A Day in New Jersey with NERFA

When musicologists first began collecting folk songs, they found themselves studying the communities and the kinship the songs had with the common people in the localities they were examining. In the early 20th century the study of folk songs took on a greater urgency when there was a fear that new technologies and attitudes of the day would make these songs obsolete as the formally isolated enclaves were being drawn into a larger and global society. Cecil Sharp, John Lomax and many others would travel into rural regions in this and other countries to gather and preserve the songs as well as the lifestyles of the people who were creating the music.

Some of the “fears” have come true as ever expanding methods of communications and interaction have evolved a society that is more connected and less isolated, which in reality is not such a bad development. The so-called “folk revival” of the 1950s and 1960s propelled the music, if ever so briefly, into the mainstream where commercial influences tried to turn the “sound” into a commercial genre. However, even after Bob Dylan plugged in at Newport and the mainstream media declared folk music dead and buried, those of us who continue to draw from the well understand that folk music is indeed a living tradition. If you can accept the facts that live in the 21st century has changed, you will discover there is still a vibrant community that creates and utilizes songs in similar effect to the way the songs were utilized when Cecil Sharp was combing the hills and hollers of Appalachia.

The attendees gather at the NERFA One-Day Conference in Chatham, NJ, April 5, 2013, Photo by Brian McCloskey

The attendees gather at the NERFA One-Day Conference in Chatham, NJ, April 5, 2013
Photo by Brian McCloskey

This was certainly in evidence on Saturday April 5, 2014 when the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance (NERFA) staged a one-day “mini-conference” at the Presbyterian Church of Chatham, New Jersey – the home of the Sanctuary Concert series. NERFA gathered together over 130 musicians, promoters, radio hosts and fans for a marathon session of workshops, showcase, sharing of news and ideas as well as camaraderie. The latter may be one of the most important functions of NERFA and Folk Alliance.

For those of you who do not know about NERFA or Folk Alliance, let me give you a brief history. Originally formed as the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance, the non-profit organization now known as Folk Alliance International was formed in 1989 in Malibu, California when a group of folk music presenters and business people gather together to form a coalition intended to strengthen the initiatives of independent organizations and artists that were perpetuating the folk arts in North America. The organization has since grown to over 3000 members and offers annual conferences and five regional organizations that aims to foster education, networking, development and advocacy for artists, venues and media who focus on the folk arts including music, dance and storytelling.

One of the five regional organizations that grew out of Folk Alliance is the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance, known simply as NERFA. Celebrating their 20th anniversary in 2014, NERFA is the largest of the regionals and the organization hosts an annual four day conference each November, held in Kerhonksen, New York in recent years.

Each year, the NERFA conference attracts hundreds of artists, agents, presenters and media who have very little time to sleep! The weekend is filled with workshops and panel discussions on a variety of topics that are meant to educate and also encourage sharing of best practices and to stimulate new ideas. Of course there is always an overload of music, literally 24 hours a day! What I enjoy is that there are always new artists attending and sharing great new songs. To discover new music and be able to share it on WFDU and at the Hurdy Gurdy is one of the main attractions for me.

Low'n Lonesome at NERFA One-Day, Photo by Brian McCloskey

Low’n Lonesome at NERFA One-Day
Photo by Brian McCloskey

At each conference you will find hundreds of artist showcases which give the convention center a feeling of a folk festival on steroids, showcasing that takes place on various stages during the day and evening, and late night you will find great music being made in hotel rooms on specially designated floors of the hotel. The artists are not only showcasing, they are having fun jamming in the lobby and numerous nooks and crannies of the convention center. While it sounds like a fun music overload (and it is), make no mistake – there is a lot of work being done.

Although I had been hosting my radio show since 1980, I was a later convert to Folk Alliance and NERFA. When I first heard of the organization, I felt I had little need of the offerings since artists were sending me their recordings to play on the air. I did not see the need to trek to a weekend conference to hear music I was already hearing.

I was very shortsighted.

My first weekend at NERFA was an eye-opener. Here were dozens of “new” artists that I had never heard before, who were making music that I was eager to share on my radio show. I quickly became a convert to NERFA and the Folk Alliance!

As the years have passed, NERFA has begun to expand its role by introducing one day “mini-conferences” throughout the Northeast. The New Jersey event was the fifth such event, having previously held one-day conferences in the Washington D.C. area, Boston and Rhode Island. These one-day events provide an opportunity to further into the various regions that make up our folk community and helps spread the mission of NERFA and Folk Alliance to foster the music we love.

