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All the way to Jackson

Posted by Sharon Armstrong on Tue, 03/30/2010 - 05:48

It was raining hard when I piled into a friend’s aptly named Highlander SUV, and headed towards Jackson, and the 18th annual Mississippi Celtic Fest.

Jackson, Mississippi lies just around 190 miles due north of New Orleans and it’s a straight shot along Interstate 55. After quick truck-stop to pick up wine, whisky and a helping of pterodactyl sized chicken wings, we pulled up at the Cabot Lodge Milsaps on State Street, just three hours after leaving the hot, humid streets of New Orleans

The Cabot, with its cavernous, comfortably furnished lobby and deer antler chandeliers, is a great hotel, and since it is just a few minutes’ drive away from the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry/National Agricultural Aviation Museum where the festival takes place, it’s convenient as well.

The Magnolia State of Mississippi is not the first place that springs to mind when looking for traditional music festivals in the United States, but the Mississippi Celtic Festival has been growing yearly in numbers of visitors and in numbers of performers since its inception in the early nineties.

The Celtic Heritage Society is the non-profit civic organization from which the festival has sprung, and from relatively humble beginnings the festival has grown into somewhat of showpiece event for Jackson, and attracts bands from all over America, and the UK.

The last festival featured the internationally acclaimed group Trian, consisting of fiddler Liz Carroll, guitarist and singer Daithi Sproule and accordionist Billy McComiskey.

But it is not just music that drives the Jackson festival, but a devotion to educating festival goers in the various aspects of what the CHS terms ‘Celtic culture’.

Valerie Plested is the Vice-President of the Celtic Heritage Society. She is also one third of the popular Traditional Irish Music band Legacy, along with CHS Director Don Penzien, and Floridian flute player Justin Murphy. She described the Society’s mission statement as being ‘the promotion and cultivation of the understanding of Celtic traditions, culture and art forms’ and credits partner Don Penzien for being the catalyst that led to the creation of the festival in Jackson.

“I would say that the inspiration for this one would be the North Texas Irish Festival. He decided that we could have one like that in Jackson,” Valerie said.

“So he got the bylaws from the people who planned the North Texas festival, and the bylaws to set up our organisation, and the outgrowth of that organisation was going to the festival. So, at the beginning, we were really a kind of mimic of the North Texas Festival, but now I think that we have grown into our own thing.”

A major part of what make the Mississippi Celtic Fest ‘its own thing’ is the number of workshops that take place there. There were workshops ranging from Irish set-dancing to Appalachian flat-footing. There were studies in balladry and music, language lessons, story-telling, and one apparently ever-more popular class - whiskey tasting.

The Scots were represented by the New Orleans Strathspey and Reel Society, a non-profit organisation dedicated to educating ‘the public about the wonderful traditional music of Scotland’. There was Scottish Highland Dancing, Cape Breton Dancing, Bodhran for Beginners, Mountain Dulcimer, Flute and Whistle, and Ullean Piping. All in all, there really is no excuse for ever being bored.

“The workshops are a major part of the festival,” said Valerie. “That goes back to the Celtic Heritage Society’s mission to get people interested and active, to try and explain a little bit of what they are seeing and hearing, and hopefully get them involved.”

According to Valerie is hard to estimate how much impact the show Riverdance had on the popularity of Irish culture in the States, but she is convinced it was immense. One way this has been apparent has been in the increase of Irish Dance schools around the United States.

Eamonn de Cógáin, a Set Dance instructor who has been involved with the Cork International Folk Dance Festival for several years, ran a number of Irish Set Dance classes for beginners. He was also the caller at the massive Saturday night Ceili Mor - an event that packed one of the festival’s biggest halls, and set the floorboards and walls shaking.

“Workshops are invaluable really,” Eamonn explained, talking about his open classes. “People come to these festivals, and sometimes have no idea of what the whole thing is about. But you know, if they come in for an hour of a workshop beforehand, just to get a feel of what it is to be an Irish dancer for a night, they do great, you know what I mean? And it is very enthusiastic crowd here in Jackson. They are great. I was doing workshops all summer in Ireland now, and sometimes it was hard to get them up. They come to it, but they want to listen to the music. They want to dance but they are afraid to make a fool of themselves, so you have to cajole them up. Not here in Jackson though - they want to get up and dance. ”

The grounds of the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Museum were beautiful, green and shady. As well as the wooden buildings in which much of the music took place, there was also a quaint little area called Small Town Mississippi, a large scale exhibit of what, well, small town Mississippi used to look like. The ‘main street’ boasted a doctor’s office, a general store, a blacksmith shop, a gas filling-station, a large, white wooden church, and - important for youngsters - a brightly-colored, bouncy castle. Vendor tents were pitched close to the entrance.

