1. Sheriff Greyson in the Sandbox
It was a typically overcast Berlin Saturday in late spring. The playground at Arkonaplatz was full of kids churning up the sand and swarming over the wooden fortifications like a horde of miniature Visigoths. Their parents meanwhile, pale and exhausted by the long winter, convalesced among the wrought-iron benches at the perimeter, their styles of parenting ranging from generalized annoyance to indifference to a fierce, Zen-like detachment. In the apartment houses around the square, a few windows were open. The café on the corner was doing a brisk business. The insane traffic a few blocks away on Bernauer Strasse was but a vague fluffle.
And now, weaving its way through the damp air like a golden thread in a doormat, comes the unlikely sound of an acoustic guitar –– unlikely because flat-picked instead of strummed, and what’s more, played rather well, the notes clean and in time. And in tune. And the tune itself somehow familiar… In fact, –– wait, no, that can’t be. Who would play that tune here? But now a voice comes in as well. Yep, no doubt about it: the young bearded Berliner over there is in fact playing a spot-on Doc Watson version of “Tom Dooley,” right down to the sixteenth-note licks, hammer-ons, accents and sliding dyads. Strange but true. Damn.
So I walk up to the guy.
––That’s right: me, the narrator. Wasn’t it obvious, Dear Reader? I’ve been here all along. And in case you’re wondering, this is my personal narrative of the origins of the current Old-Time music scene in Berlin, Germany, which as of this writing is small but vibrant and growing; and I blush with pride to confess that I had some part in its genesis. If for no other reason, then because I actually did walk up to the guitar-guy that brisk spring day in 2014.
2. Unreal City
Now, origins are a notoriously tricky matter –– not just on a cosmic scale, but even (or perhaps especially) where human endeavor is concerned. Who discovered America? Christopher Columbus? Lief Erikson? Some anonymous Polynesian badass in a dugout canoe? And how did the people who were living there already feel about being “discovered”? No telling for sure. And even in this age of postings and repostings, of selfies and cookies, of nefarious algorithms, state-sponsored surveillance and that incorporeal Cloud of All-Knowing that hangs above the lot of it –– despite all this, we still like to think there’s a ghost in the machine somewhere, a kind of truth that can only be approached indirectly, subjectively, humanly. The objective “facts,” we want to believe, don’t quite get us there.
And rightly so, in a way. How does anything involving people really begin? Starting things is a messy business. Rarely can anyone say, “I had this like, completely original, totally unprecedented idea, and I made it a reality without anybody’s help.” Usually we’re talking about a more or less random confluence of people, place, timing, accident, who else was on the bus, the internet was down, your favorite döner-kabap stand was out of garlic sauce, etc. Rarely too do the individuals involved have any clear sense of “starting” anything. More often than not they’re just futzing around, pursuing some weird interest or other, something they maybe like doing together a few times a week. One thing leads to another, and before you know it: voila, Black Mountain College. Or: voila, Apple Computers. Nobody’s algorithm can give you that.
Especially not in a city like Berlin, a place so riven by fault-lines, colliding cultures and jagged shards of history that no one really knows what the hell’s going on at any given time; where from one day to the next a Turkish knitting shop will be replaced by a restaurant that serves only 80’s breakfast cereals, which in turn gives way to a Chi Gong studio for sex workers. Meanwhile, neat, coffin-sized holes keep appearing in the ground with helmeted men down in there doing something that apparently takes months to complete. Entire city blocks keep getting bought up by Russian oligarchs or Saudi princes and everyone has 48 hours to move out before the demolition starts. Alliances form and dissolve and re-form under a new name that is identical to the old name. Artistic movements explode into being and vanish before their websites have even been hacked. The Berlin of Iggy Pop and David Bowie may be largely gone, but something of that spirit of anarchic multiplicity and rebellion remains. It is, in a word, unreal.
It is thus with a sense of general defiance that I now undertake this undocumented and, well, totally subjective history of a bizarre social phenomenon, a history that could (and perhaps ought to) be told by a handful of others who were also “there” and whose perspectives would certainly be different and perhaps more reliable. After all, I’m just a banjo player.
