Welcome to the “New” Folk Music Notebook

“We propose to devote ourselves to the creation, growth and distribution of something new, yet not so new, since its beginnings have been visible, or rather – audible, for some years now. We call it ‘Peoples Music’ “

Those words were printed on page 2 of the very first issue of Sing Out! magazine way back in 1950. That first 16-page issue, spawned by Peoples Songs (a collective started by the likes of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, Paul Robeson, Irwin Silber and others) continues to live up to that principle 64 years later. In 2014, the vision is continuing to expand as the Sing Out! website evolves and incorporate technological opportunities that Woody, Pete and their peers never dreamed of when they were publishing that first issue.

I am honored to be included in this expansion of the Sing Out! web presence, and in the months to come there are plans to include more blogs of this type and other features that will share information, opinion and of course – great music. I intend to make this Folk Music Notebook a collection of observations, news, reviews and hopefully an entertaining look at the folk community and most importantly, folk music. Peoples music.

Ron Olesko onstage at the Hurdy Gurdy 2013

Ron Olesko
(photo by Brian W. Johnson)

So who am I and where do I fit in? I guess my connection with folk music began in the early ’60s. No, I was much too young be found hanging around Washington Square Park or the environs of the Village. In those days, I was more likely to be located in front of the family TV set watching Captain Kangaroo while his puppet troupe would act out skits based on commercial folk songs of the era. Songs like “Lemon Tree” and “There’s A Hole in the Bucket” are etched in my memory.

Aside from the good Captain, my mother, who enjoyed singing to amuse me as well as herself, provided music in our house. My father was more of the silent type, but he loved to listen to the radio and would often switch the dial to take in a diverse selection of music and news. Because those were the heady days of the folk revival, there was plenty of music in my school and I recall singing “Put Your Finger in the Air” years before I ever heard of its writer, Woody Guthrie.

Flash-forward to the early 1970s when I entered high school with a developing interest… make that a passion … for singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon. I fondly recall driving around in my friend Bob’s beat up Volkswagen listening to these musical idols on his eight track player, which was in worse shape than his car. I became immersed in the music and spent time looking back to the roots of the music that influenced these artists. I had discovered my love for folk music – traditional and contemporary.

Around this time, I began keeping a journal and an English teacher took some interest in a few of my stories and shared them with her husband, who worked for a newspaper syndicate. He edited a few of my stories about my experiences with youth baseball and I was published in several newspapers across the country.

On my first day of college in 1975, I walked up to the radio station, WFDU-FM. Owned and operated by Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey, I joined the station hoping to pursue an interest in journalism. I was soon reading the news on the air and a few months later I had the opportunity to host a music show.

Back then, college radio was all about “progressive” rock. (Kids, don’t ask me to explain what “progressive rock” really meant, go ask your mother!) At the time, WFDU was not playing the commercial singer-songwriters that I was fond of, but my eyes and ears were soon opened to dozens of exciting performers who were creating music that I could identify with. I was introduced to artists like Loudon Wainwright III, Nick Drake, and Phil Ochs. Still the radio station was not playing true “folk music”, and my attempts to sneak in a few were looked at suspiciously by music directors of the day.

In early 1977, I read a story about Marjorie Guthrie, the widow of the folk music legend who I had come to admire. The film “Bound For Glory” was nominated for several Academy Awards and I decided to reach out to Marjorie to see if I could interview her. She readily agreed and invited me to drop by her office to discuss what I would like to talk to her about. I went to her office, which was located in the offices of Harold Leventhal, and she showed me file cabinets filled with Woody’s work, stacks of recordings from Woody and his fans, and photographs of her and her family. Marjorie agreed to come to the studios of WFDU-FM to talk about Woody, and also to share her story about the battle with Huntington’s Disease. It was important to her to share that part of Woody’s story with an audience. She told me that many people, like myself, knew about Woody and his music, but his later years told another important story that was not as well known.

Marjoire Guthrie and Ron Olesko

Marjorie Guthrie and Ron Olesko at WFDU-FM in 1977

Marjorie visited the radio station and we did our interview together. She also brought a guest, an actor/musician by the name of Tom Taylor who was doing a one-man performance as Woody. The management of the station was taken aback by the commotion. In those days, performing live music on the radio was unheard of. We played LP’s and talked about songs, no one was making music in the studio. Having an artist tune a guitar in our lobby was an unusual occurrence.

The show was broadcast on Easter Sunday in 1977 as a special since the music contained really did not fit in with our “progressive rock” sound! However, the broadcast resulted in a handful of letters (pre-email days!) that were all very positive. I suddenly had the chance to play more folk and singer-songwriters.

