Fiddling Around at the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention

Paul Kotapish on September 6, 2017
The Foghorn Stringband takes the stage on Thursday.

What’s in a name?

The Berkeley Old Time Music Convention suggests many possibilities for the uninitiated, but for cognoscenti, the moniker “old-time music” immediately conjures a range of traditional dance tunes and songs from the rural South and Midwest, music associated with fiddles and banjos, plaintive singing, shady porches, and barn dances. It’s the foundation of the more familiar bluegrass style popularized by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and Ralph Stanley, but emphasizes collective, often unison playing rather than performance-oriented arrangements and hot solos. Every year now since 2003, old-time music enthusiasts from around the country gather in Berkeley to celebrate this inclusive, community-oriented scene with nearly a week of concerts, workshops, dances, lectures, panel discussions, and lots of opportunities for informal music-making. This year’s festivities run Sept. 20–24 at venues around town.

A poster from the 1969 Berkeley Fiddlers Convention | Credit: Rick Schubb

Founder and director Suzy Thompson explains how it came together. “The Farmers’ Market originally asked me to produce a bluegrass festival, but their budget was too tiny for that. I remembered the old Berkeley Fiddle and Banjo Contests of the 1960s (before my time) and thought that a string band contest would be both fun and cheap, and since it was taking place in the same park as the earlier one, it could be a sort of revival of the amazing old-time scene of late ’60s Berkeley, which was sort of legendary. The contest was so successful that several of us thought of the idea of tying on some other events, so the next year I think we had a concert at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse on Friday night and a dance at Ashkenaz on Saturday night. Then it grew ’til it got to the current size and length and we made a conscious decision not to expand further.”

A Unique Gathering

There is a burgeoning old-time scene throughout the Bay Area, but Thompson says the BOTMC offers something unique. “It’s the chance to see a whole bunch of top-notch, old-time musicians from around the country perform and play for dancing, all in one place.” More importantly, the convention creates lots of opportunities to jam with these musicians. “For old time players, it’s the equivalent of going to Tanglewood and getting to play string quartets with Yo-Yo Ma. That does not happen the rest of the year,” say Thompson. She adds, “There are many scheduled open jams that anyone is welcome to join in with, and most of those are ‘hosted,’ which means there will be an experienced musician to kind of keep things moving, suggest tunes that many people already know (or can be followed easily), make newcomers and shy people feel welcome.”

Fiddler Bruce Molsky, here from the Washington, D.C. area, concurs on the value of the gathering. “The trad music community is deep but pretty spread out, so an event like BOTMC is a chance to re-galvanize and energize all of us who love this music, and to see what folks are doing with it.” He points out that even though Berkeley might be a long way from Appalachia, it has developed an important momentum of its own:

Even though old-time music’s origins are largely in the Southeast and Midwest, the community of people who play it are, really, everywhere now. Festivals like Clifftop [West Virginia] and Mount Airy [North Carolina] are almost like sacred destinations for the old time music diaspora, but BOTMC and Fiddle Tunes [Port Townsend, Washington] have been going on long enough and have so much momentum now that they are, in my opinion anyway, equally influential and important in keeping the community and the scene going.

On Stage

Kim Johnson and Bobby Taylor

Concerts at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse on Sept. 21 and 22 will feature three groups each night. Featured artists this year come from all corners of the country — Alabama, Virginia, West Virginia, Vermont, Massachusetts, Washington, Oregon — among them Molsky’s Mountain Drifters, the Foghorn Stringband, duo Anna & Elizabeth, Bobby Taylor & Kim Johnson with Karen Celia, and the Red Mountain Yellowhammers.

You’ll hear a full spectrum of old-time music, from ancient “crooked” tunes in cross tuning (scordatura) on the fiddle and banjo, recent compositions in traditional styles, unaccompanied ballads and harmony singing, gutsy blues numbers, and rousing string-band hoedowns.

Molsky, who transcends easy categorization by virtue of his work with legendary guitarist Mark Knopfler and international supergroup Mozaik, describes what he’ll be doing with the Mountain Drifters.

My own roots with fiddle and banjo are deep in traditional southern mountain music, but I’ve also branched out a lot in the last 15 or 20 years. Allison started her journey with the banjo in that way, but her musical chops and ear for different sounds make her a perfect partner. And Stash, who started with guitar in other styles, has dialed into old-time music in the most unique and inventive way. So our music stays pretty much in the old-time music wheelhouse, but also includes songs and tunes that allow us to reach out a bit. It’s a balancing act of staying as true as we know how to tradition but not limiting ourselves either. We’re still new, so trying new ideas and boiling it down as we go. The fun factor is high!

