It’s a folk music conference, and I was excited to go. It’d been awhile since I attended one of these orgies of folk music and I figured it was about time, especially since this event centered on happenings in the Northeast and as a proud new resident of Ottawa, it was time to meet My People. Or at least, My People who lived nearby.
The Catskills resort was packed when I arrived on Thursday. A seething mass of humanity, many armed with guitars, stood shoulder to shoulder in the huge lobby, a roar of happy conversation rising to the ceiling. Some were in the long line for the registration table, others were in clusters, drinks in hand and laughing with their fellow folk junkies. The line to the hotel front desk was short so I opted for checking in there first.
I quickly got my key from the efficient desk clerk, then made three trips to my car and across the lobby, into the elevators and to my room on the fifth floor. It would’ve been easier had I brought a dolly, but my small Nissan didn’t leave room for that. The hotel luggage trolleys were elsewhere – not surprising since everyone and their mother were trying to get piles of instruments and other equipment to their rooms. I had two instruments, a couple of suitcases and four folding chairs. Since I was sleeping in a showcase room, I needed all that stuff.
Showcase room? Chairs? Yep, at this conference, people move the furniture, set up folding chairs and offer live folk music in their hotel rooms. In addition to these guerrilla showcases, there were also the conference-sponsored showcases in the bigger rooms and theaters downstairs.
Right away, I posted fliers advertising my shows and even though we were supposed to stick to approved bulletin boards, there were pieces of paper everywhere, all shouting, “We’re great! Come to our showcases! Book us!” Every surface was spilling over with piles of paper. The inside of the elevators were covered. I even saw posters in the bathrooms. The conference gave us a comprehensive directory of all the showcases, but it was a bit overwhelming. Maybe these fliers helped some stand out from the crowd. Or maybe we were needlessly killing a lot of trees.
Over the three days, I often found myself in the lobby, either listening to clusters of musicians jamming or playing myself. On Thursday night, I fell in with The Tres Amigos, a great trio from New York City. Here we are, playing with Steve Suffet. Steve and I didn’t get the memo about the matching shirts.
Friday morning, I gathered around the lobby piano and jammed with others on “City of New Orleans” and more.
One night, I forget when, I stopped in the lobby and I listened as two fiddle players leaned in close and traded tunes. The walls could’ve fallen around them and they still would’ve been joyfully sawing away.
There were lots of workshops and panel discussions, but for me, there was too much going on to attend any except the house concert peer group. While I’ve played at house concerts for years, I’ve only started presenting them and was eager to bond with others doing the same. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much out of this gathering because a few people were allowed to go on and on. By the time everyone introduced themselves and said something about their house concerts, there was little time for discussion. I did, however, get some great suggestions for booking Canadian artists for my series. I already know a lot of American performers. I love them dearly, but I need to present performers from my new home.
The program specifically said the group was only for house concert presenters. Still, there was a small group of performers present. Granted, I’m a musician too, but I wear two hats. Most of the musicians were very respectful, so I don’t have much to complain about, however, there was one musician who would not shut up. Later on, in other parts of the conference, I ran into a few people like that. One poor soul found himself sitting alone at meal times because no one wanted to endure his non-stop chatter.
On Friday night I went to the traditional music jam offered by a folk group from New York. I happily mashed through sea shanties, rounds and whatever else people wanted to sing. As a singer-songwriter you wouldn’t think I’d know many of these tunes, but I remembered a lot of them from Girl Scouts. We played John Prine’s “Paradise” even though it’s not really a trad song. It sure sounds like one, though, and we all knew the tune.
When someone started “Cruel War,” I felt the tears come. It was a song I haven’t sung since I was a teen in scouting. It reminded me of my dad, too, who I lost just last month. He didn’t sing this kind of music, but he was a musician and it made me think of the times my family and friends would all sing together.
I also stopped at the Canada Room that evening. Only a handful of people were there, but I got to hear singer-songwriter Amy Campbell’s beautiful rendition of Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country.” I played one of my Canada songs and folks seemed to enjoy it: “I could be in the U S of A / Eating cheese in a can every day / Doing without is good for my heart / In Canada I have love … and a health card” (copyright 2011 Jamie Anderson)
I did a couple of showcases and pressed some palms, but I quickly realized that with five or six hundred musicians and maybe a couple hundred presenters, including every tiny house concert from here to New Jersey, it wasn’t going to be a gig-getting bonanza. That’s okay. It’s really the musicians who make it for me. I love hearing them and playing with them and girl howdy, did I hear some amazing music that weekend.
Friday night, I eagerly attended the official showcases and really enjoyed most of what I heard, especially Brother Sun (what delicious harmonies!) and Honor Finnegan. Here she is, singing her very funny song about our online obsessions:
One of the musical acts that night seemed very out of place, with songs that didn’t offer much substance, and without getting into a big discussion about defining folk music, wasn’t really folk.