When we arrived at the grounds, a caber tossing competition - featuring some of the most heavily muscled women I have ever seen - was taking place next to a scene of medieval combat, complete with chain mail and heaving bosoms. A small child was waving a wooden sword at all the combatants, and screaming. Beer was flowing, food was being enjoyed, and the workshops were filling up. At the Somnus Sleep Clinic tent, a bunch of pipers were tuning up. As they say in Mississippi, that was funny right there.

However, my attention was suddenly riveted by a tent filled with beautifully made, glittering, and very, very sharp metal. I had stumbled onto the Scottish Armoury. And it didn’t hurt a bit.

The first thing I thought when confronted by this glittering wall of steel was they would never be allowed to sell this stuff in the UK. The second thing that went through my head was, wow, I wonder how much that foot-long Damascus steel Bowie Knife costs. Cool!

The proprietor of the Armoury was a stocky, shaven-headed, be-kilted man called Greg Lucas,.

“I started doing this when I was 12 years old,” he said. “And we have been at this festival here in the Jackson’s ground for about 10 years now. A lot of our stuff is imported from Scotland, and England and different parts of the States.”

‘Are these things edged?” I asked. He held up a frankly terrifying axe which admittedly had a beautifully engraved blade.

“Well, you don’t have to have an edge on a lot of these,” he said. “Like this axe…it is going to be heavy enough, and sharp enough to do the damage intended.”

My poker face is rubbish, and something about my expression made him laugh.

“Look,” he said. “State to state there are different laws. In some states if you buy this it has to stay in the box until you get home, and then it has to be a ‘displayed weapon only’, whatever that means - on the wall, never to take it down again, ever. And then there are some states that say that you can only have it if you are a re-enactor.”

He took me on a quick tour of the swords, daggers, and axes as well as - strangely enough - hip-flasks, coins, horn drinking-cups, and traditional music CDs. But the weapons overshadowed everything.

“Some of these things are just for putting up on the wall,” Greg went on. “Others you could really fight with. Hand-made, tempered, and battle ready. Some have historical significance - they are exact replicas of something that you might see in a museum – and some are fantasy. But they are not toys; everything that you see here is real.”

He patted me on the shoulder. “We are careful,” he said.

Next to the weaponry a music workshop was just winding up. I sat down next to a Ms Gail Gillis, and asked her what she thought of the festival.

“We love the Jackson Festival, “she said. “We come here and then we go back and try to teach ourselves some of the music. It’s a lot of fun”

She had just come back from a dance workshop, and said she was looking forward to the Ceili Mor later that night.

“The workshops are very valuable,” she said. “They give us the chance to come and dance, and we don’t have the opportunity very much at home - which is Starkville, northern Mississippi. The reason why we started doing this is the last time we were in Scotland I couldn’t dance, so we started taking lessons so we could dance the next time we go.”

The Festival’s Saturday night show-case was the Ceili Mor. It was held in the massive Forestry Auditorium, and more than lived up to the promise of its name as a great big party.

Hundreds of dancers (of varying abilities it must be said) circled and crashed to Mr. de Cógáin’s shouted instructions, and with minimal damage to both surroundings and each other. They might not have completely mastered the steps, but that really didn’t matter. The place was jumping, and everyone was having the time of their lives.

Americans, especially in the South, are easy to strike up conversations with. In the space of a few minutes I talked to a biker, who told me that there was now a Hell’s Angels Chapter in Belfast, (which I found strangely impressive) a teacher from New Orleans who told me stories of mooning fellow festival goers from cars, and a lady from Savannah, who had just bought her first bodhran and was raring to get started.

“There are people who are definitely festival goers, and that is the only time that you see them,” said Erin Lee, the New Orleans teacher, who has been coming to the Celtic Fest since 1997. Erin, who had just led her first workshop on Irish dance, had very strong views on the value of what can be taught at festivals such as the Jackson one.

“I was only informed I was running a workshop when I got here,” she said. “But we taught them the dances and they had a great time. One little boy came up and hugged me. It’s surprised them to be enjoying something that they think of as so old-fashioned. I think that this kind of thing gives people an opportunity to learn something. It gets them unplugged for a little while, and that is valuable.”

So what is the secret of the Mississippi Celtic Fest’s popularity?

“I think that one of the things that make it such a popular festival here in Jackson is that we rely on the community so much,” summed up Valerie.

“We don’t have paid staff or anything like that. We just do it for the love of what it is. It might be because the music kind of sounds like ‘old time’ music – it is what old time came from, so maybe that is why it might resonate with people here. But there is an active living culture here. Everyone who participates does it for the love of the dance, or for the music. Most of the funding actually comes through ticket and merchandise sales. We don’t have too many cash sponsors, and this year we lost some of those that were really making a difference, and today’s general economy is troubled.”

“We hope things will turn around,” she went on. “But if they don’t, then we are going to keep fighting and find another way to do it. We used to do things by begging, borrowing and stealing, and we still do things by begging, borrowing and stealing. We will just continue to do things in the best way that we can.”

Further information regarding the Mississippi Celtic Fest is available at: