Review and photographs by Stanley Johnson
I scanned the program for my first visit to the Old Songs Festival and realized that I was in for a lot of walking. The day’s events, workshops and concerts required a lot of movement around the Altamont Fairgrounds if I was going to get a real idea of just what kind of gathering was the 32nd Old Songs Festival.
With about 10 different events happening every hour in different locations, I knew I would sample many artists’ particular work in the rather broad field of folk music.
First, I was drawn to the sound of many voices singing choir music in the Sheep Barn. Peter and Mary Amidon were leading well over 100 singers through a participatory workshop in sacred singing. The voices were richly layered, and it sounded like church on a beautiful morning, despite the metal exhaust fans in the ceiling, which seemed to add to the music in a rustic way.
I returned later to the Sheep Barn for a blues workshop with Mulebone, Brother Sun, Eleanor Ellis and Ken Whiteley. Mulebone featured slide guitarist and singer Hugh Pool along with multi-instrumentalist John Ragusa with an interesting take on delta blues. Eleanor Ellis of Lousiana not only plays the blues but has also written about and taught about blues music. Brother Sun – with Pat Wictor, Greg Greenway and Joe Jencks – sounded nice with a mixture of gospel, slide guitar and folk.
Later, the Sheep Barn was the meeting place for a drum circle workshop by Toby Stover, who is also a pianist, singer and dancer.
Next I heard the 1897 Diamond Jubilee Organ playing a jaunty “Always Keep On the Bright Side of Life” as I danced to the bandstand, where I watched part of a Celtic guitar workshop by Kyle Sanna of the Nuala Kennedy Trio.
I continued my morning tour past the open jam at the Side Street Tent near the craft area – one of several jams which were populated throughout the day with a constantly shifting crew of musicians.
The Cross Roads Tent, for instance, featured a ukulele jam, featuring Michael Eck, Ron Gordon, Bruce Hutton and others on songs by George Formby, as well as jam sessions with squeeze boxes, hammered dulcimers, the blues, and, largest of all, a Celtic jam that spilled out beyond the tent on all sides. The Celtic Jam featured members of Comas and the Nuala Kennedy Trio, as well as musicians who seemed to come from everywhere.
Not far away, among the antique carriages and wagons in the 1890 Museum Building, Jane Rothfield, Donna Hebert and other members of Groovemama were working with a large group of school-age musicians in another participatory workshop. Many of the performers for the evening concerts were giving educational workshops where participants could ask questions and learn to play along. I later returned to the 1890 Museum for a program on African music, featuring Kim & Reggie Harris with South Africans Sharon Katz & the Peace Train.
Another large barn, the Cattle Building, was also a regular stop for great tunes. It was there I heard John McCutcheon playing the Muddy Waters blues “I Can’t Be Satisfied.” Later the building was the place for Fiddles On Fire, a collection of Donna Hebert, Jane Rothfield, Noah VanNorstrand, Aidan Burke, Bruce Molsky, Dennis Stroughmatt and Cassie MacDonald. The workshop lived up to its name and drew a large audience.
I moved to the Dutch Barn for a Lead Belly workshop by George Wilson, Larry Hanks and Deborah Robins, including songs such as “Midnight Special” and “Relax Your Mind.” Right around the corner on the Main Stage was a Woody Guthrie workshop, where McCutcheon, members of Brother Sun and Magpie were treating the audience to “Hard Travelin’,” “Plane Wreck At Los Gatos (Deportee)” and a mean talkin’ blues.
McCutcheon explained he learned the entire Woody Guthrie catalogue in alphabetical order from a song book he got from the library. “Later I got to handle the original note papers he used in writing these songs,” he said. “Almost all of us here are proud members of Local 1000,” McCutcheon noted, and this was followed by many voices singing, “You Can’t Scare Me, I’m Sticking to the Union.” It appeared to me that the Old Songs Festival is really a folk musicians convention with musical instrument vendors, educational workshops and an audience largely made up of musicians and educators.
The Dutch Barn also featured a mountain music set with Dan Berggren, John Kirk, Trish, Susan Trump and Bruce Hutton, which included songs about Adirondack loggers. Later, Groovemama, which included Hebert and Rothfield along with Max Cohen, Stuart Kenney and vocalist Molly Hebert-Wilson, performed on the Dutch Barn stage.
A whole lot of dancing was almost constantly going on in the Commercial Building, especially the Big Contra-Dance which stretched the length of the barn.
Performances on the Main Stage also continued all through the day, including many of the previously mentioned workshop musicians. I particularly enjoyed the Nuala Kennedy Trio, who wedded light electronic effects on violin and guitar with Kennedy’s beautiful voice, and the Andrew & Noah Band, who were the closest thing at the fest to a Celtic/Jam Band.
The Saturday evening concert featured emcee Dan Berggren singing and telling stories during change-overs of acts which included Larry Hanks & Deborah Robins, Patrick Ball on Celtic harp and many funny stories, and Galant, tu perds ton temps, a group of five female a cappella vocalists who sang beautiful folks songs accompanied by percussionist and dancer Jean-Francoise Berthiaume.
Scottish troubadour and host of BBC Radio Scotland’s “Travelling Folk” show Archie Fisher entertained the crowd with songs and stories of shape-shifters, fairies and Silkies, as well as engaging in a bit of banter with Jake Thomas, who was doing his best to interpret the songs for those who could read his hands. “I’ll try not to sing too much (in Gaelic) for the benefit of the signer,” he said. “I have no idea what he’s really telling you.”
Comas, from Belgium and New York, brought their love of Irish music to the Main Stage with a set of reels, including “The Charleston Reel” and “Vindaloo.” Fiddler Aidan Burke was joined by Isaac Alderson on flutes and pipes, Philip Masure on guitar and Jackie Moran on bodhran and other percussion in a spirited, high-energy set.
The sound shifted to Cajun and Creole with Dennis Stroughmatt et l’Espirt Creole, who got people dancing on the sidelines. The band is from southern Illinois, Stroughmatt explained. “We’re kind of stuck between Quebec and Louisiana, alone in the middle with really old songs.” To illustrate this, the band played a new year’s song that was about 800 years old.
Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer topped the bill that night, with a set full of wonderful singing and picking on guitars, banjos, mandolins and ukeleles. Their songs included “Song Of Joy,” “Birds and Ships” (by Woody Guthrie and Billy Bragg) and a Django Reinhardt guitar tune played on ukulele. A duet with a banjo and a Gold Tone cello banjo, which looks liked a giant banjo, followed on “It’s a Banjo.”
Following the grand finale sing-a-long, I was amazed to see I had just gone through more than 14 hours of music without needing ear plugs. I had learned a lot, seen many musicians and musical instruments that I had never before seen and felt ready for my fourth festival of the month: the Freihofer Saratoga Jazz Fest at SPAC.
Glenn Weiser’s review at Metroland
Greg Haymes’ review of the Old Songs Festival, 6/22/12 (Day One) at Nippertown