Listening Isn't Enough
courtesy Howie Eskin
An ethos of making music as well as enjoying it pervades
the region's nationally known folk-music scene
guys sound great!” Performers who just asked the audience
to sing along always say that. But there are two different
ways they say it. One translates roughly to “Aw, come on,
you can do it.” The other, rarer, is more like “Wow, I hadn’t
thought of that harmony myself.”
William Pint and Felicia Dale are doling out the latter
every few songs at their June house concert at the home
of Vicki and Bill Kelsey in Berne.
Not that they’re really surprised. Though Pint and Dale
perform traditional sea songs all over the world, they’ve
been through the Capital Region enough times to know many
of the 20-odd eager faces lined up on plastic chairs on
the Kelseys’ lawn. The audience members are clearly appreciative
fans. They know the material too, including things the performers
have forgotten; Felicia bows out of a request for “Sail
Away,” a favorite from an earlier recording of theirs. “Last
time I tried to sing that I was with someone else who knew
the words and we still didn’t get through it,” she jokes,
before tuning her hurdy-gurdy (a sort of mechanical violin)
again and moving on.
After the concert, the performers and guests escape the
descending chill by moving inside. But though Pint and Dale,
the only officially planned activity of the evening, have
packed up their instruments, the music is far from over.
It doesn’t take long until, above the chatter, one resonant
bass launches into a sea chantey. “It was Monday morn when
we set sail and we were not far from the land . . .” Two
lines into the rollicking, cheerful song about a mermaid-predicted
shipwreck (everyone dies), the whole room is with him, their
voices rising in multipart harmony for the final line, “and
the land lubbers lie down below, below, below, and the land
lubbers lie down below.”
courtesy Roger Mock
they, none of them professional musicians, embarrassed to
be singing sea chanteys in front of admitted masters of
the form? Not in the slightest.
In fact, before long, from her seat on the couch, Beverly
Seinberg launches into the unfulfilled request, complete
with a parodied final verse in which the girl who has been
pining away for her departed sailor throughout the song
gets a college degree and becomes an independent woman.
“Ooh, I must have the words!” says Dale excitedly.
wanted to hear it, and I thought they would be impressed
that I did do it and had added a verse to it. And they were,”
says Seinberg simply. “I think folk performers are happy
to hear that people are singing their songs.”
kind of emphasis on making music as much as listening to
it is one of the major foundations of the Capital Region’s
vibrant folk music scene.
People here “play music socially a great deal more than
in other places,” says Pat Humphries, the singer- songwriter
whose anthem “Never Turning Back” opened the Women’s Conference
in Beijing in 1994. “People create more of their own [music]
rather than having to go out and buy it somewhere else.”
not about who’s on stage,” agrees Seinberg, “It’s about
who’s in the audience.” Seinberg counts herself as a relative
newcomer to the scene, having been involved for 15 years.
Many local folkies have been active since the earlier days
of the folk revival in the 1960s and early ’70s.
so many pieces” to how this area developed such a strong
folk community, says George Ward, a folklorist and regional
balladeer, who with his wife Vaughn sponsored an active
folk music club at Niskayuna High School in the 1960s. Despite
the bounty, there are several institutions that rise to
the top when people describe how they found themselves in
this community: Caffe Lena, Fox Hollow, the Eighth Step,
the Pickin’ and Singin’ Gatherin’, and Old Songs.
courtesy Bill Spence
Spencer started Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs in 1960.
Spencer, who died in 1989, was famed for her energy, hospitality,
and encouragement of new artists. Legends like Bob Dylan,
Arlo Guthrie, and Don McLean all got their early start there.
Now a nonprofit, and still going strong, Caffe Lena is the
longest-running folk coffeehouse in the country.
Bob and Evelyn Beers started the Fox Hollow Folk Festival
in Petersburgh in 1966. The festival ran until 1980, and
attracted people from around the country. As well as introducing
a generation to all sorts of traditional music, the Beers
taught many of today’s leaders in the folk community valuable
lessons about organizing folk festivals, says Ward. “When
you were there, the rest of the world just kind of [went]
away,” says Vicki Kelsey, now president of the PSG.
The Council of Churches started up the Eighth Step Coffeehouse
in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church on State
Street in Albany in 1967. The Eighth Step, currently on
hiatus while it searches for a new venue, was known as a
place where new acts had a chance to perform, but also held
jam sessions that many remember as their first chance to
try out this music they’d been listening to.
