Glorious summer weather greeted fans last weekend as Old Songs held its 34th annual traditional folk festival at the Altamont Fairgrounds. Although the weekend-long gathering always offers a broad spectrum of roots genres, the strong suits this time were Celtic and French-Canadian music. I took in a sampling of Saturday’s afternoon workshops as well as Sunday’s closing performance, a warm tribute to the many famous troubadours, most notably Pete Seeger, who had passed in the last year.
The 12:30 Irish music workshop with Comas, Long Time Courting, Marie Ni Chathasaigh and Chris Newman, Molly Herbert-Wilson and Max Cohen at the Sheep Barn was not to be missed. Comas, joined by members of the all-woman quartet Long Time Courting, launched into “The Star of Munster,” a dark, intense minor key reel, and more delectable dance tunes followed. Molly Herbert-Wilson of Groovemania, backed by bandmate Max Cohen on guitar, sang beautifully on “Spancill Hill,” which concerns an Irish 49er yearning for his hometown. Marie Ni Cathasiagh, one of Ireland’s finest harpers, played the plaintive slow air “Eleanor Plunkett,” the subject of which unfortunately got boiled alive along with all her family in their castle centuries ago. In the song “Maggie Dean,” performed by Long Time Courting, the protagonist fared far better. She got to go out to sea with the guys, a rarity in the age of sail.
Again in the Sheep Barn, the 1:45 Love Songs session surveyed the many facets of romance through the eyes of songwriters both modern and long gone. Cindy Mangsen, who took part along with husband Steve Gillette, jokingly complained about love songs that “unless there’s a good death, what good are they?” She then opened with the Child ballad “Lord Saltoun and and Auchanachie,” the story of a maiden who pines for a handsome young man, spurns her wealthy groom on their wedding night, and then dies a-pining for her true love. Steve Gillette, who has penned material for big-name singers, did “Glass Houses,” his lament on the famously stormy marriage of George Jones and Tammy Wynette that Wynette recorded after Jones’ passing. Shannon Heaton of Long Time Courting glowed on the tragic “Barbara Allen,” the celebrated Scottish ballad first mentioned by the diarist Samuel Pepys in 1666.
At 3 PM in the Dutch Barn, harper Marie Ni Chathasaigh gave a recital of the music of Turlough O’Carolan, the blind Baroque-era Irish bard who composed dozens of many uniquely beautiful tunes. Cathasasigh’s flawless performance on her modern style nylon string harp, which included “Lord Inchiquin,” Planxty Irwin, Fanny Poer” Blind Mary,” and “Carolan’s Concerto,” was sheer bliss for this listener.
At the other end the musical gamut, Brooke Williams, Annie and John Rosen, and Lauren Sheehan and daughter Zoë Carpenter delivered a well-varied set of blues. Annie, backed by Jon’s strummed block chords, waxed sultry on Bessie Smith’s 1925 side, “Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle.” Williams unleashed some stinging slide guitar on “Mercury Blues,” and Sheehan and Carpenter reprised Elive Thomas and Geeshie Wiley’s 1931 classic “Pick Poor Robin Clean,” a shameless ditty about a prostitute aiming to please every last male of her john’s family.
In the last 12 months, the folk community lost several of its mainstays, including fiddler Alan Block, folksong maven Faith Petric, British balladeer Louis Killen, New England contradance pianist and accordionist Bob McQuillen, and Pete Seeger, the pater familias of American folk music. For the final Sunday concert, the usual potpourri of festival performers was shelved, and instead folklorist George Ward emceed a celebration of the lives of the dearly departed. A group of Old Songs veterans including George Wilson, John Kirk, Debra Cowan, John Roberts, Sonny Ochs, Toby Stover, and Donna Herbert played the music of Block, Petric et al and swapped often hilarious reminiscences of them. When, at the end, Pete Seeger’s turn to be remembered came, a choir roughly 50-strong led by Peter Amidon gathered at the foot of the stage and sang four-part arrangements of four of Seeger’s most famous songs, concluding with “Goodnite Irene.” It was a tasteful and touching farewell to that wise and generous man without whom the folk revival, with its many coffeehouses, festivals, and fantastic singers and pickers, might never have blossomed at all.