Home Sweet Stage

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I am standing in the backyard of my house with a bag of trash. I look up at the house and it is glowing, with music and laughter escaping from every window. I think the house is actually swaying. I come in and count seven distinct jam clusters. It’s a lot of volume. Luckily, I have tolerant neighbors.

Over the past decade—before the pandemic—I hosted 53 house concert/parties that filled my home in Albany, NY with good people and old-time music. I am looking forward to more such gatherings once it is safe to gather again. I recall once explaining to Bruce Molsky that many of the attendees were not from the Capital District and most played old-time music.

“You have created a hub,” he said.

I’ve hosted old-time events mostly in the spring and fall seasons when we are longing for, or missing, our old-time camping gatherings. I started with one in 2009 and now average six a year. In 2019 we started using the stage in a neighbor’s home in a converted church for the concert part of the event, which allows for a potentially larger and broader audience. Originally conceived strictly as house concerts, the events quickly evolved into weekend-long jamming parties, with a concert in the middle. In the old-time tradition, the boundaries between performer and participants blur.

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I like the feeling of bringing people together. I love to hear them say later “we met at Janet’s.” At one concert I counted people from all the New England states and New Jersey. Pre-concert, I routinely go through some anxiety, hoping there will be no adverse weather and that enough people will come so that there is a sufficient donation for the performing musicians; I offer 100 percent of the door, but I never feel like it is enough.

My favorite house concert is the one at the moment, since there hasn’t been one I wasn’t thrilled by. But looking back, I am sure glad I talked Jon Bekoff into playing. I don’t think he liked “performing,” but he was passionate about sharing and keeping old-time music alive, even as he was facing his own mortality (Nate Paine, who played with Jon often, told me Jon told him about his declining health on their drive home from the concert). I told Jon we would be happy just listening to him jam. I found out later from the friends who backed him up—Nate, Jim Burns on guitar, and Michael Fleck on banjo— that that is what he did. No set list. No rehearsal. He just started playing and they jumped in.

I was lucky to grow up in a home where art and music appreciation and participation were part of our daily lives. I spent my early childhood in Lexington, KY. My dad read stories and sang nursery rhymes to us he’d learned from his mother. My parents participated in the folk revival of music and dance of the 1950s and also played in recorder ensembles. My mom learned mountain dulcimer and sang ballads. My dad always played records after dinner—jazz, classical, blues, world music, and folk music. He especially loved Scottish traditional music. My mom, an artist, had our post-war pre-fab Gunnison painted a bright red, when all the other houses on our block were pastel. For our July birthdays in the hot Kentucky sun, she would tape a roll of butcher’s paper on the side of the house and give all the kids paints to do a mural.  Then we would go for a rinse and a dip in the several wading pools awaiting us.

I had some exposure to old-time music during my childhood in the 1950s. We had several neighbors who had moved “down from the mountains” looking for work after the war. One neighbor, Mrs. Ferguson, played a double-decker dulcimer with a bow. A tall, formal minister, Buell Kazee, lived across the street from us. When my dad asked him if he was the Mr. Kazee playing banjo and singing on the Anthology of American Folk Music, he responded, “that was recorded back when I was a bum. I’m not that man now.” His grandson once invited me in to surreptitiously listen to one of his records, stating, “My grandfather used to be famous.” I also went to music camp (to play classical cello) at Berea College for two summers. Part of that program included demonstrations by local fiddlers.

We moved to Albany, NY when I was 12. My mom, who was on the faculty of a small private college in Lexington, had resigned in 1963 to protest the hiring of a man to be head of the art department, rather than promoting one of the women already working there. My dad secured a position in the sociology department at SUNY Albany and mom was hired at the Emma Willard School in Troy, so we moved north. I learned basic folk guitar in junior high and went to VFW bluegrass gatherings in upstate New York when I was in college in Oswego, NY. In 1974 I went to a folk festival in Ithaca, but was more excited by the ragtag band playing old-time music on the street. The Correctones? The Highwoods String Band? They looked like they were having so much fun.

Arriving in San Francisco in 1974, I unknowingly moved right into the midst of the vibrant Castro Street neighborhood. Harvey Milk had his camera store around the corner from me and I watched with pride as our local merchant rose to prominence in city government. After a year I moved to the primarily Spanish-speaking Mission District in a house with three large flats. My housemates were a diverse group of social activists, artists, and musicians. One housemate, a union organizer, taught me Woody Guthrie songs. He also played indigenous music with a Central American band and sang the Chilean protest songs of Victor Jara. Another housemate played saxophone and used to practice in my VW bug on the street. I had a job monitoring licensed residences for older people by offering socialization programs. I found that singing songs with residents around the kitchen table was the best way to connect and nourish interactions among people with a variety of backgrounds, languages and minds (some had Alzheimer’s, some were psychotic, and some very balanced). Filipino, Korean, or African-American families mainly managed the homes, and the residents were from all over the world. Music connected us.

Making the decision to return to the East Coast (yes, there was a man involved), I moved to Schenectady and took guitar, fiddle, and string band classes at Old Songs.

In 1980, I moved to the Boston area. My interest in becoming an old-time musician took the back seat to returning to school to acquire an RN diploma, and becoming a parent, although I did participate in a community contradance band for a year called “Roaring Jelly” and met some old-time people I reconnected with at festivals decades later.

