Friends Of Old-Time Music

Last night’s tribute concert to the Friends Of Old-Time Music at Town Hall was a spectacular evening. FOTM was founded in the early 1960s by musicologist Ralph Rinzler, and sponsored a series of concerts in Greenwich Village that introduced people like Doc Watson, Jean Ritchie, Mississippi John Hurt and others to New York City audiences. While many of them were musicians themselves (bands like the New Lost City Ramblers, the Greenbriar Boys and many others came out of that scene) they were more than generous to their influences, often donating their own performances in order to get people to see the legends they’d learned from.

The concert was part of a conference sponsored by Brooklyn College (my alma mater!), through their Institute for Studies in American Music, which featured panel discussions during the afternoon at the CUNY Graduate Center. In addition to the stars onstage, the audience included a who’s-who of the traditional music scene. Izzy Young, who ran the Greenwich Village Folklore Center, a hangout for all of these musicians as well as people like Bob Dylan, was there. So was Mary Francis Hurt-Wright, John Hurt’s granddaughter who now runs a museum about him, in his hometown of Avalon, Mississippi. Matt Umanov, owner of the guitar store in the Village; Kate Rinzler, Ralph’s wife and biographer, and many others, including Steve Earle, who was sitting about ten seats away from me, clearly thrilled to be there. He leapt to his feet more than once in applause.

The high point of the conferences was Peter Siegel’s interview with Doc Watson, during which he brought up a lot of the contradictions of the early folk-music revival. Watson was an unknown when Ralph Rinzler discovered him, playing electric guitar in a rockabilly band. But Rinzler wanted a “genuine” folk sound, and Doc, knowing something good when he saw it, worked hard to produce what Rinzler wanted, going back to the music he’d loved as a child. “We practiced and practiced and practiced to make sure it sounded old-timey like it was supposed to,” he said about his preparations for his first NYC concert with fiddler Clarence Ashley.

“I couldn’t stick in one niche in music,” he said. Except for heavy metal (“It’s too loud”) he said he likes almost every genre of music, and at this time of year finds himself listening to old-time Christmas tunes but also to a Patty Loveless Christmas album. When he was six years old, he said, his father brought home a windup Victrola, which at the time was sold with fifty records — everything from opera to Al Jolson. “I thought my dad had brought the king’s treasure into the house,” he said, and talked excitedly about the working Victrola console he’d bought recently that could play some of the old records, which he still has.

“I don’t have guitar hands,” Watson said, adding that when playing western swing tunes he would focus on the melodies because he didn’t know, and often didn’t have the handspan to create, the chords.

The New Lost City Ramblers The New Lost City Ramblers
Tracy Schwarz, Mike Seeger and John Cohen.
John Cohen John Cohen
In addition to being one of the founders of the NLCR, he’s a Yale MFA who’s made several films about old-time music.
Mike Seeger Mike Seeger
Playing the autoharp on a song he said Sarah Carter “pitched” them on.
John Sebastian John Sebastian
Former Lovin’ Spoonful frontman and author of several top-ten hits, he dedicated his entire set to the work of Mississippi John Hurt, capturing not only his music but his spirit as well.
Alvin Youngblood Hart Alvin Youngblood Hart
A killer set of country blues, mostly on a parlor-sized guitar in open tuning, out of which he got an amazingly large sound.
Jean Ritchie Jean Ritchie
One of the stars of the early NYC scene, author of “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” she was recovering from a throat ailment and sang only two songs, one a gorgeous unaccompanied ballad. At the panel in the afternoon she said that she got comfortable with old-time music when she realized the songs were often new arrangements of the ballads she’d grown up with.
Doc Watson Doc Watson
His voice, his playing, his humor and his grace — the man is an American legend, and with good reason.
Doc Watson Doc Watson
I got no good photos of him, but the end of the set featured Doc doing amazing guitar duets — playing very fast, in harmony — with a second player whose name I don’t know. (Edit: Numerous people have pointed out that this is, of course, Jack Lawrence, who’s been playing with Doc now for longer than Merle did.)
Doc Watson and Jean Ritchie Doc Watson and Jean Ritchie
Doc asked all the performers to come out at the end to sing “Amazing Grace.”
The Ensemble The Ensemble
Singing “Amazing Grace” at the end.

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