The Pickin’ and Singin’ Gatherin’ came along in 1970 as
a group explicitly devoted to making music socially. It
still hosts two small festivals every year, monthly sing-around
meetings at Caffe Lena, and various sings and jams at members’
homes. The participatory ethos can be seen from the structure
of its festivals: the GottaGetGon, held over Memorial Day
weekend, has only four acts who get to give a concert each
and a workshop or two. The Last Gasp, held over Labor Day
weekend, has no hired performers at all—it’s all about the
Any scene needs new blood to stay vital, and it was to this
end that Andy Spence, an early leader of PSG, decided to
form Old Songs, Inc. in 1977. “I still can’t get over how
many people say to me ‘Well, I just didn’t know you were
here,’” she says. Old Songs tries to “reach out to new people
and get new audience” through its annual festival at the
Altamont Fairgrounds, concert series, a resource directory
and scads of lessons on all sorts of acoustic instruments.
The festival has nearly a dozen small stages, and brings
in a huge range of performers in scores of folk traditions,
recently expanding that to include folk traditions from
all over the world. Along with its outreach to newcomers,
the Old Songs festival has a devoted following among the
core folk community, who populate the volunteer crews and
jam in every nook and cranny of the fairgrounds.
courtesy Bill Spence
any of the region’s three festivals you can wander around
after the concerts are over (or at the Gasp, at any time)
and hear as much or more music as you did during the day.
Starting mid-evening you can follow the sound of exuberant
umpteen-part harmony to the a capella sing. A larger version
of what happened at the end of the Pint and Dale house concert,
the sings generally involve 20 to 40 people gathered in
the semi-darkness of a barn or pavilion. The only informal
rule is that the songs should have a good chorus that everyone
can join in on, though recitations, call-and-response songs
and all sorts of oddities also make it into the mix from
time to time. It’s “kind of like the old English pub on
a Sunday night tradition,” says John Roberts, a collector
and performer of English folk traditions in North America.
English drinking songs are indeed a staple (if ever you
wanted to praise ale, here’s your chance), as are sea songs,
but they are interspersed with a healthy dose of American
folk fare as well, especially spirituals and labor-movement
songs, plus a whole lot of miscellany (fox-hunting songs,
bawdy songs, parodies, and sometimes Paddy Kilrain leading
“Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz,” for a few examples.)
If you wander back out into the evening you’ll also find
numerous instrumental jams. At the GottaGetGon, the fondly
nicknamed “hot pickers” are likely to be found in the 4H
snack bar. They’re mostly guitar, mandolin, and bass players,
but a portable electronic keyboard and various woodwinds
are often in evidence as well. These folks wend their way
through blues, country, bluegrass, old-time and more, passing
the solo breaks and lead roles from person to person and
sharing tips on chords and licks.
At a campsite or two or four, groups gather to play contra
dance music (the Eighth Step booked the region’s first contra
dance in 1973): reels and jigs with fiddles, concertinas,
upright bass, and whoever else wants to sit in. In a pavilion
corner, a steady guitar baseline leads you to a group of
PSG members who have met weekly at Dave Crump’s house for
decades for what is still called a “doo wop” night, though
the black binders of sheet music they play from have grown
to include ’50s and ’60s rock standards like “Paint It Black”
to the novelty tune “Itsy Bitsy, Teeny Weeny, Yellow Polka
Dot Bikini.” At the festivals, they often change focus for
a while to swing music.
You may also find drum circles, harmonica players jamming,
teenagers figuring out Indigo Girls chords, and just about
anything else you might imagine falling under the rubric
of folk. That includes some talented denizens of the singer-songwriter
movement that has dominated what some call “contemporary
folk,” but people playing their own creations are the exception,
not the rule here.
Especially at the smaller festivals, it’s the jamming people
come for. At GottaGetGon, says Seinberg, “You sort of have
to drag yourself out of your seat to go the concerts or
the workshops.” (Most people do manage it, however, with
the helpful reminder of an enthusiastic triangle or bugle
to mark the concert starting time.)
you play with people, especially people you’ve never met,
and you’re able to click musically, it’s a beautiful thing,”
says Jonny Rosen, who plays guitar for Annie and the Hedonists.
“We’ve had those experiences, playing with people we’ve
never met, on stage, in the parking lot, or campground.”
Annie and the Hedonists are one of many local performing
groups that grew out of connections made in Old Songs classes
or festival jams.
of this emphasis on the participatory means that the region’s
folkies don’t appreciate a good performer. Ward thinks that
most folks in the region are the sort to feel inspired rather
than intimidated by hearing an expert player. “Relative
to a lot of places in the country, it’s very easy to go
and hear what other people are doing. That keeps the pot
boiling,” he says.
