Arts & Events

Press Release: Mountain Music Berkeley Style at the 8th Annual Berkeley Old Time Music Convention

From Suzy Thompson
Monday August 09, 2010 - 06:09:00 PM

Fiddles, banjos, ancient ballads and square dancing will take over Berkeley this September, at the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention, with headliners including West Virginia fiddler Jimmy Triplett (former drummer with jam band Donna the Buffalo); 86-year-old mandolin player Kenny Hall in a one-time-only reunion with the Sweets Mill String Band; award-winning North Carolina ballad singer and storyteller Bobby McMillon; resonator guitar goddess Del Rey; and many others. The centerpiece of the festival is the Farmers Market String Band Contest, a free event in Civic Center Park featuring more than 20 different string bands. 


Now in its eighth year, the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention has blossomed into a 5-day festival with activities all over Berkeley, including square dances, concerts, films, workshops and other activities, some geared especially towards kids and their families. Pickers, singers and fans of old-time music travel from all over the U.S. for this small, homegrown urban get-together; some have come from as far away as Japan and New Zealand! 


This year the convention opens on Weds, Sept. 8 with a square dance at the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist library. Thursday and Friday nights feature concerts at the Freight & Salvage; musicians are invited to show up early for jamming in the lobby. Thursday’s show features West Virginia musicians Jimmy Triplett, Scott Prouty and Andy FitzGibbon; Northwest duet singers Laurel Bliss and Cliff Perry; and festival founder Suzy Thompson exploring the bluesy side of old time music with Seattle’s resonator guitar and ukulele whiz Del Rey. On Friday evening at the Freight, the BOTMC presents the Central Valley’s musical treasure, mandolin master Kenny Hall, accompanied by the musicians who played on his classic early recordings, the Sweets Mill String Band; ballad singing and storytelling by North Carolina’s Bobby McMillon, in his California debut; and the Macrae Sisters, three young women from Portland, Oregon who are expert singers and pickers. On Friday afternoon, a panel discussion at U.C. Berkeley’s Music Building will include three generations of old-time musicians. 


On Saturday, free daytime activities include a family concert at the Berkeley Main Branch Library, followed by the youth showcase and string band contest in nearby Civic Center Park. This contest is a low-stress affair—the only real rule is that bands must have at least two members and at least one fiddle or banjo —that’s sponsored by and set up adjacent to the Berkeley Farmer's Market in Civic Center Park. Winners get handfuls of “wooden nickels” redeemable for fresh organic peaches and heirloom tomatoes. The tunes are traditional, but can come from any place on the globe. A multitude of fiddle-banjo bands crank out the purest of hoedowns, but entrants have also played swing, Greek rembetika, Tex-Mex polka, bluegrass, and pan-ethnic political satire – all including at least one fiddle or banjo, of course! The Youth Showcase for the under-18 set gives awards to all the participants, and there are plenty of jam sessions around Civic Center Park where the contest takes place. At 4:00 P.M., the action moves to Pacific Film Archive, with a double feature: the Berkeley premiere of “I Hear What You See”, a documentary film about Kenny Hall by Chris Simon (with live music by Kenny and his band) and “Sprout Wings and Fly”, Les Blank’s 1983 film about the legendary Appalachian musician Tommy Jarrell. In the evening, there's a rollicking square dance party at Ashkenaz, with a welcoming wood-floored hall for all ages, and three bands; all the dances are taught from scratch.  


Sunday features master classes taught by the convention’s performers at the Jazzschool, a family dance at Ashkenaz and another free event, the sign-yourself-up “cabaret” at Jupiter, a terraced beer garden and pizzeria. 


The 2010 Berkeley Old Time Music Convention runs Wednesday September 8 though Sunday, September 12. For more information, including details on entering the contest and signing up for the cabaret, go to