Martin Mull once said Talking about music is like dancing About architecture. Thus the name of this blog…
The Roots of A Musical Summer
First off, thank you to all of you who came out to any of our 13th year at Common Ground Community Concerts. We’ve had a great year of music and community, with highlights too numerous to recount here. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to all the artists who performed, all the audience members who attended, and most especially, to all the volunteers, without whom, none of it would have happened.
So now, here were are, on the cusp of summer — which for me actually began last Saturday. Yes, I know, last Saturday was only June 15th and summer doesn’t technically begin until THIS Saturday — the 22nd. But summer is also a state of mind so my summer began at last weekend’s Great Hudson River Revival, or as most of us call it — Clearwater. Next up, on June 29th, it’s on to the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah for the wonderful American Roots Music Festival. And later this summer, there’s the annual pilgrimage up to Hillsdale NY for the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival from August 2-4th. In between all these are two Common Ground-produced events in July — the Open Air Music Festival on July 14th at Greenburgh Nature Center in Scarsdale and a benefit concert for an Appalachian mountain social service agency called Red Bird Mission, with the terrific trio, The Boxcar Lilies, on July 27th. More on those later. For now, let me just say I feel blessed to have the opportunity to hear so much great music — and most of it doesn’t even require leaving Westchester County.
But here’s the thing…just as much as I love taking in all the local opportunities to hear music within half a gas tank’s drive from home, there’s something about summer that summons the call of the open road. Even if I don’t end up going anywhere far, the call is there. Perhaps one reason I love American roots music in all its forms is because much of it evokes far off places and times that are somehow more authentic, unspoiled, and pure.
I mention this because I’ve long had this fantasy to take a roots music road trip. It would start in Appalachia — weaving back and forth between historic mountain music festivals and small town general store porches just off the Blue Ridge Parkway and Interstate 81. I’d be sure to stop in Bristol, Tennessee (“the Birthplace of Country Music”) to see where a visiting talent scout from Camden, NJ named Ralph Peer first recorded both Jimmie Rogers and the Carter Family in the same recording session. Before heading to Nashville, I might detour up to the tiny town of Rosine, Kentucky, to the grave of the only man inducted into the Bluegrass, Country, and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame — Bill Monroe. After the obligatory trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame and a night at the Opry, it’s west to Memphis for Graceland and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, located on the site of the late, great Stax Records. Naturally, I’d head south on Highway 61 to the crossroads where bluesman Robert Johnson traded in his soul to the devil in exchange for otherworldly guitar prowess. After a quick stop at Eunice, Louisiana’s Cajun Music Hall of Fame, my musical odyssey would end where jazz began — in New Orleans.
Admittedly, a trip like this, whether I make it or not, isn’t particularly unique. Generations of tourists have flocked to these landmarks both big (Grand Old Opry, Graceland) and small (Preservation Hall in the French Quarter or Po’ Monkey’s Juke Joint , near Merigold, Mississippi). What’s more, I recognize that this image of the authentic, unspoiled, and pure in American music is largely a mirage — if the implication is that the music once created in a Virginia mountain hollow or in a Mississippi Delta shack exploded out of the soil itself, the Earth cracking open to reveal Doc Watson or Muddy Waters fully formed. Or that the primary task of supporters of this music is to preserve the tradition by sealing it in aspic or a dusty canning jar and sticking it on the shelf like a museum piece.
No, for me, what really makes roots music so rich is the fact that it was never pure, at least not in the sense of being entirely indigenous to a single artist, time or place. While it’s important to know and respect the heritage, what’s just as interesting as a music’s deepest roots is the tangled and twisted branches that bear unexpected fruit in generations further down the line. That’s what folk music is in the broadest sense —music that taps into numerous veins of source material, with Scotch-Irish ballads, African-American work songs, and European marching bands all blending together to form something new that’s rooted in the old, but kept authentic not by rigid tradition but by constant innovation and the creative spark that each new generation brings to it. Did you ever notice how much traditional Tex-Mex Conjunto music sounds like German polka music? That’s because 19th century Tejanos first heard the music played by the small colony of German and Polish settlers in and around New Braunfels, Texas and adapted it for themselves. Even the Carter Family’s repertoire wasn’t original but the result of A.P. Carter’s constant travels, collecting and blending songs as he went. One of my favorite pieces of music is Jimmie Rogers’ “Blue Yodel #9,” from 1930, which blends genres in a completely unexpected way. The song, recorded in a Hollywood studio, has a standard blues structure, but what’s unusual for a song by the man known as “The Father of Country Music” is the accompanying trumpet — not your typical country instrumentation. And who’s playing that horn? None other that Louis Armstrong himself, with his wife Lil on piano. Take a listen by clicking below.
