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Photo courtesy Howie Eskin
When Listening Isn't Enough
An ethos of making music as well as enjoying it pervades the region's nationally known folk-music scene

By Miriam Axel-Lute

"You 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.”

Photo courtesy Roger Mock

Are 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.

“I 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.”

That 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.”

“It’s 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.

“There’s 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.

Photo courtesy Bill Spence

Lena 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 jamming.

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.

Photo courtesy Bill Spence

At 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.)

“When 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.

None 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.

“The 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.

“The 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.

“The 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 musicians.”

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 . . .”

“The 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 prescribed way.”

“As 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.

“The 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 on itself.”

“The 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 folk music.

Much 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 you make.”

“The Pickin’ and Singin’ Gatherin’ is not only a lot of fun musically,” agrees Rosen. “They’re more like family gatherings.”

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