For kids, 5-12, hankerin’ to take up fiddling for the first time, the bluegrassin’, barn dancin’ Oak Park Baiman gals, Rachel and Becca, say this “old time” tune is one way to go:
Berl [boil] them cabbage down, boys
Berl them cabbage down, girls
The only song that I can sing is
Berl them cabbage down.
On opening day of Oak Park Fiddle Camp, which ran the first week in July at the Nineteenth Century Club, two local 5-year-olds, Sadie Collins and Meredith Steinman, were eager to squeak out that song for the first time.
In five days, the girl in orange and the other in pink, would be performing “Boil Them Cabbage Down” in a group at a one-time fundraising show, the culmination of learning a couple of simple songs on the fiddle — or guitar — by ear.
But right now, sitting in plush chairs in a practice room, the precocious District 97 schoolgirls are focused on Becca Baiman, accomplished fiddler, cellist, barn-dance caller and camp instructor who is, so to speak, stringing them along.
“Hands loose, no claws … no old man elbows … nice, straight and tall backs, like a string is pulling you up to the ceiling,” says Becca, trying to keep the tempo flowing and upbeat. “Keep your elbow out, with the chinrest under the chin and fiddle flat, holding it by the neck with your hands all loosey-goosey.”
“Like this?” Sadie asks. “Yes. Awesome,” responds Becca, a 2011 OPRF graduate, who now attends college in California.
“I came to camp because I want to play the fiddle when I grow up,” Meredith says as Becca helps Sadie correctly stow her instrument in its case. “I think I will be able to play this song by the end of the week, but the best thing I learned today was how to sing it.”
Up the stairs, in another practice room, is Rachel Baiman, Becca’s older sister. The 2008 OPRF grad was the one who conceptualized a fiddle camp in Oak Park and made it happen, Becca says.
This year Rachel has successfully forged a collaborative relationship with the nonprofit that awarded her a college scholarship — the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association — which has afforded her group annual access to the landmark space at 178 Forest Avenue.
Just prior to snack break, Rachel is teaching Annie Clare Wilson, a straight-shooting 6-year-old from Oak Park, how to pick “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and strum “Cripple Creek.”
Annie Clare is a home-schooler who listens to Taylor Swift, John Denver, Scott McCurry and “that really famous country guy” with her brother and dad. She has aspirations.
“Being a guitar player is kind of who I am,” she says. “Country music makes me feel happy. I don’t know how long it will take me to learn guitar, but I hope it is really short, so I can start playing really good and so I can grow up and be famous.”
This folk music-inspired, half-day camp went public in the summer of 2010, after Rachel and Becca were blown away by their experiences at two sleep-away music camps in Colorado and Tennessee. What grew out of their experiences was this small camp, where local kids could create and explore traditional and contemporary bluegrass, old time and Celtic fiddle music as well as traditional dance steps (line and square dancing, called by Becca).
“Our first fiddle camp was actually in [my parents’] house for two years. It was small scale then, word of mouth, moms who talked to moms who talked to other moms, that kind of thing,” Rachel recalls.
Having earned a degree from Vanderbilt University this spring, the two-time Illinois State fiddle champion now lives in Nashville, Tenn., and is positively bent on being a full-time fiddler, she says. Since 2010, she has set toes tappin’ at the Grand Ole Opry, and while playing her five-string fiddle on tour with the progressive bluegrass group, Belfry Fellows.
Recently Rachel formed a collaboration with Christian Sedelmyer, another prolific and talented five-string fiddler, and together they are staging their first project, “10 String Symphony.” In this neck of the woods, they’ll be playing at Two Way Street Coffee House in Downers Grove on July 20, she says.
But Sedelmyer is also an instructor at the camp, and at the moment they’re more concerned about how these fledgling fiddlers and guitarists will become the next generation to appreciate the distinctive melodies, flourishes, nuances and harmonics of bluegrass and other traditions.
“Some of these kids play other instruments, for sure,” says Sedelmyer, who began playing violin at age 4, just as the Baiman sisters did. “But learning this way, by ear, means we put it on the table and say, ‘Listen to this.’ They hear it over and over again, and we come up with different ways that are fun to recall and internalize that music, and hopefully, by the end of the week, they will be able to regurgitate some of it in a way that they can do it all together.”
Back for his third go-round is camper Connor Ostrow, a seventh-grader at Brooks Middle School. He credits Rachel, his first violin teacher, with helping him understand how much fun “fiddle fever” is.
“With classical music, everything is all regulated,” Ostrow says. “I have to keep the perfect form and play the exact right note whereas with fiddle, you can pick it up pretty quickly. As long as you can find somewhere around the right melody and in the right key, you have the freedom to mess around with a song and make it sound way more awesome than when you first learned it,” he adds, as music from this day’s guest fiddle performance punctuates his point.
In season, on most Saturdays in Oak Park, Ostrow can be found fiddling next to camp instructor Scott Daniel, a senior at OPRF High School, who is a local youth virtuoso. The two say they enjoy improvising tunes in the inclusive circle known as the Oak Park Farmers Market Band while shoppers browse the nearby produce stands.
“What bluegrass and ‘old time’ music is all about is forming a strong community of people who know a lot of the same songs and dances so they can play and do them together,” says Daniel who was recently crowned Illinois State Fair Fiddle Champion. “Hopefully, kids who go to this camp will be interested enough in playing the fiddle that they will pursue it in their lives over the years.”
Fiddle dee dee
While most folks can hum a few bars of the Bluegrass classic, “Turkey in the Straw,” “Boil Them Cabbage Down” may not be quite as familiar, in spite of the many famous singers have covered it. Even Andy Griffith expertly played it with the musical Darlings in his TV show’s “Taken from the Divorce, Mountain Style” episode. It’s on YouTube. Pull on up a chair, sit a spell and view it if you like: (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eu77tX7uDvc).
In addition, movies have popularized the genre, with songs such as “Dueling Banjos” from the movie Deliverance; “Man of Constant Sorrows” from O’ Brother Where Art Thou? and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which the whole world knows, Sedelmyer notes, because of Charlie Daniels.
“The cool thing about this tradition is that it is folk music, so every part of it becomes used and reused in a different way and recycled through other traditions, and that is why it is interesting,” he observes.
A day before the camp’s ensemble fiddle-and-guitar finale performance, Becca isn’t fretting about the fact that Sadie and Meredith haven’t quite mastered the four-note song yet. She says that with a little assistance, they’ll be able to play it by ear in a group, which is the point of all this, after all.
“For me, playing this music is really about my roots because the fiddle brings me back to my home and my family. I grew up with it, and it is such a culture that became part of our lives.”