3. Esse Quam Videre
But back to the Arkonaplatz playground on that fateful day. So here’s this guy, right? By all appearances your typical Berlin hipster (full beard, slicked hair, skinny jeans, handmade work boots; he’s even wearing a straw hat for chrissakes!), and he’s playing the sort of music I’ve heard throughout my childhood and youth growing up in Watauga County, North Carolina –– ever so many miles away geographically and culturally from the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood of Berlin (but just a hop, skip and a jump, incidentally, from Deep Gap, NC, where Doc made his home). Moreover, the bearded guy’s actually got an okay-ish voice, and if he’s not a native English speaker, he’s pretty close. So I stand there a moment as he finishes out the song, and then, with a skeptical squint to the eye and a deft but minute adjustment to my high-visibility orange Stihl brand ball-cap, I utter those hallowed words with which hillbillies the world over have signaled to each other from time immemorial: “Mighty fine a’ pickin’ an’ a’ sangin’, son.”
4. Desperate Measures (Incl. One of 5/4 in the B-Part)
Actually the guy turned out to be a middle-class ethnomusicologist from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. At that point, though, I was ready to take what I could get. I’d moved to Berlin from Asheville, North Carolina six months earlier and had thus far enjoyed precisely zero luck finding anything resembling an Old-Time scene there. Bluegrass, yes. Blues, check. Jazz, natürlich. Electronica, glam rock, death metal, funk, reggae, polka, klezmer, afrobeat, Turkish gangsta-rap, Scottish bagpipe brigade, etc. etc. But Old-Time? It seemed to be the one thing the European Metropolis had never even imagined could exist. I’d been reduced to playing my banjo alone in the basement storage area. At night. With the lights off. And a bottle of Jägermeister. Sad!
So although Doc Watson’s “Tom Dooley” is not exactly an Old-Time standard, it seemed like a decent place to start. The bearded guitar-player and I struck up a conversation. I sang harmony on a few songs. I told him about my quest to find an Old-Time jam. Had he heard of Old-Time? Yes, as a matter of fact. A favorite anthropology professor of his in college had been into it. Cool. Did he know of a fiddle player by any chance? No, although there used to be one, another American who’d gone back to the States but was maybe coming back to Berlin soon. “How soon?” I asked. “Not sure,” quoth the Iowan. “Maybe next summer.” The smell of the basement storage-area began to creep once again into my cortex. “Well, but the two of us should at least get together and play some music sometime,” I ventured. “Sounds good,” he said. “I could bring my banjo and we could see what happened.” “Let’s do it,” he said.
Now, granted: in most Anglo-American contexts this would be immediately understood as a case of Nice Idea But Probably Not Going To Happen, on the order of Let’s Do Lunch Sometime. But here I wasn’t sure. The question was whether the expat-in-Berlin thing changed the rules at all. Or whether being musicians did. In any event, the bearded Iowan guitar-player and I exchanged contact info, and something told me he might actually follow through. So off I went with Trouble O trouble, a’rollin’ through my breast… except, well, not: on the contrary, I was as close to ecstatic as an impoverished 40+ Gen-X’er can reasonably be expected to be.
5. Fun for the Whole Family
I should mention that the bearded Iowan guitar player in question is now a bearded Iowan fiddle player, and his name is Ben Smith. If you haven’t met him, you should. He’s also editor and proprietor of the website oldtime-central.com, which is probably where you’re reading this. He’s the kind of guy who takes things into his own hands if he notices no one else is doing so. Which is basically how he got into Old-Time fiddle. But more on that in a moment. In short: he did indeed follow through.
