Water Hill: A Musical Rite of Spring

Daily Life | music, spring, community

May 13, 2015 | by Jud Branam

Reawakening the spirit can start from many sources and express itself in innumerable ways. Sometimes, it’s as simple as picking up a musical instrument and stepping outside the door.

The Water Hill Music Festival is a unique rite of spring in my neighborhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where residents express their musical talent and seasonal joy with an afternoon of free concerts in their yards, porches and driveways.

A stroll through the 6-by-6 block neighborhood during the four hours of the festival will take a visitor past more than 75 performances, all on informal stages that usually serve as porches, driveways and lawns.  The event accepts no sponsorship, places no advertising, charges no admission. Even the bathrooms are donated by neighbors to keep the event as simple as stopping over at a friend’s house.

In terms of galvanizing a neighbohood into a community, this event has touched a karmic nerve, it seems. The area went a century without a well-known name, but quickly became Water Hill after the first festival by that title. Thousands of Ann Arborites gather to take in everything from professional performances to family bands playing tunes from video games. The weather, amazingly, has been flawless through the festival’s five-year run.

Event organizer Paul Tinkerhess said the event reflects “a city and world so eager and glad for these times when we share the joy of living.”

For musicians, it’s a chance to play in front of a large and appreciative crowd, and to collaborate in unusual lineups. For visitors, it’s a strolling feast of music, to be enjoyed at one’s own pace. For the neighborhood, it’s a chance to get outside and spruce up for company. And it’s over in time for everyone to be home for dinner.

At the end of this year's festival, I worked to pack up the gear and reconstruct our band space, reflecting on the annual jolt of good will and togetherness the festival brings. Untangling a guitar cord, I realized the spirit of Water Hill had spread even there, causing the cord to twist itself into a perfectly realized treble clef. 

Jud Branam is a member of the Fetzer Institute Social Media Team who looks forward each spring to singing and playing guitar with his band, Corndaddy, outside his Water Hill home.