Most importantly, Marjorie Guthrie inspired me. I was moved by her dedication to keeping Woody’s music alive AND to improving the lives of patients while working to find a cure for Huntington’s. I wanted to share more stories of this type, along with music that spoke of the human condition and the issues we faced.

My shows started to incorporate more folk music. Then in 1980, WFDU-FM hired a new station director who came up with the idea of broadcasting “roots” music – folk, blues, bluegrass, country and a variety of ethnic styles that make up our nations musical heritage. Although I had just graduated, he asked me if I would like stay on and host a show as part of this new format he called “Music America”. My program “Traditions” was born. It continues to be heard on Sunday afternoons from 3 to 6pm.

The year after I started my radio show, a folk music club sprung up here in Bergen County, New Jersey. The Hurdy Gurdy Folk Music Club began in Bergen County in 1981, formed by a group of music fans who realized that there were NO other venues of the type in Bergen County, one of the most heavily populated counties in the nation. The club was an immediate success and I was invited to emcee some of their concerts, which I also promoted on my radio show

Over the years, I had the luck to share an abundance of great music on the radio. I also became immersed in what I came to realize is a large and global society – the folk music community. Shortly after my program began, a musicians collective that was first known as the Coop and later Fast Folk began reviving the folk scene in New York City. I would visit places like Speakeasy, the Other End and the legendary Folk City to meet these new artists that were carrying on the folk tradition, but in their own style. Many would come on my show. (Remind me to tell you about an appearance by Christine Lavin in 1985 when she told me and our listeners about a couple of great “new” singer-songwriters named John Gorka and Shawn Colvin.) I came to realize that folk music truly is a living tradition.

Cathie Ryan and Ron Olesko at WFDU-FM

Cathie Ryan and Ron Olesko at WFDU-FM
(photo by Brian W. Johnson)

When I look back at the guests I’ve had on my radio program, I realize how fortunate I am. Names like Odetta, Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, Jean Ritchie, Ed McCurdy, Eric Andersen, Tommy Makem, Christine Lavin, Jack Hardy, Richard Shindell, Cathie Ryan and so many others have been guests on my show.

I will jump ahead in this story to 2007. I was still hosting my radio show, although family commitments required me to go on a bi-weekly schedule and share the hosting duties with a friend, Bill Hahn. As my kids grew older and I found myself with more time on my hands, I was approached by the Hurdy Gurdy Folk Music Club to help with their booking. The times had changed, there were now several organizations like the Hurdy Gurdy presenting concerts in Bergen County, and the conditions at the venue where they were operating were going downhill. I was asked to help in any way that I could.

I’m still not sure how this shell game worked, but I suddenly found myself selected by the board to become the President as well as booker, and we also faced the fact that we had to move from the location where the Hurdy Gurdy called home for 25 years. Enter the town of Fair Lawn and a beautiful new Community Center that housed a gorgeous 170-seat theater – perfect for folk music. The Hurdy Gurdy moved, our attendance has grown, and the current folk music scene is providing many opportunities.

Presenting live music has added a new appreciation to my love of this music. Producing concerts opened my eyes to another side of the artistry of these modern troubadours and the fans that keep it alive.

In addition to my ongoing work with WFDU and the Hurdy Gurdy, I have been able to keep my early journalistic urges going by writing for Sing Out! as well as an earlier version of a blog which I started in 2006. We have imported many of the postings from my earlier blog to this new site, and I hope you will take some time to explore.

I consider folk music to be my “unpaid vocation” but I am also a fan and a student. While my musings will ever settle the question of “what is folk music”, I know we will have fun exploring together. Please be sure to share your comments on my posts and we can create a conversation about the music we love.

So there is part of my story and my connections with folk music. There is much more, but you’ve already spent too much of your valuable time to learn a few bits about me.  So much has changed since I first began broadcasting in the 70s, technologically and musically.   Folk music is alive and well and evolving as our society continues to explore.  It is an exciting time.

Looking ahead to future postings, I have plenty of interesting stories to share as well as news from the folk music community, history of the music and the artists, CD recommendations, concert and festival reviews, playlists of my show and views on the scene. Heck, I might even share a cheesecake recipe if fitting! Who knows? Keep reading… and enjoy some great music with me!

About Ron Olesko

For over 40 years, Ron has been a radio programmer with WFDU-FM in Teaneck, New Jersey. He created WFDU-FM's TRADITIONS in 1980, a show that he continues to host and produce every Sunday afternoon from 3 to 6pm Eastern Time. He's the president of and booker for the Hurdy Gurdy Folk Music Club in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and is a regular contributor to Sing Out! as well as the host of the Folk Music Notebook blog on this site. Ron can also be found emceeing concerts and festivals around the NYC/NJ area. A lifelong Mets fan and a rabid soccer geek, Ron is a Red Bull season ticket holder since their inception and will most likely be in his seat when not in the studio.

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