Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the April 24,

2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

It’s Folk Festival Time Again

If you’ve never been to the annual Smithsonian Festival

of American Folklife, held every June on the Mall in Washington, D.C.,

you can get a good idea what that event is like by venturing a short

ways up Route 1 to New Brunswick on Saturday, April 27. The annual

New Jersey Folk Festival, run by Angus K. Gillespie of Rutgers’

American

Studies Department and a team of students, is modeled after the great

Smithsonian Festival in Washington. Just as different aspects of

American

folk culture are demonstrated or on display at the Smithsonian each

year, many different aspects of New Jersey culture are examined in

detail each year at the New Brunswick gathering.

This year’s New Jersey Folk Festival focuses on "Blues and Gospel

Traditions" and one of the festival’s main acts, the Soul Seekers

of New Orleans, has a link to the Garden State by way of Reverend

Marion Hannah, formerly of Somerset but now of Lakewood, and bassist

and Plainfield native Richard Boyce. More importantly, this legendary

gospel group is being reunited for the first time since they stopped

touring in the early 1980s.

The Soul Seekers’ performance on Saturday at the folk festival is

being billed as "a final farewell reunion performance." The

group’s sound is punctuated by light instrumental backup and harmonies

that are front and center. Aside from the historic reunion of the

Soul Seekers of New Orleans, the folk festival will also showcase

some of the Garden State’s most talented acoustic blues musicians,

among them, Rik Palieri, who performs Leadbelly songs on 12-string

guitar, as well Rick Ilowhite, Steve Byrne, Frank Fotusky, and Mike

Esposito. The latter four, who will assemble on the Pinelands stage

at 1:55 p.m., come from all corners of the Garden State: Esposito

was based for many years near Stanhope, Ilowhite comes from near the

New York State border, and Fotusky will come to New Brunswick from

suburban Philadelphia.

Virginia native and acoustic blues guitarist and songwriter John

Jackson,

a National Heritage Fellowship recipient, was scheduled to perform

at the festival, but died unexpectedly in January at age 77. This

year’s New Jersey Folk Festival is dedicated to Jackson’s memory,

as he had made one appearance there in the late 1990s. The festival’s

program committee will present a Lifetime Achievement Award to Jackson

posthumously.

Garden State Sacred Harp, a group of shape-note singers from

Montclair,

will demonstrate their expertise when they perform a cappella psalms,

hymns and anthems. The festival’s headliner, Peggy Seeger, will

perform

her usual spontaneous mix of old folk songs and humorous and topical

original songs, often with a feminist perspective.

Rik Palieri, who sings his own compositions and Leadbelly songs on

his 12-string guitar and banjo, also performs on Polish bagpipes,

trumpeta, and a variety of other folk instruments native to Poland.

Palieri, born and raised in East Brunswick, has lived in Vermont for

the past 20 years.

If all the music, on four stages, isn’t enough for you, you can take

in the storytellers (for adults and children), a juried craft market,

a variety of ethnic food vendors, and craft demonstrations like glass

blowing.

A New Jersey New Folk Showcase stage will present

contemporary

and cutting-edge performers who the festival booking committee

believes

are deserving of a wider following. One of them, Rick Nestler, has

been sailing on the sloop Clearwater and singing environmental songs

for many years. But others may be new faces in folk to longtime

followers

of the Garden State acoustic music scene. Such "newcomers"

include Greg Alexander, C.J. McKenna, Joe McKay, Marian Mastrorilli,

and Tony Noe.

Now recognized in folk music circles around the world as one of the

premier feminist singer-songwriters, Peggy Seeger, says she didn’t

start out that way. She fell into the feminist camp by accident, in

1970, on the strength of her song, "I’m Gonna Be An Engineer."

Born in New York and raised in Washington, D.C., Seeger’s older and

more famous half-brother, Pete, was the child of Charles Seeger, an

ethnomusicologist, and Constance. When her father remarried, this

time to Ruth Crawford, they had four children: Peggy, Mike, Barbara,

and Penny Seeger.

Peggy began playing piano at age 6, guitar at 13, banjo at 15,

autoharp

at 23 or 24, "and then, when I was pregnant with my second child

at 28, I took up the English concertina. Then I took up the dulcimer.

I took them up kind of one at a time," she says.

Seeger moved to Europe in the 1950s and married songwriter Ewan

MacColl

in the early ’60s. MacColl wrote "The First Time Ever I Saw Your

Face" for her. The song became an international hit with covers

recorded by everyone from Roberta Flack to Englebert Humperdinck.

