FAYETTEVILLE–A few years ago I met a poet, which should’ve been a sign because every good epic starts with a poet. His name is Willi Goehring. We got to talking and sharing poetry on the cool Monday night in the fall. I’d been watching him from over the top of my computer, swinging my toes to the folk melodies that he and a group of eight others were playing on the front porch. There was no sheet music in front of them, just a group of folks with worn instruments, keeping beat with dirty boots in between sips of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
“We’re having a square dance this Friday,” Goehring said, “you should come.” So surprised that any kind of thing existed, my friend and I shook our heads in eager response without question. He didn’t have a cell phone, so we exchanged emails. But we didn’t hear anything from him until about an hour before the square dance on Friday.
All he sent was an email with an address, if that, it was instructions to big house on the corner of two streets I barely knew my way around. Quite honestly, the whole thing felt sketchy. Here we were, under the instruction of a stranger, searching for a house full of more strangers in the middle of a town we barely knew. We drove up and down Hill Street trying to find house until we slowed down in front of an old two story house, with a few people dangling off its front porch, smoking a few cigarettes on the porch, just out of reach of the drizzling rain.
Hesitantly, we approached the house, past a few friendly nods of the people outside. I opened the creaking door to an explosion of sound, a swirling room of stomps and hollers, as dancers whirled in and out of each other in allemande. The music! The house was full of it. It was like I was in a bizarre Ken Burns film about life in the south in the 1920s, or in that scene in Titanic when Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio join the Irish dancers in the bottom of the boat. The place smelled of alcohol and sweat. We were picked up for every dance, twirled and thrown in every direction. The floor boards resounded as we stepped and kicked, hollered and swung to a full band of two fiddles, two Martin guitars, an upright bass. But it wasn’t like any middle school dance, or a dirty fraternity party. Men held women firmly, not with limp arms or awkward suggestive gestures. It was timeless.
We took breaks in between a few songs, as they passed around homemade moonshine in the kitchen of the 100 year old home. It was magical. But in a folklorish, Mark Twain kind of way. It was endearing, time-stopping, and classically Fayetteville. I was hooked.
“There’s a revivalism happening here,” Willi Goehring, says to me while he’s unravelling cords from the back closet, setting up for this month’s square dance at The Backspace on Center Street in Fayetteville. It’s been almost three years since that first dance. Now he and a few others are able host the square dances at a local venue with real equipment so their voices don’t give out while singing instructions. And the whole street can hear fiddle melodies as passersby walk toward the bars.
“A lot of the people who are the best players, who are the oldest ones, the most steeped in tradition, don’t live anywhere where there’s a dance tradition anymore,” Goehring said. “And so that’s where the whole young people tradition comes in. If you do a square dance that’s sexy and not stupid . . . it’s like regionally sourced, like kale or something, you know? It’s better for you.” I laugh at his analogy.
“It’s like regional food, it really is, I can’t get into growing my own food but I can get into collecting my own music,” Goehring said.
Goehring was raised by his father’s collection of eclectic early jazz and blues, though it didn’t interest him. Once, he saw a folk singer in South Haven Michigan, playing a banjo. Goehring was enamored by the singer and how he managed to get a group of very difficult-to-impress college kids to sing cute minstrel-era tunes and that was how the man made his living.
“My music major friend said ‘You know everything that he’s doing pretty much anyone can do’ and that was his critique,” Goehring said, “but for me it was like the great equalizer, the thing that made it worth-while.”
In college, he found recordings of the poet Carl Sandburg, who he admired, singing folk songs. (Sandburg, also a Galesburg native, wrote the The American Songbag, an anthology of American folksongs published in 1927.) Goehring became interested in Ozark folk music by way of Vance Randolph, an Ozark folklorist, who, Goehring said, was convinced by Carl Sandburg to go back to the Ozarks and study and make his interests a profession. So that’s what he did.
“But I also didn’t have anything to do when I got here,” Goehring said. “So square dances probably saved my life, I’d probably be swinging from a rafter without them.” “Then when I got down here I pretended I knew old time music,” Goehring said. “My third night here I approached several people and pretended that I knew something about old time music and they sort of took my lie at face value. Then I was in the middle of people who had been playing it for many years. I just sort of played quietly and pretended like I knew what I was doing until they asked me to play something. I very obviously showed them that I didn’t know what I was doing, but they were patient and kind.”
Among those Goehring met was Allison Williams, who owns Maybell Music, vintage music store in Fayetteville, and also hosts the square dances.