Within a week, Ben and I met up and fumbled our way around some tunes, or rather, songs (i.e. with lyrics), since at that point we lacked a fiddle. I had a small repertoire of songs on banjo, and he had his share on guitar, so we were able to pool our resources and work up some passable duets with 2-part harmony. “Tom Dooley,” “Bowling Green,” “Shady Grove,” “Rueben’s Train,” “John Henry,” “Lazy John,” etc. We weren’t exactly the Bing Brothers, but we managed to navigate our way somehow between the Scylla of Dylan and the Charybdis of Mumford and Sons. And most importantly, it was fun. There was some palpable musical chemistry there, and in the words of another fine fiddler, “It was a good hang.” Often, before sitting down to play, we’d walk up to the Lebanese restaurant for a falafel, and grab a few bottles of beer at the späti on the way back. Our conversation ranged from guitar-building to architecture, meditation, politics, philosophy, Game of Thrones, child-rearing and wife-pleasing. Speaking of which, my wife was pleased to see me finally emerge from the basement, so to speak, and get some color back in my cheeks. Meanwhile, our three-year-old daughter loved to hear about Lazy John, being convinced the song was about her own progenitor. “Daddy, play the song about you!” Apparently my Christian name was not the only similarity she perceived.
6. Remember the Alamo. Or Not. Whatever.
A few weeks later, Ben informed me he’d met a fiddle player –– at another Berlin playground, incidentally. Emily Fritts was a Texas gal of the first order, likewise an expat, and she played a little bluegrass fiddle, which in our situation was close enough. And as we soon discovered, she could also sing. Nor did Ben and I consider it a disadvantage to have a little more gender diversity in the music. And thus The Sandbox Stringband was born.
And almost immediately there were artistic differences, of course. I was dead set on performing in public. I wanted to work up a repertoire and either busk or look for gigs, even non-paying gigs, it didn’t matter. Having performed in numerous bands over the years, not to mention working in professional theatre, I felt strongly that performance was where it was at. Otherwise, as my Asheville friend Todd Neel is fond of saying, it’s just musical masturbation, and no one gets the benefit of one’s efforts, as ‘twere. Plus, there’s the whole Field of Dreams theory: “If you build it, they will come” (no pun intended). Maybe if we put ourselves out there, we’d attract other like-minded souls? Maybe an actual Old-Time jam was possible after all, even here, in the veritable epicenter of Eurotrashery and Discotequitude?
Emily was less keen. She’d not had much experience in performance, and didn’t feel confident about her playing. Clearly, she had higher standards than I did. Ben’s objections, on the other hand, were rather more phenomenological in nature. For him, it really was about the experience of the musicians together, not about hawking our folksy wares to an audience we could only assume would be either totally indifferent or downright aesthetically offended. After all, what educated European would want to subject his or her finely-tuned ears to Old-Time? And as for the uneducated currywurst-munching masses: why should they care? At best, it would be a kind of half-assed musical freak-show.
Well. I trust Ben and Emily have since come to see the error of their ways. We began practicing once a week and busking around town. But while it’s true we ourselves had a rocking good time, the public’s admiration for our musical endeavors was not universal. Apparently the banjo in particular is offensive to some people. To others, the whole thing was archaic and strange enough to make them think we were staging some kind of performance art or a psychology experiment or maybe just a practical joke. But for still others, albeit a small minority, that very archaism, that unapologetic hillbilly roughness, that whole ur-amerikanisch thing was so radically uncool that it was actually kind of cool again. Coins plopped into the hat. Gig offers appeared out of nowhere. Beautiful people of every conceivable gender came up to us and said, Was ist denn das für eine geile Musik? (“What’s that hot music, yo?”).
7. Enter Doug
But as far as what you, Dear Reader, would likely consider to be actual Old-Time, The Sandbox Stringband was still languishing at a certain remove. Not for lack of trying, mind you. But Ben and Emily were new to the genre, and as for me, although I’d been deeply immersed in the Asheville scene before moving to Berlin, I had learned the tunes, shall we say, only approximately. Plus, I play the banjo more like a drum than a lute to begin with, so melody was always a secondary concern. To my chagrin, it still is.
In the summer of 2015, however, things took an interesting turn. The fiddle player Ben had mentioned on our first encounter did indeed return to Berlin. One evening Ben arranged for the three of us to meet at a park near where he lived, Teuteburger Platz. (By the way: what’s the deal with public parks and playgrounds here? I don’t know, but it makes me think Berlin’s Office of Urban Planning should be credited somewhere in this story.) The fiddle player turned out to be about my age, kind of a nervous dude and pretty introverted, but he got what I’m pleased to call my sense of humor. This latter fact places him in a very small and exclusive subset of humanity, and it earned him my instant approval.
