silver threads among the gold

Just returned from a lovely weekend in Altamont NY, where we revelled in traditional music of & for all ages. The Old Songs Festival of Traditional Music & Dance has been around since 1981, growing out of the previous festivals at Fox Hollow. Some material from their early years can be seen here.

The key to Old Songs is its blend of traditional in the sense of historical or "true" folk music & dance forms with newer material crafted by today's performers, either via the "folk process" that operates on all oral traditions, causing small but often significant changes over time, or through new writings & forms that honour & make use of the traditions to create material that may or may not stand the test of time. The creators/performers themselves say that the greatest compliment that can be paid is for their material to become so embedded in the tradition that most people forget that it was newly written and just think of it as "an old folk song/tune".

Performer highlights for us included:

Peggy Seeger, of that celebrated musical family, who shared her stories from the original BBC Radio Ballads, and sang many songs both old & new. She is best known for women's movement songs like "Gonna Be An Engineer", and around these parts, for her collaboration with her husband, Ewan McColl, on "Springhill Mine Disaster" (one of those "old folk songs" written by them in 1958 after the Springhill, Nova Scotia event). Interesting that Jez Lowe, also at this year's Old Songs, has recently participated in some new Radio Ballads. (If you can't be bothered to visit the link, but are curious, Radio Ballads feature a part of British life as experienced by people who are interviewed by songwriters, and whose words then form the basis of the songs about their lives. But it's worth reading more, so go on & visit the link!)

Josh White, Jr. , who we had seen just last year at a concert with Pete Seeger & Tao Rodriguez Seeger, here in Ottawa. His range of material & skill with voice & guitar are incredible. He paid tribute to his father & that generation of performers, bringing their material to newer audiences. Wonderful. Wish I could play like that...

Christine Lavin, who is simply hysterical! One of her songs, "What Was I Thinking?!" was brought up to the minute with a scathing new verse about a certain recently & very publicly delinquent senator, and contained a classic bit "Don't you just love it when Republicans are exposed for the hypocrites they are?" (well, it certainly appealed to me!) And frankly, who could fail to love the writer of "Cold Pizza For Breakfast"?

Steve Gillete & Cindy Mangsen, who perform both solo & together, and have been around the folk circuit for eons...how long? Well, Steve's song "Darcy Farrow", another of those "old folk songs" was recorded by Ian & Sylvia in the 60s... Pretty long. And Cindy's song about how their cat got its head stuck in the disposal cracked me up. Versatile & talented, & consummately entertaining.

Louis Killen, who made me like sea songs when I first heard him more than 30 years ago, & can still send a shiver down my back today. He concentrates mostly on the historical & traditional, and his voice, firmly stamped with his Tyneside roots, is perfectly suited for his immense repertoire. A fount of great stories, too.

Lou & Peter Berryman should be listed as national treasures in the USA. From the infamous "A Chat With Your Mother" (widely known as "The F-Word Song") to the pseudo-patriotic "Your State's Name Here" to the geriatrish "Older Than Everybody"...I give up, there's no way I can list all of their incredible songs, parodies, rants, &c, you'll just have to listen to them yourselves. Unique if slightly bizarre sound, wonderful lyrics, you will pee yourself laughing, guaranteed. And I love Peter even more because we play the same kind of guitar, a Guild 12-string.

My husband, who's of Dutch origin, particularly enjoyed Nanne & Ankie and the Hudson Crew, a Frieslander group who put on a play about Henry Hudson (that I missed, being at a different workshop at the time). We saw them together at a sea shanty workshop & they were fabulous. Having a great time singing in Dutch & Fries (pronounced freeze btw), which of course very few understood, but they were having such a good time that who cared.

Peter & Mary Alice Amidon were, as always, featured in the Shape Note Workshops led by Peter, that we participate in every time we go to Old Songs. We sing mainly from a book called The Sacred Harp, with some songs from other books, and some newly written by living composers. This traditional form of sight-reading using shaped note heads is an early North American form dating from the days when few musical instruments were available, and was kept alive in the Deep South until revived during the folk revival. Today there are singings all over the USA & Canada & other countries of this form, & of the closely related West Gallery tradition in the UK. It's a wonderful form of 4-part community singing, mostly of old hymns, but today largely sung in a secular "sing the poetry" spirit. I can't recommend it highly enough, if you like to sing. And you don't have to be all that good a singer, either, you will just be swept up in the music.

