Born in a Barn
By Clara Byom
I didn’t learn about contra and English country dance until I lived in the big city for a couple of years and was invited to join a band. I quickly found myself at home in the genre, but not because any of the tunes were familiar or because I had ever seen this type of dancing before… I could never really explain why I quickly felt at home playing dance music. In the years to come, I played in quite a few bands and became a board member of the New Mexico Folk Music and Dance Society. Every once in a while, I dwelled on why I felt so drawn to this style of music and dance, but could never really identify the reason beyond my love of playing for dancing and my community of wonderful people. Of course, that is reason enough, but I knew there was something even beyond that. I even started writing tunes—not something I had felt comfortable doing in any other genre.
As we all know, in early 2020, the pandemic set in, and in-person dance gigs disappeared. The inspiration I previously had for writing dozens of new tunes felt like it was vanishing. In August, with all my work going virtual, I decided to go back to my family’s organic dairy farm in Wisconsin. Back in Wisconsin, I woke up every morning at 5:20 a.m. and headed out to help my dad, Roger, milk the 40 cows on the home farm. While back on the farm, I began a series of YouTube videos with my dairy farming brother, Seth, to show all my city friends about farming. Most of my city friends didn’t have a good sense of what farming entails, and as small organic family farmers, my family has a particular lens through which to present the information. I figured that any good YouTube video usually has music at some point, so why not use my own tunes?
I began filming scenes from around the farm and noticed that happy cows practically dance in the pasture. Now, I’m not about to say that there's a clear correlation between my childhood farm life and contra dancing, but it’s hard to argue that nature doesn’t dance. Have you watched the river dance? When did you last dance by a river? Or mimic a bird’s flight? I know the cows aren’t really dancing in the same way we are though, so it must be something else that makes the contra dancing so familiar. I think it’s the joy. To see the cows frolic out onto pasture for the first time in the summer is the most joyful experience on the farm. Maybe they’re feeling the same thing we do when we come out of a swing and slide right into long lines forward and back seamlessly. It’s pure, exuberant bliss.
In making the farm videos, I found myself with a need for my tunes again: to accompany cows! I took the opportunity to record a bunch of my original tunes. Most of these tunes were written with fiddle in mind, so I had to re-envision them without the fiddle and develop them by recording myself on piano, clarinet, and accordion. Twenty or more tunes later, we’ve got a series of nine full episodes, plus a teaser and Q&A session filled with farming information. You can find all the episodes via the Born In A Barn page on my website to learn about milking cows, feeding cows and calves, fieldwork, farm equipment, bovine digestion, FFA, the birth of a calf, and spring planting. While I mostly recorded tunes that I wrote before getting back to the farm, I’ve included a new waltz here named after our cow, Rizzo. It’s a short, simple, and charming little tune that captures the essence of that good ol’ Holstein.
On May 1 this year, I released my first solo album of original folk music featured in the series, and then I jumped in my car to head back to Albuquerque. I plan on adding more episodes to the YouTube series whenever I’m back in Wisconsin, so stay tuned for more! I am hopeful we will be able to dance again before too long, but until then I’ll be writing tunes for the cows in Wisconsin, the hot air balloons above the Rio Grande, and anything I spot that moves like it could be dancing for just a moment.
To purchase or stream my solo folk album, Born In A Barn Collection, or purchase my tune book, On The Brighter Side, please visit clarabyom.bandcamp.com. (The tune book includes many of the tunes from Born In A Barn.) Album and tune book cover art are by my ma, Sue Byom. Oh, and remember to buy local organic dairy products whenever possible!
Have you been learning something new during the pandemic? We’d love to hear about it! Wendy Graham is curating a year-long project to feature more of these kinds of stories in the CDSS News. Write to her via firstname.lastname@example.org, and we might put you in this spot in our next issue!