Here is another report on the Marathon jams held on January 31 to raise money for Fisher House, an organization that provides housing for families of wounded American servicemen and women receiving treatment at military hospitals. This contribution comes from S??ren Olesen of the Sloughgrass Family Band in Birchdale, MN.
By noon on Saturday January 31st the Birchdale Community Building was spick and span, chairs were set up in a circle and microphones were strategically placed in the center ready to be moved towards a musician and Dave Hultman was clearing the last snow from in front of the doors. Then the snow came off the roof and covered the sidewalk again, as it always does at this time of year. The early birds started to come at noon even though the Marathon Jam was not supposed to start before 2:00 pm. “I sure didn’t want to miss this Jam,” said Alvin Anderson from Thief River Falls, MN. He and the other musicians, such as Delaine Baumchen and Al Meadows from Ericsburg and Ranier, and Dale, Dean and Peggy Ellingson from Bemidji, had driven for hours to partake in the musical fundraiser.
The Saturday Bluegrass Jam was a part of a national effort to try to create an annual event where bluegrass musicians all over the United States, and this year also in Iraq, will meet on the last Saturday of January and play for several hours in order to raise money for the Fisher House Foundation, which provides housing, at no cost, at major regional VA hospitals to military families who have a loved one receiving care there. Several jams in other cities around the country and in Iraq were already under way as the musicians in Birchdale started to tune up their acoustic stringed instruments. Moving wooden stringed instruments in and out of cars from hot buildings to the cold outdoors and back into hot buildings will make them produce strange sounds as they are taken out of their cases which makes for a noisy tuning session. Loud greetings between players and the whine of banjo strings being stretched blended together with the hum of the upright bass scales as the Birchdale players began moving towards the chairs in the center of the hall.
John Santa and the RDU session players down in Chapel Hill, NC, are the original Fisher House Foundation Marathon Jammers who started the event just a few years ago. This year Santa, who is the author of the book, Bluegrass Is My Second Language, decided to contact a few of the people who had purchased his book and had started to converse with him via e-mail, to suggest that they too should have a music jam for the Fisher House Foundation and play along with the Bluegrass Jammers in NC and at Camp Freedom in Baghdad, Iraq.
The idea was that everyone would be playing at the same time all over the country and overseas. S??ren Olesen and the Sloughgrass band from Birchdale thought that it would be a great idea to be part of an international effort to help raise money that would benefit our country’s military families who might have the need for support during some trying times. E-mails and phone calls went out trying to get people to commit to join in the fun and in the end it turned out that on Saturday January 31st, 2009, jams were planned for 7 places: Baghdad, Iraq; Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Birmingham, Alabama; Birchdale, Minnesota; Tucson, Arizona and Coon Rapids, Minnesota. Barb and Gary Carlson and the Coon Rapids Jammers decided that instead of getting in the car and driving the 380 miles one-way up to Birchdale, they would just have their own fundraiser Jam, which put Minnesota in the lead over the other states, by having two jams for the Fisher House Foundation.
Birchdale, MN, is a small town or actually more like a hamlet, currently with a population of 5, and is located on Highway 11 about 40 miles west of International Falls and 30 miles east of Baudette, way up north on the border with Canada. The day before the jam, on Friday morning, had seen the temperature drop to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit but by Saturday afternoon it was a comfortable 30 degrees above zero. The music in Birchdale started about 1:30 pm and soon harmonies and instrumental runs began bringing in the spectators, who came great distances to enjoy a hot bowl of chili and some really great music.
The freewill donations raised $6oo for the Fisher House Foundation, 25 musicians played and sang over the 7 hours that the jam lasted and more than twice as many people came out to watch and listen to the enthusiastic bluegrass players. Strong winds outside the hall were drowned out by the loud cheering and joyful singing and the event was judged by all to be a great success.
As the musicians headed out of the door later than evening, plans were made for how and where to repeat the event in 2010. As the cars headed down the highway on another brisk winter night everyone was feeling the thrumming from the great musical vibrations in their bones. Some had sore fingers and others had blisters on their hands from not having practiced enough before the jam, but everyone was looking forward to the next time they could get together with their friends and make some more great music.