By 1990 I had settled back in Albany, where I developed my career as a psychiatric nurse and mental health professional. I managed a rehabilitation and recovery program for psychiatric inpatients and became aware of the great positive impact art and music therapy could offer. For a period of time I led sing-alongs with a co-worker—an awesome blues and rock guitarist—and also used my fiddle as an icebreaker welcome activity as patients congregated in my group room. I was particularly honored one time when an older Black patient grinned when I started playing and said, “Hey! You are playing my music. You know I am a southern boy from North Carolina.” 

I started playing regularly with a community group called the Fiddlers’ Tour. We played out of the Portland Collection, the Waltz Books, and Fiddler’s Fake Book. There I met fiddler Mike Jarboe, who invited us to put away our books when the session ended at 10 p.m., declaring it was old-time hour. Then one day Mike called and said I should come over to the Black Creek Fiddlers’ Reunion, held Memorial Day at the fairgrounds in nearby Altamont, NY, where there were multiple old-time sessions going on all weekend. Unlike the performance-oriented folk festivals I’d been to in the past, everyone at Black Creek was making music in small amorphous groups. It was joyful. I caught the old-time bug and never looked back.

I like that old-time music is participatory and accessible to all skill levels. Although I had listened passively to old-time music for many years, I was inspired to learn tunes when I heard them live. Less “perfect” than recordings, they were rendered full of spirit and joy. Larry Warren’s Slippery Hill website also became a great resource for listening to source recordings.

Soon after my first Black Creek in the early 2000s, we started having weekly old-time house sessions here in Albany. We also regularly attended a large monthly jam in Saugerties, NY hosted by Molly Mason and Jay Ungar, where we met other Hudson Valley people playing old-time music. I began going to more old-time gatherings in the northeast including the Harry Smith Frolic, Lake Genero, and later, Old Time On The Onion and Oldtone, and attended the Ashokan Center’s southern week for a few summers. And then there were the many private music gatherings around New England and the southern festivals, Clifftop and Mt. Airy.

Back in Albany, in addition to weekly house jams, we hosted open jams in cafes and at farmers‘ markets. I am currently the fiddler in the Loosely Wound String Band and guitar player in the Alpha Cats. We often play at farmers’ markets, community events, cafes, and private celebrations. For several years I played a regular Sunday brunch gig with banjo player Paul Draper, which we hope will continue after pandemic restrictions are lifted.

“We Met at Janet’s”

In 2009 I was changing my career paths from managing a psychiatric inpatient recovery program to administrative oversight of licensing mental health programs in New York State. My son moved to New York City to pursue an art career. Facing an empty nest, and looming retirement, I contemplated downsizing, but then decided if I was going to remain in my large house, I was going to fill it with people, art, and music.

Foster.

I had three music goals in mind: first, to help build up the local old-time community around Albany; second, to nurture the broader old-time community in the Northeast and perhaps beyond; and third, to expose my local friends, neighbors, and musicians to old-time music.

My summers were filled with joyful camping gatherings, but what about the rest of the year? I knew my large two-floor urban flat had the space to accommodate house concerts. I had attended a few formal house concerts where there were performers and an audience and everybody left after the performance. What if I were to add a potluck and jamming party and accommodate overnight guests? Could that help me realize my goals? Over a decade of organizing consistently well-received house concerts, throwing packed parties, and forming wonderful friendships, I have something like an answer. It’s been working!

My latest thoughts have been how to combine the old-time events with my interest in the visual arts. Surrounded all my life by quilts made by my great-grandmother and paintings by my mother, and having a son who makes his living in animating music videos, I assumed the art gene had skipped a generation.  However, upon retirement, I began exploring creative expression through digital imaging. Although I don’t feel like I have “arrived,” it has been a wonderful pursuit. I’ve been selling prints and calendars, been in a couple of shows, and displayed at a local café. A couple of years ago I reclaimed and renovated my downstairs apartment, increasing the space in my house for music and art and guests. We have already expanded some of the post-concert parties into that space and I have ideas of using it as gallery space as well.

I find myself thinking a lot about the performers who will never be back. Jon Bekoff, Bill Dillof, and Mac Benford—may they all rest in peace—gave dynamite performances here and I feel very honored to have been able to host them. I also miss my friend and frequent event attendee, Mike Jarboe, who connected me to old-time music and people in Albany. But these losses make me even more eager to get these life-affirming events going as soon as it is safe.

As I look ahead to putting events on the calendar again post-pandemic, I also find myself thinking about the future of old-time music and my own place in it. Can a person with a progressive worldview enjoy traditional music while rejecting the racism and sexism embedded in its history? I thought a lot about this when I was first drawn to the genre. I am glad the reckoning with the past has now become an open conversation within the community. One of the reasons I liked the old-time scene was that there seemed to be many more women participating than in bluegrass. A few years ago I analyzed a list of the performers I had hosted and saw that 38 percent were women—a percentage consistent with the gender ratio of a local old-time music Facebook group I hosted. My goal is 50 percent. I have made an effort to include younger musicians, in addition to older established players. I have hosted several LGBTQ+ performers. Jake Blount has played here twice, featuring music from Black and indigenous traditions. I look forward to expanding that diversity in the future, and continue the wonderful journey I began when I opened my doors to the old-time music community.