Swing and Turn, Jubilee, Live and Learn, Jubilee” rang out from the theater at the Creative Alliance on an unseasonably warm March evening in Baltimore. All in attendance, both on stage and in the crowd, were singing in unison. A thunderous roar erupted, hundreds smiled, living, learning, and jubilant. After years of hard work preparing for this moment, the first night of the Inaugural Baltimore Old Time Music Festival was in the books.
When I finished college in the spring of 2012, I returned to my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland with a degree in Televison-Radio, a banjo and a craving for more music. All I wanted to do was continue making music, writing tunes and finding new folks to play with. I was performing regularly with my father Ken at the time and learning how to re-acclimate to the gritty yet charming city I grew up in. I considered moving away, perhaps closer to the mountains or pursue a career as a news reporter. Yet, something kept pulling me back. Baltimore has this hard-to-describe allure. There’s a streak of authenticity here that can’t be matched anywhere else. Folks dig their heels in and without an air of pretension, they create. With that spirit deeply ingrained in our bones, my father Ken and I got the idea to start a public jam. Frankly, it was a somewhat selfish effort as we wanted to have more friends to play music with. That said, our primary goal was to pull together the many musicians who live in the area while exposing this music we love to new audiences.
Old Time music in Baltimore didn’t evolve in a vacuum. The city has a storied history in the music. The first commercially manufactured banjos were built here in the 19th century. While disparaging and divisive, minstrel shows were quite popular. Migrants from Appalachia settled here looking for work throughout the 20th century, bringing their music with them. Bluegrass pioneers Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard met here. Mike Seeger became more deeply involved with Appalachian music during his time living here. Baltimore was a major hub for bluegrass music in the mid-20th century. The groundwork had been laid over a handful of generations.
We burrowed in to our first Old Time Jam location in the spring of 2013: Liam Flynn’s Ale House. From day one, the jam was a massive hit. We averaged 40-60 musicians any given Tuesday, from beginners to seasoned vets. It quickly grew into the primary hub of Old Time music in the area. Musicians would travel from as far as Pennsylvania, DC, Western Maryland and Delaware. There was clearly an appetite for jamming, perhaps more deeply, an appetite for community and connection. After a while, we started calling squares in the back of the bar during the jam.
Support Oldtime Central
Later that fall, along with some pals, we founded the Baltimore Square Dance at Mobtown Ballroom, a converted church downtown that’s primarily used these days as a swing dance venue. The first dance attracted more than 200 people, mostly 20- and 30-somethings looking for a fun night out, and it hasn’t slowed down since. Meanwhile, I started hosting house concerts in my Baltimore row house. Ultimately, it wasn’t a question of whether or not to start a festival to tie together the various segments of the bustling Baltimore Old Time community. Rather, it was simply a matter of when. Fast forward to March of 2019, the doors open at the Creative Alliance as Old Time music lovers poured into the theater.
We picked the Creative Alliance as the venue for a handful of reasons. The space is quite dynamic. The main theater is a beautiful black-box style space with stellar acoustics that can hold over 200 people. There is a Lounge/Bar space that can squeeze 70 people, a large gallery for jamming, and workshop rooms upstairs. The walls are covered in artwork featuring Baltimore artists. The space is full of life. Perhaps most importantly, the venue is right in the heart of the city. The program director Josh Kohn is a big fan of Old Time music, he even takes clawhammer lessons from me. When we pitched the idea to him, he was on board from the get-go.
The Friday night sold-out kickoff concert was held in the main theater and featured mini-sets from The Local Honeys, Corn Potato Stringband, Molsky’s Mountain Drifters and The Ken & Brad Kolodner Quartet. Each performer contributed something unique to the festival. Our goal in curating the lineup was to represent the many ways in which Old Time music can be used as a vehicle for creating and inspiring original music while reinterpreting traditional music with a fresh lens. The Old Time music landscape is increasingly diverse and it was essential our lineup have a strong female presence. Before Linda Jean and Montana of the Local Honeys walked out on stage for their first song to open the concert, I told them it’s no mistake the first performers at our first festival are women. The Local Honeys hypnotized everyone with their powerful originals and stunning harmonies. My father and I took the stage along with our pals Rachel Eddy and Luke Chohany for a set of our original tunes and funky rhythms. Corn Potato dazzled with their wildly entertaining set of instrumentals and songs from a day gone by. Molsky’s Mountain Drifters closed out the show with a driving and groovy set of pieces from their brand new album. Everyone jumped back on stage for an encore led by Rachel Eddy on Jean Ritchie’s “Swing and Turn, Jubilee” and the crowd-pleasing fiddle tune “Tennessee Mountain Fox Chase.” After the show, a few dozen attendees spilled into the gallery to jam. Another crew wandered over to the lounge to start a new session. With a big day ahead, my father and I headed home at a reasonable hour to get some sleep.
We arrived at the Creative Alliance the next morning around 11am. Things were eerily quiet in the building but there grew a gradually ascending hum as volunteers found their posts, sound engineers set the stages and we posted some last-minute signs. All the hard work was over. Now the fun could begin. Right on cue, hundreds of instrument-toting folks started spilled into the venue. Workshops began upstairs with Allison de Groot teaching one of her favorite banjo tunes “Jim Shank,” Baltimore’s own Bill Schmidt & Ann Porcella opened their performance in the theater and The Local Honeys led more than 50 people in a harmony singing workshop in the lounge. We were off and running.
