This is my second and final installment of my 2016 Old Songs diary. Part 1 featured some background about the fest and the first night of the fest.
Every festival has a personality of its own, and Old Songs is unique. I welcome all readers to submit a comment at the end of these entries to share your thoughts and memories about Old Songs or ANY festival that you may have attended. Tell us about a festival you enjoy, and what draws you to the experience.
On Saturday morning I woke up to sunny skies and the promise of another great day at Old Songs. I was not to be disappointed. I got to the Altamont Fairgrounds as early as my body would let me. My first order of business was to scope out a spot to plant my chair near the main stage. The idea is to get a good spot and keep your chair in place through the evening main stage concert. You leave your chair and wander during the day, but you want to get cozy for the evening.
Although I was sitting back a bit farther than I expected, I was happy. Based on the number of chairs already setup, it appeared there would be a full “house” for the day. The stage is nestled in a grove of trees and the sight lines are wonderful no matter where you sit. The sound quality is superb, perhaps the best sound I’ve ever heard at any festival. In addition to the main speakers on the stage, they have sets of speakers staged strategically through the audience so that there are no echoes and you can hear every note as if you were sitting on the stage. It is such a lovely setting for a festival, you can’t ask for much more.
I glanced at the Festival Grid that is handed out. Even though I studied the offerings in advance, I still found myself wandering the grounds, hoping to catch a bit of everything. There are over 120 workshops sessions and performances scheduled throughout the weekend, not to mention the impromptu jams taking placed in the campground. Like a kid in a candy store, it is easy to get overwhelmed.
The workshops and stages are spread out in 10 different areas across the fairgrounds. There is a bit of walking involved if you want to attend some of the workshops, so wear comfy shoes. I managed to develop a blister, you would think I would be better prepared after all these years.
The Saturday workshops started in the Sheep Barn at 9am with a Shape Note and Sacred Harp sing led by Stefan Amidon, son of Peter and Mary Alice Amidon. The Amidons have been fixtures at Old Songs for many years. Peter is the founder and former director of Vermont’s Brattleboro Music Center Children’s Choir, a choir director at the Guilford Community Church and also co-director of an accapella hospice choir known as Hallowell. Peter and his wife Mary Alice are the “founders” of the Amidons, a family band that also features their sons Sam and Stefan. If you have not participated or heard Shape Note and Sacred Harp, you are missing a unique experience. Sacred Harp is a tradition of choral music that developed in the southern United States in the early 1800s from the roots of the English country parish movement. Shape notes is the music notation system that was developed to help teach the communal singing. The singing is accapella with the group sitting in a square, one side for each of the four parts (treble, alto, tenor and bass, and all facing inward to the leader. Technically, there is no one person that leads, the participants take turns leading. The singing is not meant for an audience, those who participate are singing for themselves and each other which make this folk tradition so special.
One of my favorite stages at Old Songs is the Dutch Barn. Located just inside the main gate, the barn was built in 1995 to replicate the unique style of barns built in the US and Canada by Dutch settlers dating back to the 18th century. The square profile of the wooden structure, with a steep gabled roof, makes for lovely acoustics and a pleasant setting for workshops and intimate performances. The first workshop that I visited in the barn featured Anne Hills, Jay Ansil and Joe Jencks sharing train songs. Anne performed several songs from her 2014 “Tracks” recording. I loved hearing her sing David Massengill’s “Rider on an Orphan Train” in this setting. To hear Anne’s sweet voice combined with the mellifluous tones of Joe Jencks (who is also a model train buff) was a real highlight of the weekend. Two of the finest voices in folk music, together in one room, or barn!
Following the Train of Thought workshop, I stuck around the Dutch barn to hear a performance from Old World Charm School. Susan Kevra, Karen Axelrod and Rachel Bell make up this group who offered a blend of lively Quebecois songs, French village dance tunes and original pieces that I found irresistible. Rachel plays piano accordion for the trio, and her bubbly personality and passion that she shares with Susan and Karen really lit up the room.
I headed over to the sheep barn (how often do I get to say that?) to witness an exquisite Ballads workshop featuring Matthew Byrne, Sally Rogers and John Roberts. Each artist possesses an encyclopedic knowledge and seemingly bottomless collection of songs and their offerings were either little-heard pieces or songs in settings that the audience would not readily recognize. It showed the depth and the vast spread of folk songs through different cultures.
A workshop on the Songs of Uncle Dave Macon featured George Wilson and Bill Dillof. Part of the duo Moonshine Holler, Bill has been performing old-time music since the 1960s and has been a member of the NY-based string band Major Contay and the Canebrake Rattlers. George is multi-instrumentalist and collector of songs and tunes. He has recorded several CDs of fiddle tunes with a strong influence by Cape Breton and French Canadian styles. On the 5-string banjo, he is known for his performances of Uncle Dave Macon songs and his knowledge of America’s first country music star gave this workshop a special touch.
Workshops like the one for Uncle Dave Macon help link the past with the present and are effective ways to introduce, or re-introduce, these artists and their songs to new audiences. On Sunday afternoon, the workshop Songs of Phil Ochs featured Kim and Reggie Harris, Joe Jencks, Anne Hills, Jay Ansill, Jay Mankita and Phil’s sister Sonny Ochs. The workshop Blues of the ’20s and ’30s with Andy Cohen, Annie & the Hedonists, Phil Wiggins and George Wilson helped resurrect some of the legendary musicians that paved the way for future generations.