Joyce Cauthen, center, with the Red Mountain Yellowhammers

Joyce Cauthen, author of With Fiddle and Well-Rosined Bow: Old Time Fiddling in Alabama, is guitarist with the Red Mountain Yellowhammers, now celebrating more than 30 years together. According to her, “The band was founded on two main goals: to play great tunes in a way that folks would love to dance to them and to spread the tunes that we had been collecting from older fiddlers across Alabama. We were highly influenced by contemporary Alabama fiddler James Bryan, also a tune collector, and loved the vintage recordings of the Stripling Brothers from West Alabama. Our instrumentation, based on friendship, was rather unique—two fiddles plus a guitar, mandolin, autoharp, harmonica, banjo ukulele and no banjo. Now when we listen to old recordings of Alabama bands we are surprised how much we sound like them even though we didn’t try.”

Del Rey & Suzy Thompson | Credit: Ed Dickie

And Thompson herself will take the stage. Beyond being a marvelous organizer and booking wiz, Thompson is a globally admired fiddler and knock-your-socks-off singer in a variety of idioms — old-time, Cajun, Zydeco, and blues. According to Suzy, “Even though I direct the festival, I only perform every other year, and this year I’ll be playing music with my Seattle buddy Del Rey, who is a virtuoso resonator guitar and ukulele player — she makes these metal instruments sound like a grand piano. We have a new duet CD called Communiqué, which is a mix of early 20th-century vernacular music and originals.”

Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle’s set will include ballads, dance, tunes, and stories, some of them illustrated with old-fashioned “crankies” that combine shadow puppets, prints, papercuts, and embroidered fabric on intricate, handmade picture scrolls. LaPrelle is widely regarded as the best Appalachian ballad singer of her generation. Not to be missed.

Joining the Fun

For those who play instruments or sing, the convention provides a full roster of workshops in fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, ukulele, singing, and traditional dance calling. Each workshop is an opportunity to learn from a master of traditional American music in an intimate setting. Workshops are hosted at the Freight & Salvage, and individual class descriptions, times, and fees are on the workshop page.

Even if you don’t play, there are loads of activities and informative sessions for the general public. For an academic take on the old-time traditions, UC Berkeley is hosting a free panel discussion in Hertz Hall on Friday, Sept. 22, hosted by Ben Brinner, professor and former chair of the music department there. It will, of course, be followed by an open jam with the panelists under the oak tree outside. Curious about American southern dance traditions? Take advantage of Phil Jameson’s free lecture/demonstration, “Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance,” on Sunday, Sept. 24, at the Freight.

If you love to dance or have always wanted to try your hand — or foot — at square dancing, the barn-burning Saturday night dance at Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center is a sure bet. Thompson says, “If you want something physical, hot and sweaty, the Saturday night square dance is really fun, no experience is necessary, the callers will teach all the dances and moves, which are not hard. Plus, the musicians really play their asses off when they play for a square dance, and in addition, we will have one of the top square dance callers in the U.S., Phil Jamison, as our guest caller.”

The Bearcat Stringband plays for the family dance.

The festival aims to provide fun for all ages, and family-oriented activities include a free concert at Berkeley Library’s main branch at 10:15 on Saturday, Sept. 23, with Anna & Elizabeth and an afternoon concert and family dance featuring W.B. Reid and Bonnie Zahnow leading a singing session, square dances taught and called by Phil Jamison to live music by the Bearcat Stringband — with Thompson’s daughter Allegra on bass — Sunday, Sept. 24 at Ashkenaz.

One of the week’s highlights is the free Berkeley Farmers’ Market String Band Contest, a rollicking, old-fashioned competition with 15 all-acoustic string bands bribing judges and playing their hottest tunes as they vie for bragging rights and baskets of agriculture goodies from the adjacent market. The fun starts at 11 a.m. Saturday morning in Civic Center Park, with a guest slot from the Manning Music Fiddlers slated. There will be plenty of jamming around the fringes and ample grassy space for picnics and high jinks.

Listening With Fresh Ears

For folks who aren’t already familiar with the various fiddle traditions that will be on tap for the week, Molsky recommends keeping an open mind and open ears. “Like anything, just listen with an open mind and don’t judge based on expectations,” he says. “The things that make classical music beautiful and deep are so different from the beauty parts of traditional music. I love being moved by styles of music that may not be my main thing. But more than anything, I just want to be moved by musicality and emotion. Just listen for those things, see how happy it makes so many people, and jump in!”

Cauthen adds,

There are a number of professional or semiprofessional old-time musicians who are incredibly virtuosic, and you will hear many of them at BOTMC. However most are amateurs who love the music, learn it by ear and play it with others in jam sessions and local concerts and dances. It’s quite different from bluegrass music, in that it originated as music for dancing and the tune is king. Everyone except the rhythm  [usually guitar] plays the tune, so don’t expect any one to step up and do showy improvisations. You might think that this sounds boring, but remember that most old-time fiddlers retain hundreds of tunes in their heads. In a jam session it’s possible that only a few people, other than the person who suggested it, actually know the tune. Thus most of them are busy learning it as they play. That’s where the fun and excitement comes in for old-time musicians.

The complete festival schedule is available online or as a printable download, as is the full six-page program with all the events and notes about the performers.

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