Madison Monday: Chautauqua!

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This weekend was Chautauqua in Madison, might I add, the best Chautauqua weekend ever. When I first moved to Madison, there were two things that folks outside of Madison knew about the town. They knew about the Regatta, and they knew about Chautauqua, though they could not always pronounce the name. “That art festival thing in September,” they would say. And I would nod, because I didn’t really know what Chautauqua was, either.

Chautauqua began as an adult education movement in the late 19th and early 20th century in the United States. The mother Chautauaqua, so to speak, is in upstate New York, and took its name from Lake Chautauqua, which is where the event would take place. The mother Chautuaqua is ongoing every summer, retaining a lot of its original format and purpose. There are lectures, some religious instruction, and music. In Wish You Were Here, Stewart O’Nan’s novel about a family vacationing at a cabin near Jamestown, New York, there are a lot of references to the mother Chautauqua.

In Madison, our Chautauqua has morphed quite a bit. Mostly, it’s a big juried arts and crafts festival. There’s music and food, as well. And a wide spectrum according to your own particular definition of what’s art. But there are some very beautiful things all the same. As far away as we might have wandered from the original Chautauqua, it still draws a crowd and is a lovely fall event.

This Saturday, the spousal unit and I wandered down towards the festival on Saturday afternoon, when after a rainy morning, we spotted some blue sky. Chautauqua weekend for locals is a mixed blessing. The festival itself is farther west of our house, but Old Court Days, its own little crafty festival, is right outside our door. On this weekend, it’s really best to park your car somewhere and not get in it again until Sunday evening.

But of course, there are crowds, and mostly the people are perfectly nice and we’re happy to share our beautiful town with them. It’s discouraging to overhear them complaining, saying things like, “This town is so backwards, they don’t even have any ATMs.” Not at all true, but probably once the locals heard you saying that, you’ve greatly decreased the chances that we’ll tell you where they are. Saturday afternoon we followed a gentleman down the street who seemed to be taking great delight in violently banging each street sign he passed by, and I just have to wonder, why would you do that?

When we got to the entry to the festival, we could hear someone singing. And then it became clear they were singing in French. And singing, “La Vie en Rose,” a song that I’ve been learning on the fiddle at my husband’s request. The singer was lovely, and it erased some of the unpleasantness of the sign-banging guy. We saw many locals selling various things to all the tourists…water, popsicles, lemonade, random stuff from out of their garage or basement. I can see the temptation. Next year I think I might have to join in the fun. You might not truly be a downtown Madisonian unless you try to sell tourists something during Chautauqua weekend.

We saw a gorgeous variety of things to buy. These lovely metal garden flowers. Whimsical cats. I bought some gorgeous hand-painted merino wool from Wendy at Whirlwend, who was also selling felted bowls, scarves and purses. It was her first year at Chautauqua and she was so far impressed with the traffic. There was more music, including a gentleman playing an instrument that looked like an electric sitar and sounded quite delightful.

After making the rounds, we got in line for some fried Wisconsin cheese, jambalaya and red beans and rice, and found a spot on the wall next to the softball field to chow down. We were right around the corner from our own local favorite musician and owner of Crawdaddy Music, Rob Houze, playing some mellow jazz on his bass. We ate our food and gloated a bit that, yeh, we live here. This is our town.

And then because we live here, as the rain began again, we were able to stroll down the river back home, to tuck in with beer and perhaps some college football before heading out to 605 for dinner with friends, and then maybe some impromptu karoke at the barber shop next door afterwards.  Because that’s just the kind of thing that happens in Madison from time to time. You’re headed home and someone grabs you and drags you inside and makes you karoke.  It’s the kind of thing that makes you once again savor that sweetly superior feeling of knowing that while most everyone else is just visiting, you’re here to stay.

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A picture of me busking
outside Eco-Massage

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