Celebrating Old Songs from a picker’s perspective

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With sunny skies and warm temperatures lending a hand, Old Songs put on its 39th annual 3-day folk and roots and festival at the Altamont Fairgrounds. On Saturday, the festival delivered its usual excellent slate of afternoon workshops exploring acoustic music traditions capped off, this time, with an evening concert that highlighted topical songs.

Photo by James Sullivan

I got to the site around noon and made my way to Area 3, where my former picking partner in the St. Regis String Band, Ron Gordon, was wrapping up a participatory workshop on jug band music. Gordon was singing “San Francisco Bay Blues,” a ragtime blues classic by Jesse Fuller. Audience members took solos on washboards, kazoos, and banjos while he accompanied on guitar, and I slipped in a break on harmonica when I got the nod. “Stealin” by the Memphis Jug Band, which also happened to be the Grateful Dead’s debut single in 1966, was next and closed the set.

Over at Area 2, the festival’s jamming zone, the blues reigned with Mulebone, a duo consisting of guitarist and singer Hugh Pool and flute wiz John Ragusa, and guitarist Mary Flower leading. They kicked off with The Staple Singers “Tell Him What You Want.” The crowd, about 30-40 jammers, took solos on fiddle, mandolin, guitar. sax, and harmonica, which I played. Next was Hambone Willie Newbern’s 1929 Delta blues anthem, “Rollin’ and Tumblin.” A woman sitting on a bench next to Hugh Flood took a fine solo on the musical saw, leading me to crack, “She came, she sawed, she conquered.” Mary Flower then lead on guitar with “Salty Dog Blues,” an 8-bar ragtime blues first recorded by Papa Charlie Jackson in 1924. The standout solo this time was from a young fiddler at the edge of the crowd. And on it rolled.

Photo by James Sullivan

At 1:45 in the Sheep Barn, Bruce Molsky, Pete’s Posse, and Tui gave a performance workshop on old-time string band music. To start off, Bruce Molsky, a multi-instrumentalist from New York City, played “Kentucky Winder,” a fiddle tune from the repertoire of John Morgan Saylor. Bowing two strings at once to create a droning effect reminiscent of bagpipes, Molsky churned out a breakdown made up of short phrases that rarely left the tonic chord. The appeal of these tunes often lies in their propulsive grooves rather than their actual melodies, and this was a good example. Tui, a duo composed of banjoist Jake Blount and fiddler Libby Weitnauer, played a song from Odell Thompson called “Lights in the Valley” that turned out to be a variant of the gospel number “This Little Light of Mine.’ Pete’s Posse, a trio consisting of Pete Sutherland, Oliver Scanlan, and Tristan Henderson, performed an old hymn, “Angel Gabriel,” with the unusual combination of three-part vocal harmony and French-Canadian foot tapping. Speaking of harmony, Bruce Molsky also sang the old love song “Green Grow the Laurels,” harmonizing his vocal line with his fiddle in the best such example of fiddle self-accompaniment I’ve ever seen.

More folk violin awaited. Old Songs usually has a fiddle workshop on the Saturday schedule, and at 4:15 at Area 6 Donna Hebert, Pete Sutherland, Oliver Scanlan, and Bruce Molsky convened for some tunes and commentary. Herbert, a French-Canadian style player, told a remarkable story: she was outdoors one day when a raven alighted near her and began moving its beak and flapping its wings in an agitated manner. Ten minutes later she got a phone call telling her that her father had died. Soon a new tune started going through her head. She composed the first half, and her guitarist, Max Cohen, wrote the second part. Hebert named the tune “The Raven’s Wing” and told her mother about it, who then told her that that had been the name of her father’s bomber outfit in WWII. She and Cohen then played the tune, a poignant three-quarter time air with minor and then major strains. In an unusual pairing, Bruce Molsky medlied a Scandinavian courtship tune with the old-time Tennessee reel “Forked Deer.” Pete Sutherland then performed an unusual variant of the breakdown “Salt River” from the Hammons family, who were keepers of traditional music in West Virginia.

Photo by James Sullivan

At 6:30 the evening concert kicked off on the main stage with the husband-wife duo of Howie Bursen and Sally Rogers. They opened with Jean Ritchie’s version of the Child ballad, “Lord Bateman.” In the ballad, an English lord languishes in a Turkish prison until the jailer’s daughter becomes enamored of him and sets him free. They agree to meet in seven years, after which the Turkish lady travels to England to join him. She comes to his castle only to find he has proposed to another woman, but in the end the honorable lord forsakes his betrothed and marries the Turkish lady. The duo also did Ora Belle Reed’s wistful Appalachian classic, “High on a Mountain,” and Barbara Keith’s “The Bramble and the Rose” a beautiful love song which alludes to the famous ending of the ballad “Barbara Allen.”

Also appearing in the evening concert was Tommy Sands, a singer from Northern Ireland with whom I have much in common. My mother was born in Sands’ native County Down, and her family had to flee the murderous sectarian violence there in the 1920s for a new life in America. So, when Sands played his famous song, “There Were Roses,” about two friends, one Catholic and one Protestant, who die in a tat-for-tat killing so characteristic of The Troubles, it really hit home. Noting the exodus of his people who continued to escape the civil strife from a port city, Sands also sang a similarly evocative composition, “The County Down,” inviting Irish emigres in London to return home.

Photo by James Sullivan

Closing the show was multi-instruments and singer-songwriter John McCutcheon. His song “MS St. Louis.” which told of the ship with 900 Jewish refugees aboard that was turned away from New York in 1939, resulting in the ship’s forced return to Europe and the passengers’ subsequent doom, was a sharp jab at the current maltreatment of Central American asylum seekers at our southern border. McCutcheon also paid tribute to Old Songs’ Bill Spence, who we lost earlier this year, by playing a couple reels on the hammer dulcimer, an instrument Spence championed. Also noteworthy was “When My Fight for Life Is Over,” McCutcheon’s musical setting of the lyrics to one of Woody Guthrie’s many unfinished songs, this one concerning his instructions for his own memorial service. As you might expect, Woody wanted everyone to have a ripsnorting good time: “There’ll be singing, There’ll be shouting, There’ll be dancing, There’ll be drums, And we will have a picnic, baby, Come! Come! Come!” – Glenn Weiser

Photo by James Sullivan
3 Comments
  1. Jim says

    Nice Review. thanks for reminding me of McCutcheon’s Guthrie song!

  2. Glenn Weiser says

    Thanks, Jim! I thought John McCutcheon, whom I had not seen before, was really terrific.

  3. Wanda Fischer says

    Nice review, Glenn, and nice accompanying photos. John McCutcheon is one of the premier folk singers in the country these days, and there isn’t an instrument he can’t play. It was so exciting to see him at Old Songs again. I was also so pleased that so many people wore Hawaiian shirts in honor of our dear Bill Spence, who left us earlier this year. I appreciate your insight, as a “picker.” Thanks for the sentiments.

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