W hat makes fiddles better than guitars? A. They burn longer. Q. What do you call a banjo player who breaks up with his girlfriend? A. Homeless.
There may be no shortage of self-deprecating humor within the old-time-music community, but there are also plenty of folks 'round here who take it pretty seriously. They'll be out in droves this week. Thursday, after all, kicks off the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention, a four-day convocation of precommercial country that celebrates the hardiness of American vernacular music and its place in Berkeley's musical heritage. Depending on who's counting, this would be the 40th, 22nd, 27th, or 5th annual gathering of pickers, strummers, crooners, and pluckers.
Guitar and mandolin picker Eric Thompson, husband of convention organizer Suzy Thompson, was there at the beginning. He says the annual showcase grew out of a string band contest he helped organize back in 1968 in Berkeley's Provo Park. "It was put together by a little group of old-time-music enthusiasts and drew on the community to make it happen," he says. KPFA handled the sound, and local acoustic instrument guru Jon Lundberg was among the judges.
Eric, an accomplished flat-picker, says the contest's tone was inspired by another he'd attended (and won) in Union Grove, North Carolina. Back then he played with the New York Ramblers, an act that included Marc Silber and David Grisman. "We wanted to capture that vibe without being so serious about it, so we called it the 35th Annual Convention," he recalls of that seminal Berkeley event. "The first prize was three pounds of rutabagas. The second prize was five pounds of rutabagas. We encouraged people to bribe the judges. It was a contest where everybody won."
The 17th and 22nd annual contests, held in 1969 and 1970, were so successful that the event was in danger of losing its anarchic spirit. The organizers quietly went their separate, but still interconnected ways. Then, five years ago, Kirk Lumpkin from the Berkeley Ecology Center asked Suzy Thompson to stage a bluegrass festival at the Berkeley Farmers' Market.
"I decided to make it a string-band festival," says Suzy, herself an old-time fiddler, teacher, singer, performer, and folklorist. "It was hugely successful. The musicians loved it, farmers' market people loved it, and players came from all over the Northwest, Southern California, and the Central Valley."
Year two, or perhaps thirteen, of the revived festival included an open-mic night and two concerts at the Freight. "It created an amazing feeling of community," Suzy recalls. "It's about making your own music, not just sitting on your bottom listening. There's no security, you can hang out and talk to the performers, and the people who perform pick up the trash, put up the posters, and put up the visiting musicians in their houses."
This year's lineup includes an impressive array of elders as well as some of the genre's brightest new performers. In the latter category is Lee Stripling, whose father Charlie sold more records than any other Alabama fiddler back in the 1920s. Now 85, Lee has been fiddling since age eight. For his first visit to Berkeley, he and his Seattle-based trio will play folk, old-time, cowboy, and Texas swing.
Less than one-third his age is Donna Ray Norton, a descendant of the original settlers of Madison County, North Carolina. The 25-year-old's unaccompanied ballad singing comes from a tradition that goes back to songs the first settlers brought from Ireland, Scotland, and England.
Another highlight is Tom, Brad & Alice, in which Tom is multi-instrumentalist Tom Sauber, one of the West's most versatile old-time musicians. Fiddler and banjo player Brad Leftwich, meanwhile, learned his craft from masters in the southern Appalachians, Oklahoma, and the Ozarks. Alice Gerrard, a songwriter and guitarist, is known for her collaboration with Hazel Dickens, the duo that inspired Emmylou Harris and the Judds.
There'll be a string-band contest on Saturday, September 15 at the Berkeley Farmers' Market, starting at 11 a.m., followed by a square dance at Ashkenaz that evening. Three days of shows at the Freight & Salvage, a weekend of workshops with the performers at the Jazzschool, and a string-band open mic and jam session at Jupiter starting at 3:00 p.m. Sunday round out the fest.
The contest's rules have been modified this year to allow hand drums in hopes of attracting more diversity. "We don't draw a strict line," Suzy Thompson explains. "We've had old-time string bands from Greece and Mexico. Miguel Govea and his family usually come over from San Francisco to play. There are a lot of awesome traditional Mexican musicians in the Bay Area."
The genre has managed to stay vital in the Bay Area, Thompson says, because new people are always discovering the scene. They're not all grizzled and gray, either. "Old-time music is an outsider art, which is attractive to younger people who don't want to buy into the pop music mass-marketing scheme," she says.
The other big appeal, as opposed to bluegrass and jazz, Thompson says, is that you don't have soloing. "Nobody shows off," she says. "To play it well, you have to work at it, and the good players are gifted, but you can pick up an instrument and play even if you're a beginner. It's welcoming in that
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