Seeger has been making the rounds on the folk festival circuit around

the U.S., Canada, and to a lesser extent, England, since she moved

back to the States from England and settled in Asheville, N.C., in

1994.

Seeger says she’s had a good career thanks to the "name" her

older brother Pete Seeger carved for himself in the world of folk

music.

"The feminist thing started for me in 1970," she explains,

when she and husband MacColl were working on a dramatic work to be

performed in a large pub in London.

"In 1970, it happened to be `The Year of the Woman,’" she

recalls. "Women were being celebrated and Ewan didn’t have time

to write a song to go with the skit he was writing. So I sat down

and wrote a song, `Gonna Be An Engineer,’ and it rolled out as if

I had been a lifelong feminist.

"Nothing in the song I thought had ever applied to me, but then

the feminists began to get hold of me and they began inviting me to

their events and their festivals and concerts and I found I had no

songs to go with it," she says.

The song gave rise to "Period Pieces: Women’s Songs for Men and

Women," an excellent 1998 anthology that includes her other songs

from a woman’s point of view, like "Nine Month Blues."

"Reclaim

The Night," "R.S.I.," and "Woman On Wheels."

Later in the 1970s, Seeger began doing research on women in folk song,

and was amazed to find out how much she didn’t know. She developed

her singing presentation into a lecture as well. Since 1994, she has

traveled around the country delivering her lecture on women in folk

song and performing, sometimes both on the same night.

Seeger also sings songs about every subject under the sun: animals,

murder, hormones, children, ecology, peace mongering, and smoking,

among them. She is the embodiment of a topical singer-songwriter.

She calls herself "a song maker" and she travels with a tape

deck, a rhyming dictionary, and a thesaurus. As she does, she exudes

the same child-like sense of wonder about the world and the energy

of her brother, Pete.

"One of the most recent topical songs I’ve written is about

Frances

Crowe, a woman from Northampton who is 82, 4-foot-11, who has been

a peace activist all her life," she says. "I read about her

and thought I’d love to write a song about her." She spent four

or five hours talking with Crowe and went ahead. "That song ended

up being nearly nine minutes long, but that’s just one way of writing

a song."

After caring for her husband until his death in 1989

in London, Seeger was heartbroken to realize she couldn’t get much

work around England without her husband also on the bill. And every

place she did find a gig, she recalled the time she had spent in that

part of England with her late husband. She realized the best thing

for her would be to go back to America.

She consulted her brother Mike, who lives in Virginia, and he

recommended

Asheville, North Carolina. She lives there with her partner, Irene

Scott, when she’s not on the road.

Seeger acknowledges there are two songs she cannot leave the stage

without singing. One is "I’m Gonna Be An Engineer," her song

about a girl who wants to grow up and make a career out of what once

was a male-dominated occupation. Another song is "Ballad of Spring

Hill," about miners in Nova Scotia..

When told she is as much of a master at reading her audiences as is

her older brother Pete, Seeger — who doesn’t come off in a phone

interview as the least bit insecure — politely disagrees.

"I’ve had an easy road, you know: I started with a name that was

made for me by my big brother. But you do learn," she says,

"to

get a sense of the audience even before you get on stage — you

have to sense each audience as you come out."

Seeger thinks of her performances as a contract with the people who

come to hear her. "You think, I don’t know what they want, but

I want to enjoy myself. I’ll see if this one pleases them. One of

the things I’ve learned is to start out with laughter, or, if not

laughter, to make them feel very deeply at the beginning. In other

words," she says, to make the audience "feel something enough

to make them respond viscerally."

— Richard J. Skelly

New Jersey Folk Festival, Woodlawn, Douglass College,

George Street, New Brunswick, 732-932-5775.

njfolkfest.rutgers.edu.

Free. Saturday, April 27, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Peggy Seeger performs at 2:45 p.m. on Pinelands/workshop stage and

at 5:20 p.m. on the Skylands Stage. Soul Seekers of New Orleans

perform

at 4:30 p.m.; Blues Hour with Mike Esposito, Rick Ilowhite, Steve

Byrne and Frank Fotusky at 3:20 p.m.

Other performers include Roger Deitz, John Carlini, Joe Selly, Bob

Harris, Rik Palieri, Jim Murphy and the Pine Barons, Garden State

Sacred Harp, Jodee James, Jim Alberston, and Rorschach County

Ramblers.


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