Few volunteer concert groups anywhere in the U.S. or Canada have been around as long as the Princeton Folk Music Society — founded in 1965 and launching its new series of monthly Friday night concerts on September 18 at the Christ Congregation Church, 50 Walnut Lane, Princeton.
Longtime volunteer Justin Kodner, 85, of West Windsor is just one of the faces involved with the half-century effort. Yet Kodner — who was involved with booking acts for decades — is the first to say that booking is always a group effort — one handled over the years by a committee that has included folk DJs Peter Kernast from the College of New Jersey’s radio station WTSR, and Mark Corso from Rutgers University’s WRSU.
And while Susan White, a Bucks County-based folk concert promoter and former travel agent for the Folk Alliance International gatherings, now oversees the bookings, Kodner still participates, along with other members.
During a recent interview, Kodner says that his early roots were far from Princeton and even the music to which he has been devoted. He was raised in the Bronx and discovered folk music during youthful summers with grandparents in Ellenville, N.Y., approximately 100 miles outside New York City. “In Ellenville there was a guy in a local bar who sang Woody Guthrie songs and cowboy songs, and I didn’t even know the term folk music at that time, but I liked what he did, and when the so-called folk revival came about in the 1960s, I became more conscious of the different kinds of folk music and the difference between country music and blues and jazz and the different categories in music,” says Kodner.
Kodner’s move to the Princeton area was work related. Although he studied architecture at Columbia University, he also trained in electronics and found himself involved with computers in the early 1960s. “When I moved to this area in 1967, I went to work at Sarnoff Labs in computer design research.” He also worked at Bell Labs, adding, “We taught each other about computers in those days.”
Yet it was at Sarnoff where his involvement with the music started. “I worked there with Art Miller, who played guitar and sang, and was one of the founders of the Princeton Folk Society. He kept telling me I ought to come down. My wife had a cousin who wrote a folk music column for the Village Voice in New York, and he would come down and stay with us when he was going to events at the Philadelphia Folk Song Society.”
Kodner says other interests kept him from getting involved, until “one day my wife’s cousin came down from New York, and there was this fiddler playing in Princeton, Tom McCreesh. That was the first concert that my wife, Carol, and I went to see,” he says, adding he’s been to almost every monthly concert since.
Kodner has been involved with bookings since the early 1980s and helped the Princeton Folk Music Society present such name acts as Tom Paxton, Peggy Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and the late Dave van Ronk. There were also performers known mainly to folk music cognoscenti: Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, Archie Fisher, Steve Gillette, Tommy Sands, Lou and Peter Berryman, Beppe Gambetta, and the late Bob Brozman.
Asked about high points from the last three decades, Kodner mentions Paxton and Eliot before adding, “There are people I consider major acts that many people just don’t know, like Pat Humphries, Joel Mabus, who is just fabulous, and groups like Herdman, Hills and Mangsen.”
Kodner says the society’s survival over the last 50 years has been because of the efforts of many volunteer committee members including publicist Alexandra Radbil, membership manager Lisa Roth, sound engineer Skye Van Saun, webmaster Don Arrowsmith, president John Irving, secretary Katherine Rondeau-Fiore, and White who — in addition to being involved with booking — also serves as treasurer.
At-large members Kodner, Steve Davidson, Dale Keller, Peter Hester, Roth, Pa McDonnell, Dan Rappoport, and Van Saun take care of a variety of duties. And Kodner’s longtime wife, Carol, house manages and sells T-shirts at events.
Was there ever a point in his four decades of involvement when the folk society was in financial trouble? No, Kodner says, but the society is in another kind of trouble and now finds itself at a crossroads.
“Fortunately the finances have always worked out for us, and we’re not in any trouble financially. But in another sense, we are in trouble: I’m 85 years old and shouldn’t be doing this anymore. If it’s going to continue, we need younger people to get involved and take over,” he says.
Shows with “name” acts like Gordon Bok, Mick Moloney, Tony Trischka, van Ronk, and Paxton draw people and have brought out huge crowds, Kodner says, but other shows with lesser-known yet equally talented performers often don’t draw more than 50 people.
“I think in this area, there are just too many things to do. We do surveys and found out a big issue is childcare, getting babysitters to take care of your kids. It turns out it costs too much to go to a concert because babysitters are so expensive,” Kodner says.
Undeterred Kodner calls this year’s lineup of performers “eclectic” with this season’s September 18 opening Michael Johnathon providing an example. The Kentucky-based folksinger, songwriter, concert performer, and author is also the creator of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, heard on more than 500 public radio stations and on American Forces Radio Network in 173 nations. He also created an opera about Woody Guthrie.
The rest of the schedule includes English folk song writer Jez Lowe, October 16; American performer David Roth, November 20; Vermont-based string and vocal trio Low Lily, December 11; blues and folk singer Natalia Zukerman, January 15; Maine duo Castlebay, February 19; traditional American music performers Atwater-Donnelly, March 1; folk-cabaret singers Lou and Peter Berryman, April 15; and Irish musician Tom Lewis, May 20.
It reflects a half-century of local care of a group of volunteers and an idea expressed by Guthrie: “There’s several ways of saying what’s on your mind. And in states and counties where it ain’t too healthy to talk too loud, speak your mind, or even vote like you want to, folks have found other ways of getting the word around. One of the mainest ways is by singing.”
Michael Johnathon, Princeton Folk Music Society, Christ Congregation Church, 50 Walnut Lane, Princeton. Friday, September 18, 8:15 p.m. $5 (under 11) to $20. 609-799-0944 or princetonfolk.org.