One bright afternoon at RPI, my friend Tom came in and said, “Utah Phillips is playing at Café Lena tonight. Want to go?”
“Okay,” I argued, and off we went. Thank God Café Lena wasn’t in Denver.
Café Lena was in Saratoga, NY, only about 30 miles up the Adirondack Northway (I-87) from Troy. Drive time was about 45 minutes, and the Utah Phillips show was the first of many. It wasn’t the only folk venue around, but it was the most venerable, and I went back a lot.
That first concert would have been during my junior year, 1970-71. In the summer of ’71 I also attended the Fox Hollow Folk Festival near Petersburg, NY. That one is easy to date, because it was the last Fox Hollow before the death of its founder, Bob “Fiddler” Beers, in 1972. I went to Fox Hollow until I left the East Coast, in 1975. The next year, 1972 was the Year of the Northern Lights, visible during the clear mountain nights that year. In 1974, Nixon resigned during the festival and you have never seen such a happy bunch of folkies.
I’m not always sure in which venue I saw which performers; often it was probably both. So I’ll just give the usual list of those who come to mind:
Utah Phillips, Dave van Ronk, Michael Cooney, David Bromberg, Jean Ritchie, Gordon Bok, Leon Redbone, Patrick Sky, Putnam String County Band, Bill Spence, Bottle Hill, Billy Vanaver, Alan Stowell, Jim Ringer, Mary McCaslin, John Roberts and Tony Barrand, Sarah Grey, Jean Redpath, The Boys of the Lough, Bill Staines, Horald Griffiths, Jim Kweskin…
You know, I’d probably be able to get a better list if I had the complete listing of Rounder and Folkways Records circa 1974. There doesn’t seem to be a performers list of Fox Hollow anywhere on the Web, and the Café Lena list is just that, a list, with no dates attached.
I do remember a few acts that were unquestionably specific to Fox Hollow, like Alhaji Bai Konte, a Gambian musician, who played the Kora. On the other hand, I have specific Café Lena memories of Horrald Griffiths and Dave van Ronk. Many of the others, like Michael Cooney, I saw in both places. And there are the acts that I remember, but the names are lost to memory, like the high school steel drum band, and the bagpipers, and man, did the team up between those two wake the dead.
There was some tension at the time between the “virtuosos” and the “folksy” type musicians, one that had some repercussions in the management of Fox Hollow around that time. This was not entirely unlike the format fracas at WRPI that also happened around that time. One of the Lena waitresses, Mary, was a bit perturbed at the overabundance of string band and fiddle players at Fox Hollow in 1972, but I was pretty firmly in the musicology camp. Fortunately, there were a lot of performers who were both.
Then too, there was all the politics. Utah Phillips can make the Wobblies sound fun, which is more than the Wobblies can do, and it’s sometimes a little creepy to hear middle class computer programmers singing about Joe Hill. Still, though I was never a leftist, except in the classical sense of not being in favor of hereditary aristocracies, in the early 1970s it wasn’t hard to find common ground with people who thought that ordinary people were getting screwed. Truth to tell, it’s pretty easy to support that opinion at any time and any place.
I have a number of treasures that came out of that period and those venues. One is the appreciation of folk music in the global sense. For a time at least, Fox Hollow was a confluence of world folk musicology, with everything from Balkan vocal groups to African M’bira to French Canadian accordion dance troupes. When Barnett and I branched out from the Indian music show on WRPI to a World Music exploration, the Upstate New York folk music scene was doubtless a major catalyst.
A slightly more tangible result came from the fact that a good bit of the sound technician staff at Fox Hollow came from WRPI engineering. Through a tangled web of acquaintance, that is how I happen to be in possession of a tape dub of a singular performance, Billy Vanaver backed by Alan Stowell on “Mad Tom of Bedlam.” It’s quite extraordinary, and maybe someday I’ll get permission to upload it. Until then, you’re just going to have to envy me my good fortune.