This week the "P-P-P Bluegrass" signs started sprouting along the roads in Sebago, pointing bluegrass fans to Clayton and Gloria Brown's place for the twelfth year of their annual backyard music festival.
"What does "P-P-P" stand for?" I asked Clayton, as a group of friends picked and sang under a shady tree on the lawn behind his house. "I've always thought it meant "Peabody Pond Pickers" since you folks are just up the road from the pond.
"Nope," he said. "It stands for Private Pickin' Party, and all our friends and neighbors are invited to drop by and listen to the music."
Clayton and his wife Gloria have been hosting this impromptu jam session since 1992, and have attracted a good crowd of bluegrass music lovers each year. People bring their dogs and their campers and spend the weekend at the Brown's backyard. They have had as many as seventeen campers with nearly ninety people in attendance, and Clayton has had to increase the size of their backyard a little each year to accommodate everyone.
This weekend the crowd was down, with only about fifty bluegrass lovers sitting around on folding chairs under the trees or in the garage. The center of their attention was a circle of nine pickers from Maine and New Hampshire, including two banjos, a bass, four guitars, a mandolin and a dobro player. The traditional bluegrass tunes flowed without interruption, with Dennis Adjutant on the guitar and Bob Boothby on the mandolin harmonizing the lyrics. Each player in turn picked a different tune, and everyone had a chance to pass the break or take a turn at a solo passage if the song permitted it. The long sets continued until everyone's fingers got tired of picking and everyone took a break.
Bluegrass music has its roots in the folk traditions of America, and in the 1920's and 1930's were referred to as "Mountain Music" or "Old Time Country". People got together to make music and their own entertainment at get-togethers, church picnics and barn dances. The tunes were gospel or centered on love, home and family.
Bluegrass as we know it today got its start in the rural south after World War II, and was a coming together of folk, hillbilly, and various types of country music that were popular with farm families and blue-collar workers. The term "bluegrass" is credited to the name of Bill Monroe's band, the Blue Grass Boys". Bill, considered the Father of Bluegrass, got his start playing old time music in the 1930's, and he started playing at the Grand Old Opry in 1939. He called his band the Blue Grass Boys in honor of the Blue Grass state of Kentucky, Bill's home. The popularity of the Blue Grass Boys and its unique style stuck, and by 1948 the term Bluegrass was a genuine genre.
Bluegrass has always been played on acoustic instruments, although electrified instruments have crept into use. All of Clayton's pickers use traditional acoustic instruments. The typical Bluegrass band includes a five-string banjo, a flattop guitar, fiddle, mandolin, dobro, and bass. All Clayton needs is a fiddle player to round out the group!
Clayton's P-P-P group is not the only bluegrass gathering we've had in Sebago this year. On August 7 Gene Bahr (Wildlife Creations) organized a fundraiser for "Bridge Crossing" (www.nfinorth.com) of Bridgton with a bluegrass band of four friends from Alabama, plus his own band "Primitive Man". The large group took over the Murphy's back yard on the north end of Peabody Pond for a pig roast and an evening of music.
Over the years I've enjoyed similar impromptu gatherings of bluegrass lovers around the country. A good friend in Virginia held an annual "Spring Fling" for 25 years at his farm with pickers and campers that I attended for many years. On one visit he took me on a long drive over winding mountain roads to a little country store where every Tuesday night pickers came down from the hills to gather and pick. Bill Monroe himself would sometimes show up to join with the circle of pickers around the stove, but I wasn't lucky enough to be there when he was. In New Brunswick my cousin and I have often joined the community gathering of pickers at a little community hall in Blue Bell, where everyone takes their turn in playing a tune and the audience can join in the singing and dancing.
The Bluegrass Festivals are fun times and are held all over the country, with several in Maine. For me, however, the most enjoyable listening is not to the groups on the stage but to the informal gatherings of pickers out in the parking lot and in the campground. There the professional players mingle with the amateur banjo and mandolin players, and the true spirit and spontaneity of the music thrives.
"I started this gathering because of my love for bluegrass," Clayton told me. "We love the music and the people who play and enjoy it - they're all good folks."
During the winter some of the pickers gather at the Brown's every other Saturday for an informal jam session, keeping the traditional alive and getting ready for the big P-P-P weekend every summer. "You know, I hadn't thought of calling our group the 'Peabody Pond Pickers'," Clayton said. "Maybe we'll think on it."
Last updated October 25, 2004
Copyright © 2004, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2004, Allen Crabtree
This article was edited and published in the Neighbors Section of the Portland Press Herald on September 23, 2004 under the title "'Private pickin party' brings bluegrass alive".