As I drove into the parking lot at Chatham, I began to feel the vibe. It was a warm and sunny day, the first one we had after a long winter, and it was a perfect time to reconnect with old friends and meet new ones. There were over 120 registered attendees present, and we quickly went to work.

Workshop at NERFA One-Day, Photo by Brian McCloskey

Workshop at NERFA One-Day
Photo by Brian McCloskey

My first stop was to attend a workshop called “Taking Your Workshop to the Next Level.” As president and booker for the Hurdy Gurdy, I’m always looking for that next level so this was a natural for me! The panel was led by Scott Sheldon, the founder of Sanctuary Concerts. Scott started the series 14 years earlier in a 100 seat room of a converted schoolhouse. Seemingly overight, he grew the series that now presents (and fills) a 450 seat room in the church where the conference was being held. The Sanctuary concert mailing list has over 10,000 (not a misprint) names on it, and the series books artists like Arlo Guthrie, David Bromberg, Rosanne Cash, nick Lowe and others with an 80% sellout rate. The man is doing something right! He was joined on the panel by Scott “Scooter” Fergusen of the Folk Project, New Jersey’s longest running organization devoted to Folk Music. Scooter books special concerts for the Folk Project as well as a successful Ukulele festival. The panel also featured Gina Auriemma, the president of Outpost in the Burbs board of trustees. The Outpost is another successful series run in Montclair, New Jersey. Founded in 1987, the Outpost is a nonprofit organization that also offers cultural gatherings and community service such as special soup kitchen days that serves and builds the community.

The audience consisted of representatives of other venues in New Jersey. It was a wonderful sharing of best practices among the groups. While each of us present our own concert series, often on the same nights and just miles apart, the workshop showed that “competition” can and should be about collectively sharing and building an audience that we can all serve.

I am proud of the numerous venues and wonderful people who are keeping the music alive in my home state of New Jersey. If you live in Garden State, each weekend offers numerous opportunities to watch or make music. With the exception of Massachusetts, I think we have more outlets for folk music than any other state (Yes, that is a challenge – share your rebuttals below!)

There were two other workshops sessions that I attended, and I was honored to be a panelist on each. The first was a workshop titled “Play Me Please – How to Get Radio Airplay for Your Music.” I was joined on the panel by Joe Pszonek, host of Radio Nowhere on WMSC , and Erik Balkey, singer-songwriter and head honcho of Hudson Harding Music.

"Joltin" Joe Pszonek at NERFA One-Day, Photo by Laura Foord

“Joltin” Joe Pszonek
at NERFA One-Day
Photo by Laura Foord

I’ve known Joe Pszonek since the early 80’s when he hosted a show on WFDU-FM. Joe spent 27 years in the music business as a sales and marketing executive, and 3 years ago returned to the airwaves as “Joltin’ Joe, the Mad Scientist,” the host of an outstanding radio series called Radio Nowhere on WMSC at Montclair State University. Heard in the area and on the Internet, Joe’s show has become a Sunday night event from 7 to 10pm when Joe invites outstanding folk, singer-songwriters, blues and Americana artists into his studio to share live performances and terrific discussions. Joe’s sense of humor and passion for music makes his radio shows something special, and I’m just glad my show isn’t on opposite his!

When it comes to passion, I can’t think of anyone in our folk community that shares as much passion as Erik Balkey. I first met Erik about 15 years ago at NERFA, and it took only a few minutes of listening to Erik to make me realize how much great music I had yet to discover for myself. While he is an accomplished artist in his own right, he has a talent for promoting great artists and exposing the folk community to new talent, often sacrificing promotion of his own music. I eagerly look forward to each new package from Hudson Harding, because I know the quality of music on my radio show is about to go up!

Thea Hopkins at NERFA One-Day, Photo by Laura Foord

Thea Hopkins at NERFA One-Day
Photo by Laura Foord

Rather than spend too much time discussing what was said in that workshop, I will save that discussion for a future entry in the Folk Music Notebook. I am also passionate about sharing great music on the radio, and I’ve seen many artists fail to get their music exposed in the proper manner. During the folk revival, a song could be written in the morning, shared on the stage of a coffeehouse in the evening, and a week later the song would be heard coming from dozens of folksingers across in coffeehouses across the country. While you would think that modern technology makes it easier, it can also be a hindrance as there are so many artists writing and recording songs that good music can get lost in the shuffle. I will spend more time discussing this at a later date.

