Bashing Berkeley is a finely honed reflex in the national media, with just about any story offering lazy journalists a chance to dust off tired clichés about the People’s Republic of Bezerkleystan.
A closer look reveals a community where a passion for progressive causes is matched by a reverence for the rural past, from free-range backyard chickens and organic vegatable gardens to crafty woodworkers and the barter economy. Rather than rejecting American ideals, Berkeley has long celebrated an idealized America, particularly when it comes to music.
It’s no coincidence that for half a century the city has played a central role in the preservation and promotion of old-time music, that broad, argument-starting category that encompasses string bands, jug bands and country blues, rags, spirituals, bluegrass and high lonesome ballads.
The 9th Annual Berkeley Old Time Music Convention, which runs Wednesday September 14 through Sunday 18th at various venues around town, embodies the city’s long-running love affair with American roots music.
The festival kicks off at Freight & Salvage with a triple bill featuring the West Coast debut of the Pilot Mountain Bobcats, a celebrated string band from North Carolina. The duo of Virginia vocalist Ginny Hawker and her husband Tracy Schwarz (from the New Lost City Ramblers) make a rare Bay Area appearance.
Rounding out the program is ACES, an all-star East Bay string band featuring Alan Senauke on guitar, Chad Manning on fiddle, Eric Thompson on banjo and festival director Suzy Thompson on fiddle.
An indispensable force on the West Coast American roots music scene for four decades, Suzy Thompson was instrumental in reviving the Old Time Convention, which traces its roots back to Berkeley’s halcyon days as a Mecca for folk music. In the late 1960s, the Berkeley Farmer’s Market hosted a series of legendary festivals that gleefully combined the sublime and the ridiculous. Written up in a new-fangled publication called Rolling Stone, the premiere festival in 1968 featured fiddle and banjo contests that awarded the first place finisher one bag of rutabaga (second place won two bags, and so on).
“I’d been hearing about these events since I moved here in 1973,” says Thompson, whose latest CD, “Tickled, Too”, introduces The Todalo Shakers, a string band dedicated to celebratory stomps, rags and blues from the 1920s and 30s. In 2003, Thompson was asked to host a string band contest at the Farmer’s Market and it went so well that a festival took shape with backing by Berkeley’s Civic Arts Commission.
With workshops, contests, family concerts, square dances and a concluding Old Time Cabaret open mic at Jupiter on Sunday afternoonl, the new Old Time Convention is designed in the embracing spirit of the original festivals. As Thompson sums up the event’s ethos, “Let’s have a good time, let’s make good music, and not take it too seriously.”
Which isn’t to say that the artists featured at the Convention aren’t utterly devoted to their art form. Friday’s Freight & Salvage triple bill showcases talent from Tennessee, including renowned buck dancer Thomas Maupin and friends, award-winning fiddle and banjo duo Mike Bryant and Joseph Decosimo, and the opening act, San Francisco string duo of Craig Ventresco and Meredith Axelrod, who explore the jazzier side of old time music. A documentary about Thomas Maupin, “Let Your Feet Do the Talkin’” screens before the show.
Over the weekend, old time music takes over the town, with a concert for kids at the main branch of the Berkeley Public Library, a string band contest at Civic Center Park, and an Ashkenaz square dance on Saturday. Sunday features multiple workshops at the Freight, the Old Time Cabaret and an afternoon Ashkenaz square dance for families.
As the Convention’s name implies, old time music encompasses a huge swath of styles united mostly by the fact that the sounds took shape before mass media began knitting together a national consciousness.
In other words, “This is what people did before there was radio, television and movies,” Thompson says. “They’d sit on their back porch and play. I think that feeling is what inspires a lot of people to take up this music. The more speeded up our lives get in the 21st century, the most seductive it is to think about when there was a simple pace, when you didn’t need any electricity.”
In Berkeley, you can often see the future by looking backwards.
Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and East Bay Express.
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