Eighty-three years after that session, it’s a similar fusion of musical styles that makes this year’s lineup at American Roots Music Festival so exciting. The featured act of the festival is going to be the legendary Del McCoury Band. For the first time ever, Del and his band will be introducing unseen material from the Woody Guthrie Archive. Now 74, Del is the last living link to the beginnings of bluegrass. He played with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys , so the chance to hear him interpret the words and music of Woody Guthrie is a once-in-a-lifetime event that is beyond mere music. It’s a showcase of the cross-currents of our cultural heritage. According to Maggi Landau, the festival’s artistic director, “Del has immersed himself in researching and reaching out to members of the old string bands that Woody would have been listening to in the 1930’s and 1940’s and absorbing their style and influences.” Here’s a video preview:
This astounding project shows just how limiting it can be for music fans to insist on purity of genre—especially since many of these boundaries are more historical and cultural than musical. It’s true that Bill Monroe canceled a concert at Carnegie Hall because he believed the promoter, Alan Lomax, was a communist. But it seems odd to me that some bluegrass fans shy away from folk or that jazz and folk fans sometimes don’t appreciate that what Monroe did was fuse elements of blues, gospel, jazz, country, and Celtic folk into what became bluegrass. What better way to prove this point than to offer you this televised musical summit from Letterman that paired Del and his band with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band:
As a side note, Del McCoury grew up not in the mountains of Appalachia as one might expect, but in the southeastern Pennsylvania city of York. As it so happens, York is just next door to Lancaster County, which is home to another group appearing at American Roots Music Festival — The Stray Birds, who also will be playing at Falcon Ridge in August and Common Ground Coffeehouse in November. The band’s members — Maya de Vitry (vocals, fiddle, banjo, guitar), Oliver Craven (vocals, guitar, mandolin, fiddle) and Charlie Muench (vocals, upright bass, banjo) — are all in their 20s and are already acclaimed as one of the best young folk bands in the country. Although all three members are classically trained, they found each other through a shared passion for banjo and fiddle music. As a youngster, Oliver played fiddle in his father’s Craven Family Band and Maya grew up listening to the music her parents loved, like Iris DeMent and Lyle Lovett.
Space and time don’t allow me to sing the well-deserved praises of the entire American Roots Festival line-up, although I do want to note that one of Common Ground’s favoirite bands, Spuyten Duyvil, will again be hosting the Social Music Hour, in which performers lead an all-ages participatory music-making workshop. So bring your voices and your instruments! And I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that the band is headlining our 7/14 festival at the Greenburgh Nature Center and that the Walkabout Clearwater Chorus, the community singing group founded by Pete Seeger, will be on hand at Caramoor as well!
Speaking of Pete, let me finish by circling back to where I started — to Clearwater. In recent years, the festival has added electrified acts like Deer Tick, Dawes, and Grace Potter & The Nocturnals to their line-up, stretching the boundaries of the traditional folk festival, much to the consternation of those who still don’t seem to have forgiven Dylan for plugging in at Newport ‘65. (As it so happens, with ‘6os folk star stalwarts like Judy Collins and Buffy Sainte-Marie on the bill this year alongside alt-acts like Nicole Atkins and Lone Bellow, and world music artists like Red Baraat, this year’s festival might have been the most traditional in years.) What’s definitely the case is that last weekend — and all the musical weekends ahead — had something to appeal to everyone — as our shared musical roots sprout ever-new and interwoven networks of glorious branches, each bearing its own fruit. So, welcome to Summer! Let’s get picking!
And just so the circle remains unbroken, I’ll leave you with “My New York” from Mike + Ruthy, who will be at Clearwater this weekend — and at Common Ground in October. The words — you guessed it — are by Woody Guthrie:
— Carter Smith, Producer, Common Ground