This was begun as we flew back from San Francisco the Monday after Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. i have been trying to express well what i experienced this year and the following years. It is a great experience thanks to the Hicks family and Cy Fraser.
It happens every year about this time, the first weekend in October to be specific.
Often there are other major get-togethers, like homecomings and reunions, but those others always lose out if they conflict with this tradition.
It sounds innocent enough, if not oxymoronic. i mean who would expect a major bluegrass festival to be held in San Francisco? But it is big, and i mean big.
i must point out bluegrass is no longer the majority genre. Back when, 2007 when Warren Hellman started the thing, he called it “Strictly Bluegrass.” But it grew, and more than bluegrass was played. So Warren changed the name to “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.” Now that Warren is gone, it seems to me there are more of the other genres than bluegrass.
We started coming here in 2009 when it was mostly bluegrass, or at least “country.” Bluegrass was the initiator but even that is secondary to this anachronism. To me, the “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass” weekend in Golden Gate Park is cathartic.
It amazes that so many people from so many backgrounds can get along so well. You see, the festival’s head count is estimated between 750,000 and 800,000 over the weekend.
So the chosen few head out somewhere between 7:15 to 8:00, driving down San Francisco’s steep Ninth Avenue through the stirring businesses including an all-night market where we used to stop and get ice and beer, lots of beer. But we are older now and the beer intake has decreased, and Alan has figured out the new ice packets work better in our coolers than ice and with bottled water, lots of bottled water for it can get hot in the hollow midday, and yeh, okay a bottle of wine or two. But for the past couple of festivals, we’ve skipped the market and continued down the hill straight to the entrance to Golden Gate Park.
Riding through the beautiful park with its eucalyptus, Monterrey pines, and Monterrey Cypress, trees originally planted at the park’s beginning in the early 1900’s, take your breath away with their majesty. The one sitting to the back right of the Banjo Stage is simply awesome (i think there is a photo somewhere of the Hicks and us underneath it in non-festival times).
Almost every year since 2009, the weather has been as good as it can get in Golden Gate Park. In one or two years, it has been cool and overcast. That, on the Banjo Stage in Hellman Hollow translates to bitter cold and harsh winds. i vividly recall Joan Baez announcing she was “freezing my ass off” on a particularly cool Saturday. But incredibly, it has never rained upon us during festival days.
Regardless, it is an escape from the negative for me. i spend four or five days with people who are so far beyond just best friends they give me peace. i am talking about Alan and Maren Hicks, their daughter Eleanor (and one of my favorite people on earth, another daughter), and Cy Fraser (Cy’s wife Julie died just over a year ago and we miss her being there). There are others who join us: kin, friends, friends of friends. We’ve had as few as six and as many as 20-plus join our stakeout.
i am not enchanted with the way college fraternities are run. But to give the system credit, i met some of the best people i’ve ever met in my life, especially my pledge group but all of the guys ahead and behind me with whom i experienced my life change. To call them “brother” is pretty much right on. And with this October San Francisco bunch, family is included. We are more than friends. We are family.
It is good to spend an escape with our family, my brothers.
Then there is the music. In our beginning, it was spectacular for bluegrass fans. Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers featuring Ralph Stanley, Helen Means, Emmy Lou Harris along the best bluegrass bands on the planet. There are also unusual bands, relatively unknown and inventive. A few are on the Banjo Stage but most, including some rock and new music acts on the other five or six stages spaced throughout the park.
Several of us wander to the various other stages, seeking out musicians we personally enjoy. A couple go to more stages. i normally stay in place although about three years ago, Maureen and i walked or rather navigated down the hollow through the masses to the Arrow Stage and watched the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band perform, which was worth the trip. But my travel is mostly restricted to the banks of port-a-potties and back. Except, of course, in the early morning when we stake out our claim at the Banjo Stage with Alan’s tarps, the beach chairs and variations thereof (regular camp chairs are too high and block the views of those thousands behind us), and of course, the ubiquitous coolers.
After laying claim to our territory – by late morning, the hollow looks like a quilt with tarps, blankets, and other devices for land claiming – Eleanor, Alan, Cy, and i, the early claimers, set up and wander back to the tents holding food. There is only one open early. Fortunately, they serve wonderful breakfast burritos. With that and coffee either there or from a nearby truck, we are set. We nap, we read, we meet those close by, and just talk until the show starts midday.
There are some un-pleasantries but very few considering the crowd. San Francisco is a most liberal place. Some attendees are a little too demonstrative, including a couple of the performers wearing their political leanings on their performance sleeves. Several festivals have coincided with San Francisco’s “Fleet Week.” The Navy’s Blue Angels perform their aviation acrobatics over San Francisco Bay on the Fleet Week weekends. A few of their stunts take them over Golden Gate Park. Steve Earle in Saturday’s closing act several years ago shot the bird to the Blue Angels as they flew over. Even though he said some words i won’t print here, i will not fault him. That’s his choice. That’s what freedom is about even if one doesn’t agree and personally finds it offensive. That’s why our military (unlike many others) are serving: to allow him to do those kinds of things. But it didn’t sit quite right with this Navy Veteran. Now when the Blue Angels in the crowd, there are a smattering of folks who copy what Steve Earle did.
It is the only thing i find really offensive during the whole weekend. Oh, there are people who crowd to the front late and stand up blocking views or talk loudly. But they are just being selfish and unaware. i understand and can endure their actions.
Because there are so many other examples of good, good people. There is the guy who sat next to us on the hill in one of the earlier festivals. He worked on ferries. Salt of the earth. Brought his fiddle. Played along. Pretty good. Old guy. My kind.
There has been the one thin, grey haired woman who stakes out a place up front near the center cleared for the song tent. She does this modern dance thing, moving swaying, rhythmically flowing her arms and legs through the air, to bluegrass, all day. Seven hours.
Once, there was this transgender (i’m pretty sure) behemoth dressed in leopard skin leotards, a pink tutu, and large bonnet. This person had long, thick blond hair with the roots showing. Not pretty. Tough looking. A bluegrass band was knocking it out. She was in the middle of the crowd. I don’t know who initiated it, but this person and an old country boy with a straw hat and bib jeans began dancing together. Kept it up for the whole set. Made you feel good.
There are white boys with long dread knots, shirtless, barefoot, shorts, dirty, with a dog, and blowing weed like there is no tomorrow being nice to folks as they pass by.
No fights. i’ve been to at least eight, maybe nine of the HSB’s, and i’ve never seen a fight.
i have seen people passing out. Most from over-indulging. A few with medical problems. Sometimes a combination of both. Know what? The people around them (and there are always people around, thick crowds of people around at HSB) immediately turn their attention from the band, their friends, and do what they can to help. People. Good people.
Every once in while, i will look up at gaze at the masses all around me for as far as i can see; i will watch the sea of moving humanity flowing into the park. People. Good people. All persuasions. Getting along.
So next year, i would recommend you check it out if you are so inclined. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco the first weekend in October. Put your prejudices and biases in a bag and leave them somewhere. Enjoy good music, really good music and people enjoying really good music.
And if you do, check out to the right of the sound stage looking toward the Banjo Stage. There will be one tarp with three pretty women, three older guys, maybe more. The goofy guy will be one of them. You will be welcomed to join us.
Beautiful setting. Great music, my kind. People: individuals enjoying other individuals as well as the music. A show. What a show. All of it.
Family. Good feelings, a catharsis for me. i plan to be there for at least several more years.