We pulled a couple of benches into an L-shape at the edge of the park and the three of us sat down to play. The first few tunes were a little rough as we got used to each other’s playing. Ben was still learning to hear the chord changes at that point as well, so the bottom end was a little wonky. But what struck me then were three things: 1) The new guy was a bonafide OT fiddler, 2) He liked to play music more than he liked to talk, and 3) He knew more tunes than you could scare off with a stick, even a big stick. Many of his tunes I’d neither heard nor heard of, and even when he called a tune I knew, his version would turn out to be significantly different from the version I was familiar with. But we kept at it. A couple of tunes, like Ernie Carpenter’s “Grandad’s Fav-o-rite,” settled into a sweet melancholy groove, while others, like “North Carolina Breakdown,” achieved a hotness scarcely to be believed.
8. We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Badges!
Personal opinion, of course. But this, Dear Reader, was the beginning of what was arguably the first actual OT string-band in latter-day Berlin: the Bear City Ramblers. Our fiddle player? One Doug Chayka, originally of Syracuse, NY and a graphic designer by trade who, like both Ben and I, had married a German woman from Berlin and was forever condemned to doing the transatlantic mambo. Luckily for us, however, Doug’s wife, a professor of German at Rutgers, was on sabbatical that year, so here they were, back in the old hood and with state-subsidized daycare for their son. Party time!
Our first gig was opening for a bluegrass band at a place down in Kreuzberg called “Privatclub.” I’m not sure anyone noticed we were actually playing music. There followed a gig at a hipster bar in Prenzlauer Berg called “Lombardo,” which The Sandbox Stringband had played once and which Doug and I played as a BFD (banjo-fiddle-duo). That gig was equally difficult to get a read on. Eventually a congenial home was found (this will surprise no one) at a small American-style craft brewery in a part of Berlin called Wedding. “Vagabund” had been co-founded (again, no surprise) by a young American expat named Tom Crozier who, yes, was originally from West Virginia and who, yes, played OT bass. Despite grotto-like (grotesk?) acoustics, the music went over well. This evolved into a monthly and then semi-monthly jam, which the management supported in the form of free beer (up to a certain point) for the musicians. I made the mistake once of opting for their bacon-flavored lager, which I admit sounds great. Apparently, however, the bacon in question had been scraped from the bottom of a grill someone left out in the rain for about three years. Everything else, though, was awesome, if a bit high-octane for my tastes.
Likewise, across town in Friedrichshain, we landed a couple of gigs at a craft brewery and beer-shop called “Bierlieb,” which at the time was managed by a charming Australian woman named Cristal Peck, and which now, alas, no longer exists (see above re: Turkish knitting shops). It was around this time too – maybe the second or third Bierlieb gig – that we started to notice certain “repeat offenders” in our audience. “Inconceivable!” you say; and yet: there were people in Berlin who not only did not leave the room when we started to play, but who actually went to the trouble of discovering the room in question beforehand, and taking an advantageous seat in order to hear us. Nor is this all: bit-by-bit, people started approaching us between tunes – discretely to be sure, as if there were something mildly embarrassing about it – to inquire about the music, where it came from, how the instruments are tuned and played, why the banjo doesn’t have any frets on it, how we knew each other, etc.
You can guess, Dear Reader, what happened next: people started showing up with instruments. While The Bear City Ramblers continued to gig around town until the summer of 2016, when Doug headed back to the States, and while Ben and I kept gigging as a duo thereafter, there was by that point enough of an OT cadre to keep the dream alive even beyond the band per se. At the bi-monthly Vagabund jam, Tom was forced to institute a new coupon policy for beer: the musicians received a roll of beer tickets at the start of the jam to distribute as we saw fit. That was a sad day, but also a bit of a reality check. And to be honest, I don’t recall ever stumbling back to the Seestrasse subway station wishing I could have had one more beer.
