The tricky thing about presenting old-time American music is that it doesn’t fit neatly in clubs and venues. Which isn’t to say that old-time masters can’t thrive in concert settings and don’t deserve the same production values, respect, and remuneration offered leading exponents of other folk traditions. But the music’s life blood circulates in situations where distinctions between artists and audiences collapse, where the primary exchange isn’t between a ticket holder and a performer, but between friends and acquaintances (assumed to be friends-in-waiting).
The 15th Annual Berkeley Old Time Music Convention has confronted this conundrum from the beginning, and has found various strategies that allow the music to flourish in its natural element. The festival unfolds Sept. 26-30 at venues around Berkeley, including Freight & Salvage, Ashkenaz, and UC Berkeley’s Hertz Hall, but a lot of the action takes place off stage with workshops and jam sessions. The Convention kicks off Wednesday with a free triple bill followed by a jam session at Oakland’s Niebyl Proctor Library featuring fiddler Karen Celia Hail and Friends, Hook N Line, and Paper Wings (aka Emily Mann and Wilhelmina Frankzerda).
“A lot of this music wasn’t designed for formal performance,” says Berkeley fiddler, guitarist, accordion player and roots music torch bearer Suzy Thompson. “It was more for within your own community. We’re trying to strike a balance between being true to what old-time music really is, which is not Americana or singer/songwriter. All those things are good. It’s not just rooted in the past in the same way. We’re trying to show diversity in the musical styles, to cover a lot of bases while having the old-time thread.”
The performance centerpiece of the Convention takes place at the Freight with two triple bills. Thursday’s show features the Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder Dom Flemons, who recently released Black Cowboys on Smithsonian Folkways, Tennessee fiddle legend Mike Bryant and old-time banjo master (and NPR host) Paul Brown with Marcia Bryant and Terri McMurray, and Sausage Grinder. The show is preceded by a free jam session. On Friday, old-time legend Alice Gerrard, still a creative force at 84, performs at the Freight with Chris Brashear on a program with the Down Hill Strugglers and Dos Valley Trio. Gerrard’s haunting voice is undiminished as are her skills on fiddle, banjo and guitar, though Free Dirt Records just released a potent reminder of her best-known partnership with Kitchen Tapes, recently discovered rehearsal tapes of Alice with Hazel Dickens in the late 1950s, where their storied partnership was just taking off.
“She’s been such a huge inspiration and influence on three generations of women,” Thomson says. “And she just keeps on going. She’s the one we all want to be like when we grow up. She performed at the Convention at least six times now in different settings. Her last album, Follow the Music, received a Grammy nomination, and it’s got some spooky deep stuff on there. And then Alice found these old practice tapes. She gradually went through them and realized there’s a lot of really good singing and a bunch of songs that she and Hazel never recorded.”
In many ways the heart of the Convention, and the event that ties it to its countercultural roots, is the Berkeley Farmer’s Market String Band Contest, which runs Saturday 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. in Civic Center Park in front of the defunct fountain. Back in the day when the space was known as Provo Park the farmers market hosted a series of legendary free festivals that combined the sublime and the ridiculous. Covered in an upstart magazine called Rolling Stone, the inaugural 1968 festival featured fiddle and banjo contests where the musicians competed for market wares (with the first place finisher earning one bag of rutabaga, while the runner up took home two bags, and so on). Thompson revived the contest in 2003 and the response was so enthusiastic she launched the Old-Time Convention the following year with backing from Berkeley’s Civic Arts Commission.
“Every year the contest attracts new people,” she said. “Last year some groups were all senior citizens, and there were a couple of teenager bands. This young women Sydney Roberts has been entering the context every year since she was about five. There are always some really bad bands that are also entertaining, and some great bands too. Last year, there were three fantastic young women singers. A number of younger band have gone on to become amazing, like bassist Max Schwartz, who plays with Laurie Lewis. You never really know what you might hear. You might experience a historical musical moment.”
Other highlights include an old-time square dance Saturday night and a family square dance Sunday afternoon (both at Ashkenaz). There are workshops on Ozark ballad singing with Chris Brashear, Texas/Arkansas/Mississippi fiddling with Jackson Lynch, harmony singing with Alice Gerrard and Chris Brashear, and southern Appalachian fiddle evolution with Paul Brown. An all-afternoon jam session on Sunday takes over Ohlone Park across from the North Berkeley BART Station. And if you keep your ears open, there are numerous informal get togethers around town in people’s homes for jamming and teaching, which is just what Thompson envisioned in creating the Convention.
“For me, part of music in Berkeley has always been a do-it-yourself aesthetic,” she says. “It’s one of the things that Berkeley is famous for. From looking at the Convention posters you can’t tell that there’s an enormous amount of jamming that takes place. There’s a lot of different opportunities and almost all are free. That’s part of what we hope to create, to nourish and give back, a time and place for people to have a musical and social experience. With everyone on their cell phones constantly, knee-to-knee and face-to-face encounters are more valuable than ever.”