Inducing an undergarment-loosening shimmy, the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention got off to an auspicious start when Suzy Thompson relaunched the storied event two decades ago in Civic Center Park with a string band competition.
The contest-winning Squirrelly Stringband, playing their first gig in public, plucked with such brio that Maria Muldaur “got up and started dancing so enthusiastically that her slip ended up around her ankles,” recalled Thompson, a mainstay of the Berkeley old-time, Cajun, and folk music scenes for decades.
Running from Sept. 20-24, the 20th BOTMC takes place in venues, parks and backyards around the city, encompassing workshops, dances, talks, jam sessions and two multi-act Freight & Salvage concerts featuring some of country’s finest old-time music practitioners. The party starts Wednesday with a square dance at Ashkenaz powered by the SLO County Stumblers and caller Erik Hoffman.
Part of what makes the BOTMC such a quintessentially Berkeley happening are the overlapping threads of continuity dating back to the original late 1960s contests in what was then known as Provo Park, where Suzy Thompson’s husband, flat-picking guitar expert Eric Thompson, vied for the top prize: one bag of rutabaga (second place won two bags, and so on).
“It really runs through the generations,” Suzy Thompson said. “The Squirrelly Stringband, who won that first year in 2004, are one of the groups playing Saturday’s big dance at Ashkenaz. And one of the Squirrelly players’ daughters, a Berkeley High student, is a stringband contest judge.”
The threads provide both continuity and a firm foundation, as the BOTMC has expanded tremendously from its precarious origins, when the Ecology Center asked Thompson to produce a bluegrass festival with a diminutive $300 budget. The paltry sum would barely cover a single bluegrass band, “so we put on the string band contest instead, and it was a hit,” she said. “And we’ve just kept adding things.”
The action centers on Freight & Salvage, where Thursday night’s triple bill features Sheila Kay Adams, the Slate Mountain Ramblers, and the Nokosee Fields Trio. Friday night’s Freight program includes Caleb Klauder and Reeb Wilms, Hubby Jenkins and Jackson Lynch, and Plaid Strangers. Numerous free workshops will also be held.
In many ways, the Convention manifests a grassroots scene that has thrived in Berkeley since at least the 1950s, a scene that has long been distinguished by the active presence of many female players. “I am very proud of that legacy,” Thompson said, “and love to see the line of fine women old-time fiddlers continue with players like Elise Engelberg,” who leads a free jam with Matt Knoth outside the Freight at 5 p.m. Friday, “Robin Fischer and others.”
Another thing that’s different about the Bay Area’s scene is the widespread overlap between players devoted to early 20th century old-time music and bluegrass, a virtuosic post-World War II evolution. But the stylistic net cast by the BOTMC goes far beyond the Appalachian roots, often encompassing blues, Cajun music and this year, for the first time, Mexican and Latin American music. Saturday’s day-long Civic Center Park program opens with a family concert by René Y Familia, a next-generation ensemble led by the eldest daughter of San Francisco’s beloved La Familia Peña-Govea band (René’s younger sister, femmetón star La Doña, has not confirmed whether she’ll be there).
This year’s festival also highlights the growing ties between the BOTMC and the Oakland Public Conservatory. Thompson played an essential role in finding funding for OPC’s Black Banjo & Fiddle Fellowship program, which pairs veteran performers with students devoted to tapping into string band music’s abundant Black roots. Three of the fellows will be at the string band contest “and we’ll have a chance to meet them [and] get them involved with [the] old-time community here,” Thompson said.
“There’s a lot of lip service about building community, but I think what we do really does that. That’s a main reason why people are attracted to old-time music. It’s not driven by virtuosity, as opposed to bluegrass. Everyone’s playing at the same time, just like in spiritual communities. There’s just something very powerful about singing and playing together in person.”
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