Review - Old Songs Festival
Altamont Fairgrounds, June 28
The 28th annual Old Songs Festival, which took place last weekend at the foot of the Helderberg Mountains, offered the rich potpourri of acoustic blues, protest songs, Celtic, French Canadian, old-time Appalachian, and world music that the Voorheesville-based folk preservationist organization assembles time after time. Their strong suit this year, though, was Celtic music, being represented by, among others, fiddle champ Liz Carroll, and Irish bouzouki master Andy Irvine, of Planxty and Patrick Street fame.
Saturday, the first event I took in was the blues workshop at Area 2,
one of eight different areas running. I got there midway through a Delta
slide tune played by Rev. Robert Jones that was either by or in the
style of Son House. Jones’ vocal range is close to that of House’s, and
his robust singing and accurate re-creation of House’s slashing guitar
technique uncannily channeled the old bluesman. Scott Ainslie, another
singer who seems to have a cast-iron voice-box, contributed an unusual
version of the Mississippi classic “Another Man Done Gone” in the rarely
used guitar tuning of open C minor.
The following set at nearby Area 3 featured the tunes of the Irish harper Turlough O’Carolan (1679-1738). Carolan, the last of the great Celtic harper-composers, was influenced by Italian baroque music, and in attempting to fuse it with the harping tradition, produced a body of now-celebrated melodies that are among the most distinctive in all folk music. This time, the panelists, who included hammer dulcimer players Bill Spence and Walt Michaels, fiddler John Kirk, and keyboardist Toby Stover, played Carolan’s beautiful compositions mostly en ensemble rather than by turns, as is typical at Old Songs.
“Civil War to Civil Rights,” a musical chronicle of the struggle for racial equality, was next back at Area 2. Sparky Rucker played banjo for Henry Clay Work’s 1865 tribute to Sherman’s March to the Sea, “Marching Through Georgia” (Northern musicians still don’t dare perform this song in the South). “Marion Anderson” sung by Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, movingly told the story of the black contralto, who, excluded from America’s great concert halls because of her race, gave a historic performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939.
Opening the evening concert at was Andy Irvine, whose sang a hilarious ditty of recent vintage that had to be a first in Celtic music: a gender-bender ballad. The lyrics told of a sailor who hires a prostitute who is actually a drag queen, and then turns to the trade himself. Later, Liz Carroll, an American who won all-Ireland fiddle contests at ages 17 and 18, played her jigs and reels with spellbinding skill as guitarist John Doyle provided seamless backup. Although she didn’t give the titles of most of the tunes, they were still wonderful—whatever they were. Wrapping up were the Canadian group Le Vent du Nord (The Wind of the North) with their vivacious traditional songs and fiddle hoedowns.
Old Songs stayed up to par this year with ease.
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