Iknow that we've started the long, fast slide to winter holiday madness because the 16th annual Musicians Swap Meet happened last week at the Bellview Grange in Ashland.

Iknow that we've started the long, fast slide to winter holiday madness because the 16th annual Musicians Swap Meet happened last week at the Bellview Grange in Ashland.

First there was Thanksgiving. The next day Ashland held its Festival of Light — the main attraction of which, for me, is always the Siskiyou Woodcraft Guild's woodworking show, conveniently located right next to the line to see Santa. Two days after that, I'm at the swap and the holidays are upon us.

For those who've never attended, the swap is a riot of musicians and gear-heads who come together every December to unload, exchange or just plain show off the musical stuff that accumulates in their lives.

Once the crowd starts to build up, you enter the building to join a sea of humanity. Packed in tight, there is nothing for it but to float along in the current of graying beards and ponytails that weaves in between folding tables piled high with instruments and assorted pieces of equipment.

I saw guitars, banjos, fiddles, brass and woodwind instruments, keyboards — of both high and low quality — amplifiers, PA speakers, microphones, several different accordions, drums and cymbals " you get the idea.

Some tables hold $50,000 worth of vintage guitars and amps and others are piled with items that look as though they may wind up at Goodwill if no one buys them. Some sellers are semi-professional, but most have brought personal items that they no longer have a use for.

Negotiations must be shouted over a cacophony of unrelated guitar chords and horn honks and the polyrhythmic clatter of percussionists on opposite sides of the room taking hand drums and hi-hat cymbals for test drives. Every so often a coordinated jam beaks out, typically to quickly falter in the chaos of the crowd. The whole place reeks of authenticity — of a true and wide-ranging community of musicians.

The trick is not to buy too much stuff. Across the din of conversation waft ubiquitous, sad tales of unfortunate swappers from previous years who carried more stuff home than they started out with. There is a lot of joking about what wives will say should foolish husbands come home with more guitars rather than fewer guitars.

Outside the building, I heard one woman ask whether there were any accordions inside. If there were, she said, she'd better not go in. She didn't need to buy one more accordion, and she questioned whether she'd have the discipline to pass by an available one.

The swap was originally created and continues to be lovingly hosted by Tom and Linda Frederick. Tom and Linda run sound in this valley — if you attend a lot of shows you have no doubt seen them hovering over a PA mixing board. Their company, Cabin Fever Sound, has been making professional concerts sound good around here for 25 years.

Tom says that the idea for the swap came to him in 1997 during a drive home from the Bay Area. While in California, the Fredericks had attended a flea market that specialized in guitars.

"We were on our way home and I said, 'Linda, why don't we have a garage sale for musicians and invite all our friends?' " Frederick said.

They have plenty of musician friends: Tom has been playing bass and drums in the valley since 1978, and Linda was already playing drums in bands around the region when he got here.

Back then, bars and clubs booked bands six nights a week, and musicians who were willing to work hard could earn a living. Of course, points out Frederick, back in '78 you made the same $50 a gig that you get now — it just went a lot farther and there were a lot more gigs.

The swap has the wonderful effect of bringing together in one room veterans of that bygone era and younger players who came of age in a post-karaoke, post-home-entertainment industry world. It may just be because I look for these things, but I feel a palpable sense of social history in that setting.

Back outside, heading to my car, I asked a guy in the parking lot how he did.

"Broke even," he said, holding up a guitar case. "Bought one and sold one!"

Jef Fretwell is a musician and freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jeffretwell@yahoo.com.