Doug’s departure was bittersweet. Let that be said. But it had an up-side: it motivated Ben to take up the fiddle in earnest himself. Within a few months, he was actually playing decent OT fiddle. Of course that’s impossible, and you don’t believe me, but it’s true. And by the time he and I attended our first Clifftop in 2017, he was ripping it up in a big way. Apparently there actually is such a thing as musical talent. From my perspective as banjo player, it was a fascinating metamorphosis, and the same groove I’d found with Ben on guitar I found again with him on fiddle, only more so.
9. Persons of the Drama
Perhaps it’s human nature to believe one plays the leading role in one’s own life. I confess I am susceptible to this form of hubris; nor does my honest mortification at catching myself in it make the situation any better. So allow me, Dear Reader, to swerve abruptly from the slovenly dirt road of Me and onto the smooth black-top of a more objective and generous view, a sort of dramatis personae, as it were:
In addition to Ben, who remains the ring-leader, and the aforementioned Emily, there’s also Niko Para, a fine banjo-player of American railroad-punk stock; Martha Rowsell, an excellent fiddle player from England; Edwina Dunn from Down Under, another fine fiddler; Matthias Itzenplitz, a German guitarist and bluesman; Freddy King, a screenwriter by trade, now on fiddle, an instrument he has to thank for his rescue from hip-hop; Mark Wickam, a hyperskilled bass player; Niki Smith, a native Berliner new to OT and working it on the uke; and, from time to time, Craig Judelman, an expat fiddler with a voice like something out of Jurassic Park. And then of course there’s Nathan Bontrager, another expat and a sort of one-man kung-fu tournament on anything bowed. Nathan actually resides in Cologne, but is frequently in Berlin for sundry dubious purposes best left unspecified here.
Moreover, Berlin is the kind of place where people come and go – be they musicians on tour, people visiting friends, confused souls looking for a place to disappear for a while, or expats like myself drifting in and staying for a few years before moving on. What this meant was that, apart from the handful of regulars, the Vagabund jam was a sort of a revolving door of musical misfits. We never knew who was going to show up out of nowhere, play a set, and vanish again like a shadow into the Central European night.
10. Speaking of Bizarre
Plus, you know how it is, Dear Reader. You can have a thing called an Old-Time String Band, but in practice the personnel ends up being kind of fluid, depending on who’s available and/or shows up. Here I have to mention one of the strangest gigs “we” played that summer after Doug left. It was for an actual contra-dance club that met once a month in the Schöneberg quarter. Nota bene: the Germans are kind of weird when it comes to social dance. On the one hand, they are obsessed with it: everyone takes night classes in some form of Tango or Merengue or West Coast Swing or what have you, and they do so for years on end. But on the other hand, –– and I think I can say this with the full agreement of my Berliner wife –– the congenital German fear of embarrassment does not necessarily make for good times on the dance floor. The Germans, as far as I can tell, are possibly the least free, easy and spontaneous Volk on the face of the earth. Maybe they have their reasons. But whatever they may be, they approach social dance the same way they approach everything else: as a task to be mastered and hence as an opportunity to exemplify correctness, that supreme of all German social values. The main thing is to avoid doing anything wrong, especially if it makes you look silly. Heaven forbid! – Which always struck me as odd and a little sad. Don’t they know that trying desperately to avoid looking silly is about the silliest thing a person can do?
But I digress. So Ben somehow lands us this gig playing for a contra-dance club. Contra-dance? Indeed. And when I tell you that Schöneberg belonged to the American Sector of West Berlin, then you will understand both the provenance of the club (the occupying U.S. soldiers) and the average age of the surviving club members. The walls of their meeting space, which was actually the basement of a daycare center, were decorated with memorabilia dating back to the late 1940’s. They’d been meeting there for over sixty years and had only ever danced to recordings. It occurred to me as we were tuning up that this whole thing could go terribly wrong.
