Arts Listings

Berkeley Old Time Music Convention

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday September 10, 2009 - 11:54:00 AM

The Berkeley Old Time Music Convention, dating back to the “35th Annual” Stringband Contest in Provo Park in 1968 and its lineal descendants, the 17th and 22nd Annuals the succeeding years, is underway through this weekend, featuring shows tonight and tomorrow night. 

The events include a free southern dance styles demonstration tomorrow at noon at the new downtown Freight and Salvage on Addison, a free panel discussion on Friday afternoon at the UC Berkeley Music Department, a family concert in the Main Library on Kittredge Saturday morning, and, in the afternoon, a string band contest and youth showcase at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market in Civic Center Park (the last two free). 

Saturday will feature a square dance night at Ashkenaz. And Sunday will bring music, clogging and square dance workshops at the JazzSchool in the morning, a family square dance in the afternoon at Ashkenaz, and a free Old Time Cabaret at Jupiter restaurant also in the afternoon, all ages welcome. 

The “early days,” 1968-70, were referred to as the Berkeley Old Time Fiddler’s Convention, as Rita Weil notes on the Folkways LP Berkeley Farms: “Conceived in the back of a Volkswagen bus, on the way to a party in Marin County, by a group of people who wanted to retain the good music and interplay they’d witnessed at Southern fiddle-banjo contests, without the competition and corruption extant there.”  

Beyond any edict on regional styles, Weil notes, “who could pinpoint one tradition for Berkeley?” 

With a loose-knit band of volunteers, the convention started off as an event “by the musical community, for the musical community and of the musical community.”  

With judges selected for their musicianship and a “sense of the absurd,” bribes were openly solicited and given, and prizes included three pounds of rutabagas as first prize—and five pounds as second. One prize went to a banjo player in Switzerland, “for the good taste to be 8,000 miles away.” An “instant” band, the Family Cow, 40 members strong, with a pregnant, bellydancing conductor, was disqualified on the grounds of illegal assembly. 

The early convention, a free event (the board of directors once quit, not knowing what to do with money contributed), was held in Provo Park, “bounded by the Police Dept., City Hall, Jail and Berkeley High School.”  

Weil concludes her notes, circa 1971, with a promise that the festivities will be renamed The First Annual Berkeley Old Time Fiddler’s Convention as soon as Mike Seeger (Pete Seeger’s half brother and founder of the New Lost City Ramblers) comes out west to it, “so he won’t feel as if he missed anything ...” 

Seeger, who played the convention both solo and with the New Lost City Ramblers several times, died on Aug. 7.  



• Freight and Salvage, 2020 Addison St., featuring Alice Gerrard, The Tallboys and Eric and Suzy Thompson, 8 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m. with free jamming in the lobby beforehand ($15.50 advance, $16.50 at the door).  

• Rodney and Clay Sutton and Charmaine Slaven will demonstrate Southern dance styles noon to 1 p.m. at Freight and Salvage (free). 

• From 4:30 to 6 p.m., a free panel at 125 Morrison Hall (the Music Building on campus near Bancroft and College) will feature Alice Gerrard and Elizabeth La Prelle, with Professor Ben Brinner as moderator at 8 p.m. (doors open at 7 p.m. with a free jam), Benton Flipper and the Mostly Mountain Boys (Paul Brown, Terri McMurray and John Schwab), Elizabeth La Prelle, and the Knuckle Knockers at Freight and Salvage ($15.50/$16.50). 



• A kids’ and family concert, 10:15 to 11 a.m., in the third floor Community Meeting Room of the Main Library, 2090 Kittredge (off Shattuck), with Professor Banjo (aka Paul Silveria), free. 

• String band contest and youth showcase in the afternoon in Civic Center Park. 

• A square dance with Benton Flipper and the Mostly Mountain Boys, the Tallboys and the Black Crown String Band, with callers Rodney Sutton and Amy Hofer, and an introduction to clogging by Charmaine Slaven, at Ashkenaz, 1317 San Pablo Ave., 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 7). 



• Music workshop, including Alice Gerrard teaching fiddle Galax-style, clogging, and square dance calling with Rodney  

and Clay Sutton at the Jazz 

School, 2087 Addison, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. 

• Old Time Cabaret at Jupiter, 2181 Shattuck Ave., 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. (lineup posted online 8 a.m. Sunday). 

• Family square dance ($4 kids, $6 adults) at Ashkenaz, 3 p.m., with caller Paul Silveria and the Mount. Diablo String Band: “all ages—including babes-in-arms—and same-sex partners welcome.” 


Berkeley Old Time Music Convention