The Bucking Mules: one of the many bands performing at the Berkeley Old-Time Music Convention which kicks off next Tuesday. Photo: BOTMC
The Bucking Mules: one of the many bands performing at the Berkeley Old-Time Music Convention which kicks off next Tuesday. Photo: BOTMC

In Berkeley everyone gets to be old, at least for a few glorious days.

The 11th annual Berkeley Old Time Music Convention, which runs from Tuesday Sept. 16 to Sunday Sept. 21 at venues around the city, presents some of the countries finest folkies, including young players who are finding their own voices in American roots music. The festival opens on Tuesday at the Pacific Film Archive with a screening of the documentaries “Banjo Tails” and “Musical Holdouts,” with both followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers.

With jam sessions, workshops, panel discussions, square dances and the famous Berkeley Farmers’ Market String Band Concert (first place: one bag of rutabaga; second place: two bags of rutabaga), the BOTMC offers many opportunities to experience the music.

The festival pivots on two concerts at Freight & Salvage. Thursday features the Bucking Mules with San Francisco vocalist guitarist and fiddler Karen Celia Heil, the duo of Penny Chitchlow and Mark Olson in Twice As Nice, and West Virginia fiddle master Franklin George with banjo expert Kim Johnson. Peter Coyote emcees, and Jim and Amber Mueller host a free pre-concert jam session.

“Franklin grew up with old time music, learning some from his grandfather, who learned some of his music from former slaves, so there’s a direct line of transmission,” says BOTMC artistic director Suzy Thompson, a formidable fiddler, accordionist, guitarist and vocalist. “When he came of age what was becoming popular was bluegrass. There aren’t that many great old-time fiddlers in his generation because most of them decided to play bluegrass, the exciting hot new music. Frank made a conscious decision to stick with the old music. He’s always been one to go on the path less traveled.”

There’s a last-minute change to Friday’s Freight concert as the headliners

Ginny Hawker and Tracy Schwarz had to cancel. Instead, the Earl White Band, one of a rapidly dwindling handful of African-American old-time fiddlers, has stepped in as a replacement (he also plays Saturday’s Ashkenaz square dance.

“He began playing the fiddle in the early 1970s when he was a member of the Green Grass Cloggers, a group of young college students from North Carolina who brought clogging into the modern age by combining older flatfooting styles with the more modern ‘precision’ clogging routines,” Thompson says, noting that White’s day job is caring for people as a respiratory therapist. “A step that he invented during that time came to be known as ‘the Earl’ and is still taught to cloggers everywhere.”

Sharing the bill are White are The Cliffhangers with songwriter Mark Simos (Alison Krauss, Laurie Lewis and Del McCoury have all recorded his tunes), and the Onlies, a trio of 16-year-olds from Seattle who’ve been playing together since toddlerhood.

“I’ve known them for years,” Thompson says. “They play old time, but also beautiful Celtic music, and write their own songs. They’re lovely and deep musicians. They have a pretty broad knowledge and good chops, and still really excited about everything. They’re all high school juniors, and one of the reasons this gig worked out is that they’re going to check out UC Berkeley while they’re here.”

Barbara Dane
Barbara Dane

Barbara Dane, the jazz and blues singer who got her start in the 1940s, plays La Peña on Sunday. The event celebrates the release of Ian Ruskin’s radio documentary A Wild Woman Sings the Blues, and will feature brief set by Dane, about 30 minutes from the documentary and a Q&A with Dane and Ruskin. I wrote about her for Berkeleyside two years ago before her 85th birthday celebration at the Freight.

Andrew Gilbert writes about music for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar, and submit your own events there — the calendar is free and self-serve.

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....