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’
Studies Department and a team of students, is modeled after the great
Smithsonian Festival in Washington. Just as different aspects of
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
Virginia native and acoustic blues guitarist and songwriter John
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
Garden State Sacred Harp, a group of shape-note singers from
will demonstrate their expertise when they perform a cappella psalms,
hymns and anthems. The festival’s headliner, Peggy Seeger, will
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
A New Jersey New Folk Showcase stage will present
and cutting-edge performers who the festival booking committee
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
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,
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
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
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
"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."
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
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
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
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,
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
George Street, New Brunswick, 732-932-5775.
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
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
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