Acoustic, unplugged, raw and twangy, American old-time music provides a direct link to an age before mass electronic communication, when each town, holler, enclave, and region had its own particular cadence and verse. But in the age of COVID-19, the Berkeley Old-Time Music Convention is depending on the latest distance-collapsing technology to present its 17th season.
Running Sept. 24-27 completely online, the BOTMC features all the usual gatherings, including concerts, jam sessions, song swaps, workshops and special programming for children and their families (all events are free, except for the workshops). It’s a virtual festival made possible by the websites and programs that have provided forums for safe communal assemblies throughout the pandemic.
Which isn’t to say that this celebration of traditional American music doesn’t also rely on the tightly knit web of relationships undergirding a musical scene that could otherwise thrive off the grid. “People have really stepped up to the plate to make this happen,” says Suzy Thompson, the Berkeley fiddler, guitarist, BOTMC re-founder and longtime guiding spirit of the Convention.
“It’s been a tremendous amount of work figuring out which platform is the best for which events,” she says. “We had to make sure we had enough different accounts for all the different song swaps and workshops. We even managed to preserve the String Band Contest,” which is being conducted online via submitted videos that can be seen here.
While the concerts are all pre-recorded, all the other events are unfolding live on Zoom. “The workshops and jams, the panel discussion at UC, and we’ll have these hangouts or after parties where people can socialize on Zoom,” Thompson says. “For the workshops, everyone else is muted while the leader or instructor is playing. For jam sessions, you’re muted and playing along at home. For the song swaps, everybody who wants to gets a turn to share a tune.”
The evening concerts will be shared through the Facebook page of the Portland, Oregon-based organization Quarantine Happy Hour (and also streamed on YouTube). More than a dozen musicians are participating, including some of old-time music’s most revered and celebrated artists, such as 84-year-old bluegrass Hall-of-Famer Alice Gerrard, whose pioneering collaboration with the late Hazel Dickens paved the way for women in bluegrass and country music (she’s teaming up with singer Kay Justice for a set of Appalachian songs and originals).
The Bay Area’s Jody Stetcher and Kate Brislin, old-time music royalty, are shaking off retirement to present a set of old and new old-time music, and Lafayette, Louisiana-based Cajun fiddler David Greeley performs rare early Cajun fiddle tunes and traditional Cajun French songs. There’s also a significant contingent of artists who embody the deep African-American currents that flow through old-time music, a programmatic focus Thompson developed months before the death of George Floyd reignited the Black Lives Matter movement.
Serving as generational bookends, the festival features the young rising star Jake Blount, a multi-instrumentalist and singer who uses traditional forms to explore the experiences of queer people and people of color, and Appalachian fiddler Earl White, who has long championed the Black string band tradition revived more recently by the Carolina Chocolate Drops. While moving online didn’t end up changing Convention’s basic roster, it did open up new possibilities for some of the artists, like White.
“For our concerts, we hired all the people who were going hire before the pandemic,” Thompson says. “But some of those people are going to be performing with bigger groups, or different groups than they’d be able to bring here. Earl White has played the Convention many times. He used to live in Santa Cruz, he and his wife, guitarist Adrienne Davis, would come out every year and camp out in our yard with their three boys. But he moved to farm in Virginia and he’s playing his set with Victor Furtado who won the Steve Martin banjo prize. He’s a big cheese now and probably wouldn’t have been able to make the trip out to Berkeley.”
While Berkeley has cultivated a lively old-time and folk music scene since the 1950s, Thompson has toiled to sustain and expand the scene in the 21st century. Rather than trying to attract audiences with more famous artists, she’s sought to entice people to pick up instruments themselves (working with Freight & Salvage to hold numerous workshops).
“The Old Time Music Convention has always been about community,” says Oakland banjo player, clogger and square dance caller Evie Ladin, who celebrates the release of her new EP of cover songs Playing Our Hand as part of Friday night’s four-band bill. “Being so far from what people consider the source, Appalachia and the South, Suzy’s been great about bringing amazing musicians out here. I grew up on the East Coast, spent time in the Midwest, and there are good players everywhere. It’s so important to have the opportunity to include our scene in this subculture that extends around the country and around the world. We’re really connected across geography.”
Paradoxically, the pandemic-induced lockdown seems to have expanded those connections. The Stringband Contest, which is traditionally held at the Civic Center farmers’ market, has drawn entries from Virginia, Nashville, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Portland, Oregon and New York. “I doubt they would have all come out here,” Thompson says. “The judges understand our unusual Berkeley aesthetic. We want there to be good music, but there’s no prize money. It’s for fun and bragging rights. We say you have to have three instruments in the band but we don’t say they have to be played, or played by different people. It’s really pretty loose.”
Thompson wasn’t going to let the Stringband Contest fall victim to COVID-19. It’s not only one of the Convention’s most popular attractions, it’s a direct link to the event’s countercultural roots when Berkeley was a folk music mecca in the 1960s. Back when the square across from Berkeley High was known as Provo Park, the farmers’ market hosted a series of free festivals that combined the top-notch musicianship and a love of absurdity. The initial 1968 festival — which was covered by Rolling Stone magazine, then recently co-founded by Berkeley critic Ralph Gleason — featured fiddle and banjo contests where the musicians competed for market wares (the first place finisher earned 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. Support from Civic Arts Commission and the Alliance for California Traditional Arts means that all of the performers are getting paid, a welcoming oasis in this gig-parched COVID landscape. Just as important, the Convention allows people to reconnect, even if it’s via the flow of comments during the performances.
“Everybody misses playing live with other people so much,” Thompson says. “A lot of us are getting together in small groups, outdoors and masked, for distanced jams without any singing. We’re trying to recreate as best we can the usual experience at the BOTMC. Jams give you a chance to see other faces. Watching the concerts there a chance to say hi, and get the feeling that at least you’re having a shared experience.”