As summer comes to a close, musicians from up and down the Pacific coast will converge on Berkeley for a series of shows at the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse, Jupiter, Ashkenaz and the downtown Saturday farmer’s market.
The four-day Berkeley Old Time Music Convention, Sept.15-18, includes numerous performances and musical workshops in honor of the odd, craggy acoustic style known as “old time” music, which is sort of like bluegrass music’s cranky, elderly inlaw, full of squeaky fiddles, plangent banjos and odd, twisted rhythms. The event includes the second annual Berkeley Farmer’s Market Stringband Contest, held Saturday from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. with up to 20 bands competing in a no-holds-barred twangfest that is the centerpiece of the festival.
Just what constitutes “old time music” is often a matter of contention. Generally speaking, it refers to Appalachian mountain music from the 1930s or earlier, and is seen as the precursor to the sleeker, more commercial bluegrass style pioneered in the 1940s by artists such as Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. Some old-time purists still view bluegrass as an apostasy; others, like volunteer organizer Suzy Thompson, are more flexible and forgiving.
“I don’t think there’s as big a separation as some people seem to think,” she said. “Certain kinds of bluegrass are old-time music, but other kinds are not. It all depends on who you talk to.”
Thompson, a veteran fiddler who’s been in a number of Bay Area bands over the last three decades, feels that the definition should be expanded to embrace other ethnic styles beyond the Appalachian music it has been identified with.
“To me, old-time is music that you might have heard in the 1920s or ‘30s (including) the Memphis Jug Band or Amade Ardoin, or Belf’s Romanian Orchestra,” she said. “It has something to do with real actual regional music, that has a real accent and personal feel and hasn’t gone through the maw of the commercial music industry.”
To that end, this year’s event has been broadened to include non-Appalachian music, including Mexican, Balkan and Canadian music—whatever style, just as long as there’s at least one fiddle or banjo per band, and no amplification. Thompson sees the appeal of this old-fashioned acoustic music as being something that hasn’t been repackaged by the corporate media—and isn’t likely to be anytime soon.
“One of the things that appeals to younger people about this music is that it’s basically noncommercial,” she said. “It’s hard to play it really, really well, but it’s easy to play it, and it’s something you can do with other people. The community aspect of it is really appealing. People are tired of the television and tired of everything being controlled by some huge corporate entity—and this isn’t.”
The current event came about when the Berkeley Ecology Center, which sponsors three weekly farmer’s markets, asked Thompson to help organize musical events for the Saturday markets. At first Thompson focused on Cajun music—another of her interests—but soon she turned her attention to old-time stringband music. The idea expanded when Steven Baker of the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse asked her to organize similar concerts at the club, and slowly the idea of a festival emerged. Thompson and her cohorts reached back into Berkeley’s musical past to link the new festival to an older, odder, event from the misty past of the local acoustic music scene.
The original Berkeley Old-Time Fiddler’s Convention was held three times—in 1968, ‘69 and ‘70—and featured ragtag talent shows respectively labeled as the 35th, 17th and 22nd “annual” event. The conventions were puckish, anarchic events—paperwork filed with the city to obtain permits listed “Nobody” as the event’s official organizer—and offered absurd, fanciful prizes for the talent contests. The first contest enticed contestants with a grand prize five-pound sack of rutabagas, the following year awarded contestants with homemade pies and the final fiddler’s convention, held in 1970, boasted a grand prize of a free trip to Emeryville. These days the prizes are more prosaic—a $150.00 Farmer’s Market gift certificate, which can still get you a lot of rutabagas ... if they’re in season.
The Bay Area, and Berkeley in particular, has long been recognized as a haven for bluegrass and old-time music. Some of the finest acoustic musicians in the country hang their hats here, and some, like songwriter Larry Hanks and Thompson’s husband, guitarist Eric Thompson, were even in attendance during the original convention over three decades ago, and will perform onstage at the Freight later this week. Also appearing are newer local bands such as the Stairwell Sisters, Mercury Dimes (from San Francisco) and the Government Issue Orchestra, from Portland, Ore. Headliners include Fresno-based bandleader Kenny Hall and old-time elder Mike Seeger, one of the founders of the folk revival of the late 1950s and early ‘60s.
Even with all the high-powered locals and out-of-town talent onstage, the convention organizers see to it that the event’s true emphasis is on the front porch, do-it-yourself amateurism that is the hallmark of the old-time music scene: the real fun is getting people to learn to make the music themselves.
Several small workshops are being held in conjunction with the concerts: old-time fiddling, regional banjo techniques, harmony singing and square dance calling will be taught. There’s also a youth category, looking for tomorrow’s stars singing the songs of yesteryear. Details about the concerts, contest and various workshops can be found online at www.berkeleyoldtimemusic.org, or through the Freight and Salvage website at www.thefreight.org.
Thurday, Sept. 15:
The Stairwell Sisters, The Roadoilers, Larry Hanks at Freight and Salvage, 1111 Addison St., 8 p.m. $15.50 adv. $16.50 door
Friday, Sept. 16:
Mike Seeger, Kenny Hall Band, Eric & Suzy Thompson at Freight and Salvage, 8 p.m. $15.50 adv. $16.50 door
Saturday, Sept. 17:
Berkeley Farmer’s Market will hold a stringband contest. Downtown Berkeley Farmers’ Market, Center Street between Milvia Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, 11a.m.- 3 p.m.
Square dance with the legendary caller Bill Martin, of Portland, Ore., with music by the Government Issue Orchestra, the Mercury Dimes, Rafe Stefanini with Amy and Karen at Ashkenaz, 1317 San Pablo Ave., 8 p.m. $15 (12 and under free). Clogging workshop with Evie Ladin, 6:30–7:30 p.m., $10, at Ashkenaz.
Sunday, Sept. 18:
Old-time Cabaret at Jupiter, 2181 Shattuck Ave., 4-8 p.m.
Music and dance workshops at various locations, check convention website or call.›