As the afternoon progressed, it felt as if the building was breathing. The crowds would ebb and flow with every changeover. A variety of workshops were offered from beginner clawhammer banjo to advanced fiddle, flatfooting, square dance calling, rhythm guitar and more. We even offered a Musician Health & Wellness workshop taught by my Charm City Junction bandmate Sean McComiskey and David Shulman, a local physical therapist who specializes in musician health. In the main theater, there were a variety of performances including Jake Blount & Tatiana Hargreaves, the Local Honeys, Ken & Brad Kolodner, along with banjo and fiddle showcases. Perhaps the most dynamic space of the day was the lounge. Located right next to the entrance of the building, the lounge featured workshops and an Old Time Cabaret open to anyone willing to share a tune or song and concerts into the evening. A highlight of the lounge stage was Jake Blount’s History of Old Time Music performance and talk which focused on the role of black musicians in early stringband music. While the festival is a celebration of Old Time music, it’s also our mission to spark honest conversations and dive into the complex history of the music.
As evening approached, the energy in the space continued to build. The jam that started shortly after the doors opened hours earlier was still going strong. Breakout jams popped up throughout the building and workshops were winding down. A wave of guests migrated towards the main theater where Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves were about to take the stage for their CD release concert. I stood towards the back of the room as they dove into their magical set of fiddle and banjo duets. It always amazes me when hundreds of people listen very intently to every subtlety in a fiddle and banjo duet, hanging on every note. Off to my right, I noticed a young woman sculpting something out of clay. She was looking at me very intently. I was pretty puzzled by her gaze but didn’t think much of it at the time. A few minutes later, I asked her what she was working on. She said, “you!” She was sculpting clay busts of various performers at the festival. She lives at the Creative Alliance as one of their artists in residence. Her goal was to make as many sculptures as she could of the various performers at the Creative Alliance over the year. During our festival, she made clay busts of me, Stash Wyslouch (pictured), Allison de Groot and Aaron Jonah-Lewis, massive beard and all.
As the evening rolled along, the main theater transformed into our square dance venue. Chairs were stacked, tables moved and the floor swept. Our caller Rodney Sutton affixed his signature portable mic to the side his face. The doors reopened to the theater and well over one hundred people joined the intro to flatfooting workshop, bobbing up and down in unison learning the basic walking step. Out in the gallery, multiple jams were raging. The Lounge had a full schedule of evening performances lined up featuring Molsky’s Mountain Drifters, Corn Potato Stringband and the Local Honeys. At any given moment during the evening, patrons could square dance, watch a concert, jam or just hang out in the gallery listening to music coming from every angle.
I specifically remember finding my father at one point in the evening to check in. We stood in the lobby soaking in everything that was happening around us. We briefly exchanged words – something to the effect of, “Damn, this is pretty cool.” There were probably 400 people in the building. From college-age square dancing newbies to seasoned vets of the Old Time festival circuit, the age range in the building was striking. Many traveled from out of state including one carload of 20-somethings from Columbus who had never been to an Old Time festival before. They just found out about it online and decided to give it a shot.
The square dance was absolutely packed. Rodney had the entire room in a joyful frenzy. The band on stage continually evolved throughout the night with various performers hopping up and playing a tune or two. There was a palpable energy in the building all night long. The square dance concluded around 11pm at which point a flood of people exited the main Theater space. The jams in the gallery continued well past midnight. The jam in the lounge carried on ‘til closing time around 1:30am. And with that, the festival came to a close.
Our venue, the Creative Alliance, regularly hosts concerts, movie screenings, talks, and art installations but this was their first foray into a multi-festival with multiple activities going on concurrently. This festival would not have been possible without the vision and logistical prowess of Josh Kohn, program director at the Creative Alliance. He went above and beyond to make this happen. We’re also grateful to Susan Goldstein-Steinhauser, a major contributor who was with us in every step along the way during the planning process. We had a couple other partners who added quite a bit to the experience: Eddies of Roland Park who catered delicious spreads of food for our performers and Ear Trumpet Labs who lent us some absolutely gorgeous microphones to use over the weekend. It really takes a village to pull off this kind of event and we’re grateful to everyone behind the scenes who helped make it possible.
All of us were beyond thrilled with how smoothly everything went. We’ve had tons of positive feedback from patrons and performers alike. That said, there is still more work to do. We aim to further our mission of inclusivity and openness. We have a seemingly endless list of performers we’d love to have at our festival someday. We’d like to find ways to connect the festival to other aspects of Baltimore, perhaps in the schools. We fell short of our goal to incorporate a youth track at our festival. We’re already brainstorming ideas to bring in more kiddos.
There’s something refreshing about the Old Time community in Baltimore. There aren’t cliques. There’s no Old Time elitism. Rather, we play because we love the music. All are welcome. We hope you can join us next year for our 2nd Annual Baltimore Old Time Music Festival, March 13-14, 2020.
Photos courtesy of Stuart Dahne and Brad Kolodner. Logos by Brain Flower Designs.