After the main showcases, there were smaller ones, called the quads. I didn’t make it to many of those, but I did hear Timbila in the Columbia room. They get their name from the xylophone-like African instrument that is the center of some of their songs. I loved their rhythm-infused music. I had the pleasure of hearing them several times over the conference, at a private showcase and out in the lobby. Great dance music!
I attended most of the formal showcases on Saturday night. Gypsophilia cranked out some awesome gypsy jazz. Guitarist/vocalist Suzie Vinnick played her brand of blow-your-hair-back blues. Charming singer-songwriter Connor Garvey was on next, followed by Zoe Lewis. I’ve known Zoe for years and always enjoy her well-crafted and sometimes quirky songs, like the one about Snow White being fired for saying the “F word.” The Stray Birds played bluegrass/folk, giving us great musicianship and water-tight harmonies. I wanted to stay for more, but lack of sleep caught up with me and I toddled upstairs for a nap.
Late Saturday night I facilitated a women’s song circle in the Local 1000 room. (Local 1000 is my union and I highly recommend it to any touring musician.) Proudly dubbed a showcase-free zone, it was a chance for us to make music together without having to worry about impressing a booker. I really enjoyed the songs and wish that everyone could’ve stayed for the whole circle.
Over the weekend, I often found myself hanging out in my own room. My roommate, Bernice Lewis, organized kick-ass showcases that always had a good audience. It’s no wonder, with artists like Greg Klyma, Claudia Russell and Bruce Kaplan, and her own music (solo and with the Ladies Auxiliary Ukulele Orchestra), in addition to many others. And of course, she had the good taste to book me. Really fun shows, but it meant that I couldn’t go to bed until after 2 AM — hard for a morning person. (I know, I’m not a Real Musician. If I could do all my gigs between 9 AM and noon, I’d be happy.)
The conference was organized well – surprising since it’s almost entirely volunteer-run. Even the hard working director, Dianne Tankle, is unpaid. There’s a small paid office staff of two or three who are there for three months. That’s it.
Some don’t like the somewhat-tired resort where it was held, but I thought it was just fine. As a touring musician, I’ve definitely seen worse. The hotel fed us and again, a few folks didn’t like the food, but I appreciated the variety. (However, I was the weird kid in the grade school lunchroom who ate everyone’s peas so you might want to take that with a grain of salt.) Lines always moved quickly. The waiters were gracious and efficient. So were the other hotel employees. The maids should get combat pay for all the trash we left behind.
I spent some time in the exhibit hall, meeting musicians and offering to write their bios. (Want me to write your bio? Contact me.) It was such a noisy room, though, that I had to quit a couple of times to rest my voice.
It was great to see friends like Bernice Lewis and Martin Swinger, who offered an ear and a shoulder when the lack of sleep and constant promo got the better of me. Bernice and I went for a walk outside on Saturday morning. The sun and conversation totally cleared my mind. We found a river and stood on its banks, singing “Down by the Riverside,” with no one to hear us, but the rushing water and the bare trees.
There were people at the conference that I seemed to run into everywhere, like the woman who was always dressed in spandex and nose-bleed-high heels, exclaiming to everyone that she was divorced. But yet, there were folks I wanted to see but never did, like the New York City musician that I connected with over email before the event. It was crazy, with musicians thrusting flyers at everyone and jamming happening everywhere — in the lobby, the hallways and the stairways. It mixed into this stew of desperation and joy, sometimes savory and sometimes overwhelming.
By the time Sunday morning rolled around, I was ready to go. My roommates were just getting in about 6 AM, raving about an all-girl jam they’d been at most of the night. How I wish I could’ve joined them, but after getting about 3 hours of sleep a night, there wasn’t an ounce of energy left in me.
I loaded my little car and grabbed a quick breakfast. As I ate, I listened to a small group in the lobby that had been playing all night. One of them was still sipping from a whiskey bottle as he slumped over a guitar and sang Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Going Down.” I added a harmony before I ducked out the door and headed off into the quiet morning. Thank God for dark chocolate mint M&Ms and a large latte from Starbucks, or I never would’ve made the seven-hour drive without crashing into a bridge abutment.
Was the conference worth it? I don’t know. I really enjoyed the live music and loved jamming. It’s a lot of money to spend, though, and the gigs I snagged as a result won’t pay for everything. While I still tour a bit, my bread and butter is teaching. I don’t need a conference for that. And as a cranky middle-aged musician, I’m not sure about staying up all night just because there’s a good jam. Maybe this whole experience will be like childbirth. I’ll forget about the pain, remember the joy and want to do it again. Maybe I’ll just learn to sing and sleep at the same time.
Find out more about NERFA (Northeast Regional Folk Alliance) here.