After lunch, I headed to the next workshop, and I have to admit, it was one that I was dreading. For the first time, I had been asked to participate in “On the Griddle.” If you have not witnessed such a session, you might understand why I was hesitant about being a judge. The premise of this session is that an artist hands in a CD of a song they wish us to hear. 60 seconds of that song will be played, without revealing who the artist is, and then the panel of judges critiques the song. It’s not like the judges have time to mull things over or re-listen, we have to give our thoughts as to whether the song is “put in the inbox” or rejected. Once the judges make their remarks, the artists have the choice of identifying themselves.

I’ve attended these sessions in the past as an audience member and often found myself disagreeing with the judges. I also felt for the poor songwriters who were occasionally shot down in front of their peers.

I will gladly share information on music that I like, but I rarely will share a comment about something I dislike. (Which is why I do not do reviews, but share what I consider “New and Noteworthy” recordings.) Each of us have different tastes, and I respect that many people will often like something that doesn’t appeal to me. I was worried about having to give negative opinions about a song I only heard a snippet of, that really isn’t a fair opportunity for review.

Or is it?

As a radio host, I have learned that listeners have control of a dial (or a button) and they are not afraid to use it. If I’m playing something that isn’t pleasant to their ears, they look for something else. Sure, there are plenty of long-time listeners who will give me a chance and stick around, but many will not. A full 60 seconds is probably too much time for some to draw their conclusion. In business, there is an expression of the “elevator ride pitch.” If you cannot make your point to an executive in the time it takes to reach the floor, your idea is going to be rejected. Isn’t a song the same for impressionable ears? Maybe I could do this.

So, I kept an open mind and promised that I would be honest, but I would NEVER deliver a bad review like Simon Cowell. Anyone who makes music is deserving of respect and support. It might not be ready for prime-time, but the craft of making music is an ongoing process. For every great folk song, there were dozens of prior attempts that did not hold up as well.

Luckily I was not alone on this panel. Bill Brandenberg, booker for the Outpost in the Burbs, and Scott Moore, booker for concerts in the DC area for Focus Music and Moore Music, where my co-panelists. I was very impressed by the positive feedback they gave and felt comfortable with my own feedback.

Richard Thorne at NERFA One-Day, Photo by Laura Foord

Richard Thorne at NERFA One-Day
Photo by Laura Foord

It was an eye opener! A particular song was played that I did not care for. It was about government bailing out corporations. It was set to a rock and roll beat, sort of a Chuck Berry protest song, if such a thing were to exist. I did not care for the setting as the lyrics felt like they were forced to fit the setting. I shared my honest thought and then the artist stood up, Richard Thorne. I was a bit taken aback as not only did I not recognize the voice, but Richard reminded me that I played the song on the radio, although a different version!

It was true, although I did not recognize the words in that 60-second snippet, I had indeed played an acoustic version of the song on my radio show a few years earlier when he gave me a demo of the song. Richard recorded the song with just a guitar and the lyrics packed a punch. I could not find the same power with the full backup band, and I did not recognize the lyrics.

In many ways, this anecdote sums up why I was hesitant about this type of session. My opinion is just that, an opinion based on hearing 60 seconds of a song while sitting on a dais in front of a roomful of onlookers. However, I think we had a positive discussion about the song and it taught me something new about critical listening.

I am reminded of a quote from author Neil Gaiman : “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

All in all, I was very glad that I participated in the session as I did hear a number of great songs. There were no “clunkers” that warranted a difficult response, all the songs showed great promise and potential for the future. Some were indeed ready for primetime, and I was happy to play a few on my show the next day, including a great love song to an old car from Hugh O’Doherty, a songwriter from Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Marci Geller at NERFA One-Day

Marci Geller at NERFA One-Day

I was very disappointed that I did not get a chance to participate in an exciting “new” event that took place at this year’s NERFA – the interview room. I wanted to take part, but with my bookings on the two panels I just did not have the time available. The interview room was a unique idea spearheaded by Joe Pszonek. And Wendy Keilen. Twenty artists were chosen and each had a 10 minute set to sing a song and be interviewed. I understand that each artist received an audio and video recording of the performance, which could be a valuable tool for their publicity efforts. It was also a unique opportunity to get to know these artists, and for media members it was a great way to get some fresh programming for radio shows or material for articles. I hope this idea will be carried over to the 4-day conference, count me in!

The rest of the day was spent enjoying memorable showcases from 10 artists/groups selected by a panel. The choices were outstanding:

I had the honor of emceeing the first half and Joe Pszonek the second. Marci Geller kicked things off and set the bar high for the afternoon. She is a talented songwriter with a beautiful voice who accompanies herself on piano as well as guitar. Although her songs have been played on numerous TV shows and she once appeared on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, there are still too many people who are unaware of her music. Lets change that!

