer to me and plucked the bottle out of my hands. She took a long drink and shoved it back into my arms. With swaying hips, she gently wrapped her blue scarf around my neck and pulled me close. She plunged her tongue into my mouth and we kissed deeply for maybe five seconds or so. At this point, she pushed off of me and whispered, “Watch what I can do.” Turning and leaping into the air, she flew through the sparks that shot out in all directions and seemed to hurdle the fire itself.
I sat myself on a tree trunk and continued pouring wine into my gullet, unsure if what I saw was really happening.
I awoke in my tent, fully clothed and bleary-eyed. The details of how I made it back have escaped into the chasm of my memory. As I got up to use the toilet, I saw my friend Ryan climbing into his tent. “How’d it go last night?” I asked. “I woke up and there was a Korean in my tent!” he responded, looking somewhat disoriented.
Only in America
The question that kept nudging me the entire visit was this: What is this new generation, my generation, of hippies truly about? What, if anything, does this new batch of hippies believe and aspire to? It seemed to me that they were looking to reclaim another era, one that they were never privy to but always wanting desperately to be a part of. Everywhere I looked I saw my generation as little children looking up to the older baby boomer hippies, the ones that had lived through the original era of free love and self-expression. One thing that I did understand about my generation, whether they tag themselves with the term hippy or prefer to live the ideals of a “back to earth” movement, their cynicism keeps them from oftentimes fully embracing that philosophy.
Saturday buzzed along with the same intensity. A world was created there that defied all reality, which, in fact, was the whole purpose. By noon on the second day, I no longer thought about a 350 mile stretch of interstate standing between Blue Heron and where I lived. For the moment, this was my home.
After brushing my teeth and washing my face, I left my friends to drink their first drinks of the day and climbed towards the road in search of the toilets. That’s when I ran into Granny. Now Granny was a middle-aged woman of girth, much like anyone’s real granny, only she was much more of a caricature. With a pair of narrow, rectangular eyeglasses, a blue bonnet on her silver streaked hair and a heavy dress of black and blue, she embodied what I would think would be the best attributes of the old—a sweet tooth and a tray of “cookies.” I asked how much, and she said, “Hun, these here are homemade, from scratch. I guarantee you won’t just fly today, you’ll be tastin' sweet.” On that note, I bought a bag of five and scarfed down four since I was hungry. Granny looked at me and smiled. Then tapping her grizzled hand on my face and laughing, she pushed on in search of the next customer.
When I got back to the camp I saw my friend Ryan trying his damndest to pry himself loose from the relentless grip of our cowboy hat wearin’ stalker from the tent next door. This time, he wasn’t looking for sticks to put hot dogs on, but apparently a head of hair to yank as he did with my friend’s. Enjoying the torture of my friend somewhat, I laughed and watched him squirm a bit before finally gathering him away from the pint-sized tyrant and grabbed my other friend to go and take a tour of the swamp I’d heard about deep in the woods beyond the camps.
We wound around dirt paths and hills smoky from a night of campfires and other flame related chaos. The woods smelled charred and wet, as if I were living beneath a crawlspace with nothing but earth and mildew. We traveled about a half of a mile into the woods until a clearing became present, and my eyes beheld a view of beautiful desolation. A swamp of lush green grass and weeds growing in and around patches of rocky land jutting out into a body of still, fungi rich water just sat there in the haze of the sun. A few dead trees stood isolated across the barren surface. While gazing upon this natural beauty, the silence was punctured by the sound of a couple that sat on the banks just below where I stood. The guy, no more than twenty-one, was skinny with short, tousled brunette hair. He wore thick glasses and a green peace t-shirt with a hole at the shoulder. His girlfriend sat Indian style next to him and was fairly attractive. She had on a two piece bathing suit quite small in size, with decorative flowers reminiscent of sixties mod. Her long dirty-blonde hair was tied up in a mass in the back. It was the guy’s voice that injured the quiet.
“If this is what god made, then like, god is the ultimate narcissus.” His girl laughed and he looked up at me, smirking as if wisdom had departed from his novice mouth. “Why must there be any mention of a 'god,'” I said, rolling my eyes and walking further away from the stoned couple. The cookies I ate started kicking in as we approached an isolated campsite. Among the wet leaves and roots beneath a large oak sat a tent and a circle of lawn chairs. There was a man sitting in one of the chairs with a beer koozie in his hand, wearing a pair of blue bathing trunks without a shirt. A large handlebar mustache was parked on his face and he kept his eyes hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses. He was tall and pudgy with a bald head, and with a deep, raspy, Midwestern accent he blurted out to us as we passed by.
“God bless America!” We waved and soon realized that we were not special in being called out to. Several people walked passed his little camp, and to each one he’d lift his koozie to them and say, “Only in America” or “God bless America.” Even as we put distance between us, I could still hear him saying repeatedly to every person he noticed, “Only in America, bud.” I still do not understand what he meant.
The “café in the woods” was where I made my next stop. I moved my legs and tapped my feet as The Woodticks performed their down home roots music and that is when it struck me. This is what it was about. Throw away all the pretension and drugs, toss out all the two-bit rhetoric about ‘earth goddess’ or ‘free love,’ do away with the supposed spiritual essence of the drum circle and hitch yourself up to the side of this café for what really matters here, the music. The very sound of the mountains, the spirit and plight of its people and the very energy and soul of its music used as a way to transgress such hardship came alive in Sherman, NY that weekend. Bands like Tiger Maple Stringband, whose two fiddle playing sisters brought a sense of grace to the ragged Appalachian sound, and the Skiffle Minstrels dug in their heels and embodied the rich tradition of folk music. I could only imagine, as I sat myself on a log and watched the performers, that this is what it must’ve been like for generations of folk sitting on their porches, surrounded by forest and countryside, wailing away all their love, anger, sadness, and joy to the silent trees.
As I packed my things I glanced back at the festival grounds and smiled. It was a world of its own, and now that world was shattering as people slowly stuffed their cars preparing to take their leave, a sign of hesitation etched in each one of their faces. Nobody wanted to give up that world. As my friends and I drove out of the field my thoughts turned toward home. We were just going to set up tent at a local campground called Brushwood, which was advertised as an event filled folk center. It looked to be a relaxing night before heading back home in the morning. Little did we know that not only was the weekend far from over but that a nightmare would soon follow.