“I’ve started dances all over,” Williams said. “In Asheville, NC. and Knoxville, Tenn., and they’re still running. That’s amazing to me.”
Williams wanted to start a square dance when she moved back to Fayetteville. Fortunately, there were enough musicians to do it.
Growing up, folk music was all around Williams, she said.
“But all I wanted to do was play punk rock,” Williams said with a laugh.
“I did too!” Goehring added.
Williams was living in Portland at the time. “There’s a scene up there where punk rock and old time really come together,” she said. “At that point I started realizing how much punk rock and folk music had in common–stuff like Woody Guthrie andTom Philips and then from there where did they learn from? Because I’m always digging for the root. So I got into the scene in Portland and then I came back here and it’s a whole different thing. Around here people are oral tradition, they’ve been learning from actual people for a very long time. I got into all the regional variations all across the south and stopped playing punk rock and started playing in an old time band and toured all over the world and then I retired back here.”
Folk music is a broad term, Williams said. Most of what she and her fellow musicians like Goehring play is more accurately termed old time music. It’s a specific type of folk music, mostly geared toward dancing events like the ones held in Fayetteville. And it’s been around for a long time. People play the same tunes all across the south, Williams said.
“They’ll play “cripple creek” here they’ll play “cripple creek” in North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina—but it’s different,” she insisted. “The instrumentation is different, the style, the rhythm the sound is all a bit different and that’s really exciting. We’ve got a lot of revivalism. We’ve all traveled and picked up bits and pieces from all over the country which didn’t used to happen, used to be strictly regional.”
The regional old time music around the Northwest Arkansas area is strong, Williams said, especially in southern Missouri.
“I hope that we keep building on that,” she said. “If people get chances to play and people like to see them play, then they’ll play more. And that’s just all I want, just more music.”
Of those musically talented and well-traveled is the noticeable character of Clarke Buehling, a local Fayetteville banjo player who frequents every jam session and dance in a three-piece suit complete with a pocket watch and a white mustache, turned up at the edges. He chuckles like Santa Clause and bears a strong resemblance to Colonel Sanders. In high school during the 1960s, Buehling played bluegrass with friends and attended the Chicago Folk Festival. He picked up a banjo after watching a traveling musician play and started searching for older, trained musicians to learn from.
“I would get their names and the town that they were in and I would go down and visit them, pop in on them,” Buehling said with a chuckle. “Sometimes I would call first, sometimes I wouldn’t,” he shrugged.
He would hitchhike, drive, take a taxi or train from nearby Chicago to see John Jacob Niles or Pete Steel in Kentucky, Wade Ward in Virginia. He went down to Kentucky a couple times to visit with a fiddler named Lewis Lamb.
“I threw bails of hay with him on the truck throughout the week, then after we’d get the hay we’d play music and get drunk at night,” Buehling said. “I was probably 17 or 18, drinkin’ moonshine and stuff like that.”
Buehling said he took his “rough and rowdy ways” to college at the Art Institute in San Francisco, where he came and went, joined street signing band at Fisherman’s Wharf, then Europe for a while, California, Colorado, back on a hippie school bus to Eureka Springs, until after a few more places he settled down in Fayetteville. Finally, he’d found a place he couldn’t bear to leave.
“This is a new scene here, it’s working great,” Buehling said of Fayetteville. “Thanks to some old time players who moved to the area and started these get-togethers, we’ve got a square dances every weekend of the month.”
Buehling plays old time music every weekend. There’s a dance the first weekend of every month in West Fork, Ark., a dance at the Josh Brown Farm in Fayetteville every second weekend, contra dances at the Veteran’s Hospital third weekends, and square dances at The Backspace in Fayetteville the last Friday of every month. He also plays with other frequent old-time players at the Monday Jam Sessions at Arsaga’s Depot on Dickson Street. And with The Ozark Highballers some Saturday mornings at the Farmer’s Market. He teaches banjo lessons during the week as well.
The Fayetteville square dances are surprisingly full of younger people, if not diverse in general. There are no matching, bedazzled costumes, but more often flannel and jeans. It’s not awkward like the square dancing unit one has to endure in elementary P.E. class. These dances, as Goehring said before, are sexy and new.
“This is the only vernacular dance I can think of, by that I mean old style dance,” Goehring said. “There’s a lot of contest square dancing nearby that young and old people are going to.”
I asked Williams why she thought young people came to these dances. She laughed.
“Because it’s awesome, it’s fun,” Williams said. “Nobody gets to do this stuff anymore. Everybody’s bored with dancing by themselves.”