I first saw John Roberts & Tony Barrand doing a Morris dance at the Mariposa Folk Festival on Toronto's Centre Island in 1971. They don't do much dancing these days, but their voices & songs are just as great as they were then. If you haven't heard "Oor Hamlet" sung by John Roberts, as we were lucky to this weekend, you need to find a copy. And Tony Barrand's tenor rings out unmistakeably, even in a larger group like Nowell Sing We Clear.

Last, but definitely not least, is an Old Songs fixture, Michael Cooney, who I also saw in that first Mariposa experience 38 years ago (yikes!). He's got a long white beard to complement the curly black hair these days, but he still has a wonderful voice, terrific guitar-playing skills (on a 12-string, no less), and an incredible repertoire of songs & jokes & tunes & stories. A true gem & another USAmerican national treasure.

If you visit the links I've given, you'll be able to get a taste of all of these great performers. There were others of course, but Old Songs has such a diverse program on so many stages that it's impossible for one couple to get to them all. Oh, and did I mention that they have fabulous food? You simply have to taste Eric Bean's Traveller's Kitchen's quesadillas & potato pancakes. To die for!

I'm sure I've convinced at least some of you to get there next year, or at least, I hope so. Events like this are unique & culturally important, and need the support of music lovers for them to continue. Old Songs is for all ages (great kids' areas too) & many musical tastes. You can meet friends to jam, listen to concerts, participate in singing, & talk to everyone.

See you there next year!


contemplating mortality

I recently attended a memorial for a close friend's father. He lived a full life of nearly 90 years, and will be much missed. Alert until his final hours, he chose when to die during a period of rapidly deteriorating health, by declining further treatment. As a fellow atheist, he also chose to have no funeral (donating his body to science) and requested a gathering of friends & family to exchange stories about his life.

What struck me most about this event was the genuine feeling demonstrated by the more than 70 in attendance. I have been to many (always too many) funerals, with the usual visitation of the carefully embalmed body preceding, and some form of religious ceremony followed by interrment. All too few have shown any sign of true grief among any but the immediate family. This was a spontaneous outpouring of love and grief for a good man, by all assembled. There was much laughter (he was a great character) and a few tears. Emotions ran high - I have tears in my eyes again as I write this.

Death is a fact of life. There is not a shred of evidence that there is anything following cessation of brain activity. Once you're gone, you're gone. The only known afterlife is the continuity of memory among your family & friends. For some, their works also continue, in the larger population's memory.

I don't find this a particularly distressing thought. Then again, I've not attempted to find the quasi-immortality many do through their children, and I have no expectation that the impact of my life works will continue for long, either. Many people appear to find the finality of death it so terrible that they must delude themselves, customarily via a variety of religious beliefs, that there is some continuity of their intelligence or spirit beyond death. Even the words used - "passed on", "passed over", &c - imply continuation into another as yet unidentified existence. People in general appear to be desperate to achieve some kind of immortal state, preferrably a good one.

Most religions use the carrot & stick model of behaviour modification to cajole or threaten adherents with some form of heaven & hell (you rarely see one without the other). Since neither has any concrete evidence of its existence outside our hyperactive imaginations, there seems little point to prolonging this way of thinking. The only justification appears to be for indoctrination and mind control of the majority by a collection of self-serving oligarchies. Religious altruism is a very thin veneer on this fundamental state.

It's so much more important for us to live well, day by day, in as much harmony with our fellows and surroundings as possible, than to spend those days in preparation & expectation of something beyond. We need to make our heaven here, or it will surely become a hell. All that's required is for us to use our brains for what they're good at - observing, evaluating, deciding...for ourselves, not according to the dictates of religio-political oligarchs. And the fear of death should be the least of our worries in doing so.

Death is shocking, harsh, and final. There is no good way to prepare for this. Loved family members and friends who die are mourned, rightly, for they are never coming back. They can also be remembered & celebrated, and I find this the most comforting form of continuity possible.