And the folkies bring their participatory spirit to the
concert spaces. “Singing along is encouraged,” says Seinberg.
“You can’t do that at the opera; they’ll call security.”
That kind of atmosphere makes for a different experience
for the performers as well. Both seasoned touring musicians
and the numerous locally based groups say they prefer this
atmosphere to one in which they are held in more awe.
people who sing these songs tend to sing them because of
the songs, promoting the songs rather than promoting themselves,
whereas with popular music you are trying to turn yourself
into a star,” says Roberts.
audience here really listens to songs in an emotional, active,
participatory way,” says Cindy Mangsen, who has been performing
folk music professionally since 1976 and moved to the area
in 1985 because of its vibrant folk scene. “And that’s the
way you need to listen to folk music.”
There’s really nowhere else in the country like the Capital
Region, says Pint. He compares the Kelseys’ house concert
to one he and Dale gave recently in Iowa. “The people were
responsive, but the singing was like [the way] people move
their lips in church,” he recalls. “And afterwards they
socialized a little and away they went.”
Of course, having an engaged and knowledgeable audience
can keep a performer’s ego in check too. Pint and Dale travel
to the British Isles about once a year, and Pint says while
there they often discover some “really obscure songs, and
think ‘Golly, people in the states won’t know this.’” But,
says Pint, “the GottaGetGon folks know them, and are singing
them all over the place in glorious four-part harmony. They’re
just such a great bunch of singers.”
Kelsey says that for GGG they actively try to book performers
who are not troubled by the idea that the action may not
be centered around them, and who may even join in the jamming.
skill level is really high [in the Capital Region] compared
to where people don’t play socially,” says Humphries, who
played the GGG in 2003 and Old Songs in 2004. “It’s fun
as a player to be able to sit in and hang back and not be
the one everyone’s relying on to drive the song, because
enough other people are strong enough to lead.”
Rosen says he always keeps in mind that “there’s probably
a lot of people in the audience who are more accomplished
than I am in certain areas,” since the social aspect of
the scene doesn’t assume anyone with enough talent will
try to take it pro (or even amateur-on-stage). “There’s
a lot of people who don’t perform who are really top-notch
Which is not to say that the scene is closed to novices.
In fact, the opposite. “We have people who’ve taken lessons,
people who haven’t, people who can read music, people who
can’t,” says Kelsey. “If you practice by yourself, you’re
never going to get very good at it. Learning timing, learning
when to come in, learning not to go back and find that missing
note . . .”
folks in it don’t care if you have a perfect voice or are
great on an instrument, just [that] you want to be a part
of it,” says Seinberg. Not that people don’t cringe a little,
she admits, when someone is completely “a beat behind, off-key,
and loud.” But it’s not like Greyfox, a bluegrass festival
in Hillsdale, where, says Rosen, you can “get dirty looks
trying to sit in if you’re not playing the music in the
long as you’re willing to learn, there’s always someone
there willing to help you do things,” says Kelsey, and for
many members playing well enough to enjoy themselves is
the only goal.
Humphries was disappointed when she moved east from Cleveland
to discover how closed some of the folk circles in New England
were, but she says the Capital Region has always been both
welcoming and full of people interested in a broader than
usual variety of folk music, from old-time to bluegrass
to Celtic and beyond.
diversity of the scene is really great,” agrees Jake Bryan,
a former manager of the Eighth Step. “Dance and singing
and instrumental music and real traditional stuff as well
as contemporary things in the folk tradition. In terms of
local tradition we have the Adirondacks, Hudson Valley/Erie
Canal, Western New England. . . . It just sort of feeds
folk revival never died, it diversified,” says Ward, adding
that the scene is rich enough to sustain specialization
to the level of groups who just get together to play bagpipes,
or Appalachian mountain dulcimer. He also notes that the
region’s folk scene was helped along by such national phenomena
as the Celtic revival, which brought in people interested
in their Irish heritage who hadn’t previously been into
as they love the music, many devoted regulars have a hard
time sorting that love out from a love for the community
that has grown up around it. Children of all ages wander
freely throughout the festivals, parents certain that they’re
in good hands wherever they go. People rally to help members
in need—or just to show up to someone’s first official gig.
“I’ve been to rock concerts at SPAC where my bags get searched,”
says Seinberg. “Old Songs doesn’t need something like that.
. . . Folk people are the best people in the world. They
don’t care about what you do for a living, how much money
Pickin’ and Singin’ Gatherin’ is not only a lot of fun musically,”
agrees Rosen. “They’re more like family gatherings.”