Paddy Mills being introduced by Ron Olesko, by Brian McCloskey

Paddy Mills being introduced
by Ron Olesko at NERFA One-Day,
Photo by Brian McCloskey

I was happy to have the opportunity to meet and listen to Paddy Mills. From Owls Head, Maine (what an evocative name for a town!), Paddy is gaining attention for his powerful stories he shares in the songs he creates. He started out by playing in Celtic bands across New England, and he gained an extensive repertoire of Irish, American, Maritime, Nicaraguan and Labor folk songs. Using these tools, Paddy is crafting his own songs that showcase his storytelling abilities as well as his gift for sharing the American experience through the common themes and honesty of his work. Paddy just released his first fully produced CD since 2006, a gem of CD titled “Race to the Bottom.” You WILL be hearing more from him!

There were so many fine performers chosen to showcase, I could spend hours talking about them, but I think you should listen for yourself. Click on the links in the list above to find out more about each of them. You will not regret it!

There is one moment from the showcase that I would like to share before I close this piece. Actually, it was more than just a moment. Jeremiah Birnbaum was on stage when he invited up several friends to join him. Jeremiah, who grew up in New Jersey not far from where the NERFA one day was being held, was a member of the late Jack Hardy’s songwriters collective that would meet weekly to share new songs. Jeremiah has followed Jacks advice and writes a song each week as the process of creating songs leads to well crafted songs.

Jeremiah Birnbaum and friends at NERFA One-Day, Photo by Laura Foord

Jeremiah Birnbaum and friends at NERFA One-Day
Photo by Laura Foord

As his friends, including Karyn Oliver, Carolann Solebello, Ina May Wool and Beverly Grant among them, joined Jeremiah there was an exuberant feeling in the room. While it was fitting that we were in a church, the feeling of joy and love was not a cliché but an honest expression that everyone was sharing. I witnessed this before during the days of Fast Folk Musical Magazine and the scene they created in Greenwich Village during the 1980s. In those days, a spirit of competition existed, matched by a level of cooperation that was inspiring to watch. Through NERFA, I believe the level of teamwork has increased. It is not uncommon to see other musicians in the audience supporting and encouraging their friends. The idea of “making beautiful music together” has taken on a new meaning and this is the heart of any folk community.

I stood in the back of the room as Jeremiah performed, and he then joined Scott Wolfson and Other Heroes, a remarkable band from the folk Mecca of Jersey City. Their inspiring set, the last of the afternoon, have everyone on their feet singing and dancing in a spontaneous celebration that summed up what the one day conference was all about. Music that reaches people. Music that is shared. A community that raises their voice as one.

Driving home, I managed to avoid causing accidents as I quickly sampled CDs that I received during the day. I admit it, I am a folk junkie. One day was not enough. I left Chatham energized again, ready to book another season at the Hurdy Gurdy and ready to play music on the radio. Always ready to listen to another song.

Kudos to The Folk Project, Sanctuary Concerts and Ahhre’s Coffee Roastery in Westfield, New Jersey for co-sponsoring the event. The volunteers were organized by Patricia Bangs and Pamela Robinson. Vicki Lederman fed the gathering, Michael DelVechio supplied sound, and guidance for the entire event came from NERFA President Cheryl Prashker with assistance from Mary Granata as well as Dianne Tankle, whose vision created NERFA 20 years ago. The success of NERFA owes a great deal to Dianne and her husband Dr. Bob Cohen. I owe a great deal to their work, and I think the folk community would not be as strong as it is without their leadership.

Photo by Laura Foord

Photo by Laura Foord

As I count the days to the “full” 4-day conference in the fall, I will be using the songs I gathered and the friendships I made on this very special day in Chatham. Everyone who attended now has the task of sharing this special community with the folks who have yet to hear about the exciting and creative spirit that exists in our folk community. Let us open those doors and let everyone in on what we know!


A Day in New Jersey with NERFA — 3 Comments

  1. Ron — thank you so much for writing this amazing article! You really captured the day, and the magic of folk music and our community. Can’t wait for November (though I’m looking forward to a few months of warm…)

  2. Thanks for posting this, Ron – great article on one of the most fulfilling music events I’ve been to. Intimate, but packed with power!

  3. Ron,
    Thanks for such a comprehensive recap of the One Day NERFA in New Jersey. I couldn’t help but think—what great promotion! I’m sure that some presenters and musicians who are not aware of the treasure that is Folk Alliance or our own NERFA will be inspired to attend. I’m counting the days until November. Thanks for all that you do for the folk community!