An annual trip to Loudoun County, Virginia, where a Civil War era farmhouse serves as the unexpected home for annual festivals of music and dancing.
Loudoun County is the kind of place where Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan might have felt right at home (well, Daisy, anyway). It has, today, the highest median income of any county in the United States. The town of Middleburg is dotted with images of foxes, attesting to the county’s major pastime of fox hunting. Equestrian pursuits dominate the leisure time of county residents, and the landscape is peppered with ranches and stables. On a Sunday morning, it seems every customer in the Common Grounds coffee shop is wearing riding boots, especially the kids. The Kennedy’s once rode horses here, and the revered horse dressage publication The Chronicle of the Horse shares a building with the National Sporting Library, a museum dedicated solely to “country pursuits,” such as fox hunting, steeplechasing, and polo.
Scott Fitzgerald’s characters would have thrived here. Or Thomas Wolfe’s. And, in fact, they did. Both Wolfe and Fitzgerald came to Loudoun County in 1934 and stayed at Welbourne Farm, the home of a socialite named Elizabeth Lemmon. Fitzgerald actually wrote a story there called “Her Last Case,” which was set at Welbourne Farm, sold to the Saturday Evening Post, and was regarded by Fitzgerald as an unmitigated piece of crap.
Can’t win ’em all, Scott.
I’ve actually stayed in the room where Fitzgerald worked. I even wrote at the same desk (I’m not actually sure it was the same desk, but it was a desk in the same room, so I’m going with it). And I can assure you that the only thing that Scott Fitzgerald and I have in common is that we both failed to write anything worth a damn while sitting at that desk.
Loudoun County might seem an unlikely spot for jazz, but extreme places breed extreme characters, and I have met few men in my life more unlikely, more packed full of contradictions, than Welbourne Farm’s current owner, Nat Morison.
Nat is one of those guys who you start out describing with a sentence like, “If you looked up ‘character’ in the dictionary…” A Virginian so tied to the state as his own “country” that he will only drink the one bourbon produced within the Commonwealth (Virginia Gentleman). An enthusiast of the Civil War and keeper of the original owner’s Confederate history who is also an enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama. He’s never sent an email, never owned a cell phone, never logged onto a computer. He is a very funny, very complex, and very unique man. Unique enough, in fact, to have a movie made (loosely) about him.
I met Nat through my friend Michael Magro, a clarinetist and fellow baseball enthusiast. Michael is the driving force behind a band called the Loose Marbles, a New Orleans street band that started specializing in traditional jazz at a time many thought traditional jazz was a quaint, and probably dying art form in the city where it was born. Like a lot of bands in New Orleans, it has a rotating cast of musicians and can vary in size from a quartet to upwards of fifteen players on stage at a time. Out of luck, friendship, and barely passable skills as a rhythm guitarist, I am occasionally one of those band members.
Nat Morrison fell in love with this band the first time he heard them and has been inviting Michael, and whomever he brings along with him, to the house for concerts ever since. They perform two shows a year, one at the beginning of summer and one at the end.
And I got invited because I know baseball.
When I was first introduced to Nat, we immediately began talking baseball. And not the baseball of today, mind you, but the baseball of the early 20th century. This is something I’m good at. So when Nat asked me who scored from third on Fred Merkle’s “Boner Play” in 1906* and who was on deck when Bobby Thomson hit the “Shot Heard Round the World” in 1951** and I knew the answers to both, he invited me to come visit Welbourne.
Let this be a lesson to all you elitist writers who dismiss sports as primitive diversions and meaningless amusements. I know baseball history, and therefore I got to write in the same room as F. Scott Fitzgerald.
There is a routine to these visits. The musicians arrive on Thursday or Friday, cook up big meals for themselves, and join Nat and his wife Sherry on the front porch of the home to drink Manhattans and play music until we all pass out from exhaustion. On Saturday is the concert, when folks from all over Loudoun Country arrive in their seersucker suits and summer dresses to dance to the bands on an improvised stage. The bands generally play three sets each (two bands in early summer and three in late summer), and often continue playing well past when the party is over and the guests have either gone home or found a spot to stay in the house.
And on Sunday, everybody plays stickball.
Understand, this is not an ordinary stickball game. This is a half century old tradition pitting two branches of local families against each other. A series of games are played throughout the summer and when the totals are tallied up, the team that has won the most games wins that year’s title and bragging rights until the following summer. On the front porch is a board showing the name of the team that has won every year going back to the 1960’s.
It’s a strange setup, and while the details are different, it harkens for me back to an imagined weekend in the English countryside sometime in the Victorian era, when musicians often had to rely on patrons to exist, and whose patrons would arrange performances for them at the grand parties where anyone who was anyone was invited.
But maybe that’s going back too far. Maybe this is closer to the world Scott Fitzgerald wrote about, roundly rejected in his writings, and yet was irresistibly drawn to in his life. The beautiful settings. The monied couples. The grand parties. The marvelous musicians playing marvelous things. It’s something out of the past, and the music of choice reflects that. Jazz standards of the 20’s and 30’s, spirituals, old string band numbers. Stickball in the afternoon and chess on the back porch. Drinks in the evening while the self-avowed “curmudgeon” who owns the joint opens his mail. Dogs, everywhere.
Robin and Tomas rehearse before the show.
You come to Loudoun County and you are instantly confused. You come to Welbourne Farm and you’re even more confused. People like to use cliches here like, “You travel back in time.” But that’s nonsense. The place is old, and there’s a lot of the Old World about it, but the 21st century is outside tapping its foot. The place remains rooted not in the past, but in its own way of being. It continues to function seemingly independent from the rest of the world. Maybe that’s why Fitzgerald had such a hard time writing about the place. This isn’t so much an island as it is a sandbar, and those who stand on it can see the shore but don’t have much interest in going across. Every time I go back there, everything still seems aged, but in exactly the same way as when I left. Even the dogs never seem to get any older.
On Sunday, I performed the last of my weekend duties when Michael connected a microphone to an amp so I could do the play-by-play on the stickball game. In between, he would play organ music from various ballparks, and I would hawk non-existent products and give goofy introductions to each batter. Another musician squeezed rubber chickens and hit wood blocks for sound effects. We always try to make the broadcast sound like something forgotten, something that you don’t hear anymore. It’s the only language that sounds intelligible in this corner of the world.
Barnabus Jones on trombone and Aaron Gunn on fiddle. Yours truly, just behind, struggling to read the chart.
Welbourne Farm operates as a bed and breakfast now. You can see about making reservations here.
The Loose Marbles can be found here. One version of them can be seen just below: