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Old Songs Festival

by Glenn Weiser on June 29, 2011

Altamont Fairgrounds, June 24-26
Geordie MacIntyre, a thin, 60ish-looking singer of Lowland Scottish ballads, surveyed the heavens from the Dutch Barn stage at the Altamont Fairgrounds shortly after noon on Saturday and eloquently termed them “pewter skies.” Although the thick, gray clouds and occasional rain showers might have kept some away, a couple thousand folkies flocked to the 31st annual Old Songs Festival anyway, America’s most traditionally oriented yearly music gathering. This time, as ever, event organizer Andy Spence assembled a diverse lineup of musicians whose ranks included new faces among the durable worthies.

As for Mr. MacIntyre, he and musical partner Alison MacMorland were the first act I took in on Saturday, and they opened with the oldest songs performed that weekend, a pair of Child Ballads from the 13th century. The first, sung by MacMorland, was “Thomas the Rhymer,” a story about a man lured by a fairy queen into spending seven years with her in the ethers. MacIntryre performed the next antiquity, “Sir Patrick Spence,” which narrates the shipwreck of a vessel captained by a nobleman to bring the seven-year old Queen Margaret back from Norway to Scotland. Scholars consider Spence a fictional character, but history holds that ships and the queen were lost in the 1290 North Sea mission.

At 3 PM in the Sheep Barn, another of the festival’s 10 stages, a panel of seven fiddlers proffered a spectrum of string styles. Jane Rothfield of Groovemama played a haunting original slow air, “In the Moment,” which she also skillfully reworked into a breakdown. For Celtic music, Alden Robinson of the Press Gang, backed by Owen Marshall on guitar, shone on Rodney Miller’s “Bluemont Waltz.” And the hour’s most distinctive contribution was a bebop 12-bar blues by Tomoko Omura, a young Japanese-American woman accompanied by Aubrey Johnson on scat vocals and Keita Owaga of the Guy Mendilow Band on percussion.

For aspiring guitarists, Andy Cohen, a blues picker and former student of Piedmont blues legend Reverend Gary Davis, demystified the Reverend’s trademark fingestyle techniques with novel explanations at Area 5, a gazebo-like structure. Holding up his left hand in a Star Trek Vulcan salute, he tied the gesture to the fingering of a C-major scale in parallel sixths. Because most scales descend the same way they ascend, he described the movement as “palindromic.” Cool, but way weird.

The nine-act evening concert began at 7 PM on the Main Stage and ran past midnight. Particularly ear-catching were Finest Kind, an eclectic trio of singers Ian Robb, Ann Downey, and Shelly Posen, who hang their hats on their three-part harmonies. “The Riley Boys” was a moving tribute to the fallen Americans of the Iraq war. Their take on “John Barleycorn Must Die” had the verses rewritten to show how they carefully craft their vocal arrangements. I snickered hearing them sing parallel fourths and fifths—mortal sins in classical music—but hey, this stuff happens in folk.

Scott Ainslie, a singer-songwriter and also a powerful bluesman, opened his set with Hambone Willie Newbern’s “Rollin and Tumblin” played on the diddley bow, a one-string instrument from Africa, played with a slide, that eventually took the shape of a cigar box with a broom-handle neck. (Next to a guitar, though, the mono-stringed ax was “diddley shit,” hence the term.) Ainslie also performed a heartbreaking song about a desperate Mexican immigrant named Gracia Cruz, who died in the 110-degree heat of the Arizona desert where a smuggler left her family—all, according to Ainslie, because NAFTA lets American agricultural giants sell corn in Mexico cheaper than the farmers there can grow it.

Covering old-time string-band music was the North Carolina-based Freight Hoppers, who had generated major buzz with their performances earlier that day. “Riley the Furniture Man” was a song by Fiddling John Carson about some unfortunate folks who couldn’t pay a key household bill and ran afoul of the repo man. On “The Old Hen’s Going to Cackle and the Rooster’s Going to Crow,” fiddler Dave Bass tore through the prestissimo hoedown with aplomb.

By day’s end, the threatening skies had rained but little, and those who came were well rewarded as Old Songs delivered the goods yet again.