It is fitting that Jim Albertson will wrap up his performing career as the legendary Garden State-centric storyteller and singer of folk songs by performing at the New Jersey Folk Festival (NJFF) on Saturday, April 26, in New Brunswick. It was here, on the same site at Woodlawn on the Douglass College campus, that Albertson began his career during the first NJFF 40 years ago.
“I was going to call it quits sooner,” Albertson explains by phone from his home in Millville, near Vineland, “but Kathy DeAngelo, who was a student coordinator when I started there 40 years ago, told me this would be her last year as well [as a salaried music director], so I agreed to do it and perform again this year.”
Albertson, now 70, began doing school assemblies in earnest in the mid-1970s, after he spent nearly a decade teaching in public schools in Madison and back home in his native Atlantic City.
The traveling even from one point in New Jersey to another can be quite brutal, he says. “At some point I’m sure I’ll pop up somewhere, but I’m just enjoying concentrating on my radio program and doing a lot less traveling.”
The program is “Down Jersey” on WVLT, 92.1 FM, Millville, a commercial station with a wide signal and online presence (www.wvlt.com). Albertson tapes his one-hour weekly show at a friend’s studio and mixes in songs and stories of South Jersey from his own archive of recordings.
Albertson, who graduated with a degree in speech and theater from Montclair State College, has a great speaking voice that served him throughout the decades of making presentations. “I did pretty well. I was able to make a living, and many weeks I’d be booked five days a week,” he says.
He says that he decided to wrap up his performing career this past September after a performing for a group of farmers in Cranbury. “I was packing up and looked at my watch, saw it was 10:30 at night, and realized, geez, I still have another two hours to go to get back home.”
Albertson’s now-legendary album, “Down Jersey” was released on Folkways Records in 1985. To be sure, it didn’t sell in huge numbers, but it helped further solidify Albertson’s itinerary of performances at folk festivals in Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey as well as those up and down the East Coast. The album was one of the last produced by Moses Asch’s independent yet renowned record company. The Folkways catalog was later acquired by the Smithsonian Institution archive for recorded sound in Washington, D.C.
“That record helped put me on the map to some extent, and, of course, when you make a record, you have visions of competing with Michael Jackson and going platinum. I think the ‘Down Jersey’ record went paper,” he says, displaying his own ever-present self-deprecating humor. The recording features Albertson’s best stories and songs about the Pine Barrens, the Jersey Devil, and other legends and places of southern New Jersey.
Listening to one of his live shows, many people get the impression that Albertson was raised in the Pine Barrens instead of Atlantic City. The reality is that he did not get interested in folk music until he was in college. And before that he was interested in movies and influenced by the big bands that were still playing the Steel Pier and other parts of then-crumbling Atlantic City. He has fond memories of a sheltered existence growing up in “the World’s Playground” and working as a beach chair boy, at tourist attractions, and helping out his auto mechanic father and housewife mother.
“Most of my teen year influences were from the entertainment mecca of the time, the Steel Pier. I was an usher in a theater, and my uncle was head of the movie projection union. When I was 16 or 17, I met and got to talking with one of the comedians, informally, and he taught me a lot about voice control and vocal techniques,” he says. That spurred his interest in speech and theater, which he studied in college. The comedian, he says, was Frank Fontaine, who later gained national fame for his regular appearances on the Jackie Gleason Show. “He taught me a lot about things that were handy later on,” says Albertson.
“My background was steeped in popular culture, not the backwoods folk culture of rural south Jersey. Big bands were still prominent and that’s kind of the music I grew up with. To this day I never really paid attention to popular music,” he says.
“We have a couple of book store jams on Friday and Saturday nights here in Millville, and I’ll hear somebody locally here sing this really wonderful song. I’ll ask, ‘When did you write that?’ And the guy will look at me with glazed eyes and say, ‘Hey, that’s a Paul Simon song!’ So right now at the tender age of 70 I’m rediscovering some of these really wonderful pop songs from the 1950s and ’60s.”
His interest in traditional folk and country music was sparked while he was running the Hayes House program at Drew University in Madison, near Montclair. “It was part of the church there on the Drew University campus, and on weekends we had music programs in the basement,” he says. “One of my regular resident musicians was Tex Logan, the famous fiddler and engineer. Tex got me interested in folk music through some of these characters that he’d introduce me to.”
“By the time I began teaching in Atlantic City high school, some of my students were playing guitar and doing finger picking,” Albertson says. “One of my students taught me a couple of things and then introduced me to his guitar teacher, who was ‘Philadelphia’ Jerry Ricks. For a year I took lessons from Jerry, but one of the problems was I was always so interested in his stories about his travels and famous people he’d met, that about 10 minutes of each hour was devoted to instruction. The rest of it was listening to his stories.”
“One day in particular I remember, I came into Jerry’s house in Philly and Doc Watson was taking a nap on the couch. Mississippi John Hurt was in the backyard. Then the toilet flushed and John Hammond Jr. came out of the bathroom,” he says. Hammond is a blues guitarist and son of the legendary Columbia Records talent scout.
Soon there was a desire to craft his storytelling and folk singing talents into a position where he could utilize those skills in the classroom.
“I was cleaning out my desk, and my center drawer was filled with all these brochures from musicians who did school assembly programs,” he says. So when he returned home Albertson devised his own brochure and began to slowly pursue this kind of work in public schools around New Jersey. Eventually, he was able to do it full time.
Albertson has lived in Millville for the last 20 years. Before that he was in the neighboring Delaware Bay fishing village of Mauricetown (pronounced Morris town). He met Nancy, his wife, at Montclair State, and married her in 1965. They have two sons: Jim, a postal carrier, and Christopher, a school administrator in Downe Township, a bay shore community in Cumberland County.
Albertson has no regrets about wrapping it up after four decades of performing folk songs at school assemblies, folk festivals, and coffee houses. “I like playing at these little jam sessions in Millville and concentrating on my radio show,” he says. “The station has a very good signal that goes into Philadelphia and all over southern New Jersey.”
Where it needs to be heard for many more years.
40th Annual New Jersey Folk Festival, Woodlawn, Douglass College campus, Route 18 and George Street, New Brunswick. Jim Albertson performs with the Anick Brothers, Sugar Pie, Roger Dietz, Dan O’ Dea, Frank Watson, Svitanya, Jackie Tice, Mike Plunkett, Murray Callahan, and others. Saturday, April 26, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free. 848-932-5775 or www.njfolkfest.org.
Down Jersey, WVLT, 92.1 FM, Millville. Thursdays at 9 p.m. www.wvlt.com/downjersey.