It was delightful. It was also easily the most appreciated I’ve ever felt as a practitioner of this musical form. The dancers clapped vigorously after each number, their faces flushed with effort and surprise and delight. There was a sense of wildness in the air, which appeared to catch the caller – who was also the club’s president – somewhat off-guard. Perhaps he was concerned for the health and safety of his more superannuated members. Or perhaps he feared someone might make a mistake and look silly. In any event, at his discretion we played the tunes for only about 3 or 4 minutes each, as opposed to the standard OT ten-to-fifteen. Even so, this near-miss with silliness had had its effect: we could see it in the dancers’s eyes: an intuition of vast territories of uninhibited fun, lit up with music.
11. This Is Not My Beautiful House!
My wife and I and our two daughters moved back to Asheville in January of 2017. It’s good to be back home. But although Asheville is basically Old-Time Heaven, I often find I miss our little scene back in Berlin. I’m surprised by this, since I’m not really a “grass-is-always-greener” type guy. And so I’ve been trying to figure it out. Being at the start of something, something small and inconspicuous in the midst of a massive foreign city that cares not a whit for one’s existence: in a way this was very liberating. I sang a lot more in Berlin than I do in Asheville, for instance. I wrote more songs. I wrote more in general. In many ways I had more fun. –– Wait: more fun than living in Asheville? How is that possible?
But the thing about Berlin, at least as far as Old-Time is concerned, was that I was less tempted to compare myself to other musicians. Hell, there just weren’t that many of us. For a while there, Niko and I were the only banjo players, and our styles are entirely different. Asheville meanwhile, although it’s a minuscule hick-town compared to Berlin, is the kind of place where you can’t sling a fiddle without it bouncing off a craft-brewery and hitting a banjo player up-side-the-head. And the banjo player him/herself usually turns out to be a fiddle player as well who can majorly clean up on either one. (The name John Herrmann comes to mind.) Comparing oneself to other musicians in Asheville is a sure-fire way to feel like a bungling, talent-free poseur.
The big-fish-small-pond metaphor might seem to apply here, except it’s the inverse, since few ponds are bigger than Berlin, or smaller than Asheville, and yet somehow my relative smallness in Berlin –– and the smallness of our little OT scene –– was part of what made it good. It was a little like high school drama club: the camaraderie of a small group of people who are so convinced of their freakishness that they don’t even try to be cool. But also there was the sense that no one was going to come along and say, “You’re playing that tune wrong.” In other words, the leeway for experimentation, for smuggling tunes in from other genres, and for plain old fucking-around-and-up was pretty wide. There’s something to be said for that.
So maybe the reason I miss Berlin has to do with the dynamic of a small community within a much larger context (Berlin) as opposed to a large community within a much smaller context (Asheville). But that’s not quite right either. There’s a subjective dimension as well. As time passes and my years in Berlin recede, I realize with greater and greater clarity that, at least when it comes to Old-Time, where you are has less to do with your happiness and satisfaction than how you are where you are, i.e. your way of inhabiting that place. When OT musicians pass through Asheville and join one of the many jams, you’ll often hear them express their envy of us locals. Since my return from Berlin, though, I always feel like saying, “Well, but there’s something nice about a small scene too.” All you need is a few instruments and a few people to go with them, people who like to play and who are willing to practice a little bit. Because after all, it’s just as much about the people as the music. And good people you can find pretty much anywhere.
Well, as my wife says, Man kann nicht alles haben: You can’t have it all. You have to choose where and how and with whom to spend the one life you’ve got. I can think of worse ways to spend it than playing Old-Time music in Berlin.
Addendum: December 6, 2018
Just as I feared – but in a way also hoped – I stand corrected here on one significant point. None other than the aforementioned Doug Chayka hastens to point out that there is indeed a sort of “pre-history” to my origin myth, and it involves one Aaron Jonah Lewis, whom I confess I never heard of till now and have never met. Here’s what Mr. Chayka has to say: “I think Aaron Jonah Lewis should be added to the story, somehow, at least as an amazing musician who was doing OT gigs way before we showed up and didn’t have the time or luck to make things congeal into a scene. He was kind of THE DUDE before we showed up.” Whether a mere Big Lebowski reference or a statement of cold fact, it seems I owe Mr. Lewis an apology. Such are the perils of belletristic mythico-historiography!