Many performers, radio DJs, record company executives, and just plain fans can often trace interest in a favorite genre of music back to a single album. For New Jersey-raised humorist and folk singer Roger Deitz, the life-changing album was Judy Collins’ “Fifth Album,” recorded partly live at Town Hall and the rest in New York studios in 1965.
Collins’ album, which Deitz considers a masterpiece, was handed to him by a fellow student in physics class while he was attending Fairleigh Dickinson University in Rutherford. Deitz listened to it repeatedly, and a few short years later, he was off and running as a folk singer himself, performing in the small venues and tiny coffee houses that were fashionable in the early 1970s.
Deitz — who will perform two solo sets at the New Jersey Folk Festival on Saturday, April 25, the first one at 11:30 a.m. on the Main stage and another at 12:45 p.m. on the Gateway stage — was raised in a musical family in Clifton, New Jersey. His father was a trumpet player who performed with Rudy Valee at Brooklyn’s Paramount Theater. His mother was a housewife. The couple met at the stage door of the Paramount (his father was 17 and his mother 14).
Music lessons were mandatory and Deitz took piano lessons as a five-year-old and accordion lessons into his mid-teens. He didn’t discover the joys of guitar and banjo until he was in college.
“I think of myself as a writer who plays music,” Deitz says from the West Orange home that he shares with his wife of 40 years, Valerie, a registered nurse active with nursing homes.
Noting his first paid gig as a folksinger was in 1973, Deitz says, “My thrust was always, ‘What can I do to become better?’ If I do a show with Richie Havens and David Bromberg and I’m in the middle of their sets, can I hold my own on a program like that? And the answer was yes, I found I could hold my own with those types of ‘name’ performers.”
In the 1970s Deitz also studied biology in college and grad school and later taught biology for a time at Rutgers Newark and St. Peter’s College in Jersey City. He also honed his skills as a writer for the Aquarian Weekly, an alternative newspaper.
“I had a column called ‘Putting on the Style,’ and I also did some interviews and feature stories for them. But the main focus of the column was folk and acoustic music,” he says. In an aside, he says that as a Fairleigh Dickinson grad student he dated Peggy Noonan, who would later write speeches for presidents Reagan and Bush. “She ended up becoming a conservative columnist for the Wall Street Journal and I ended up becoming a columnist for [a folk song magazine], Sing Out,” he says.
After getting a masters degree in biology in 1971 from Fairleigh Dickinson, Deitz began to develop his banjo chops as well. “A lot of the colleges had coffee houses, and they were the testing ground,” Deitz says, noting he played open mic nights until he was able to get himself booked into places under his own name.
“I started to get more earnest about performing in 1980, when I started going to shows presented by the Folk Project, Closing Circle Coffee House, and other venues. Eventually I even booked the June Days Folk Festival myself for three or four years,” he says. Deitz took advantage of these places and honed his craft, learning how to tell funny stories in between tunes and write his own serious and funny topical songs in the process.
By the mid-1980s a booking agent, Leonard Rosenfeld, whom Deitz knew from hanging out and performing at Speakeasy on West Third Street in the Village, asked if he would mind if he tried to get Deitz a few higher-profile gigs.
“There weren’t that many good agents around in those days, and it was amazing — he was the guy who represented Josh White and Odetta from the beginning. Finally I had a real agent, and he did get me a lot of gigs, but here in New Jersey, I had the support of people like [photographer] Bob Yahn and WPRB DJ John Weingart and others.
“It all began to come together at the same time,” he says, “so that people who knew about me from my writing in the Aquarian would come and see me play.” In addition to his weekly Aquarian columns, Deitz also began writing for Frets and Acoustic Guitar magazines, a column for Fast Folk Musical Magazine, and a quarterly column for Sing Out! Magazine.
Deitz is no stranger to the New Jersey Folk Festival, attending his first in 1980. But his history includes others, such as the Philadelphia Folk Festival, held every August in Upper Salford, Pennsylvania. Deitz attended his first in the 1970s. His performances in the camping area led to workshop stages and finally to the main stage, where he worked as an m.c. and “tweener” musician during the evening’s concert program while sets were being changed for different electric and acoustic acts.
For a time after getting out of grad school while still teaching biology, Deitz was asked to be a research productivity consultant for pharmaceutical maker Hoffman-LaRoche. To some he was known as Roger Deitz the folk singer; to others he was known as Roger Deitz the corporate research consultant, and to still others, he was known as Professor Deitz, the college biology teacher.
“A lot of funny things happened in those days when I was a person in three different worlds,” he recalls, noting his “career weekend” as a folk singer came about in August, 1988, when he performed at a Philly Folk Festival “New Faces in Folk Songwriters’ Workshop,” then headed to New Jersey to open a show for Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie with then Stanhope-based folk chanteuse Elaine Silver before heading back to the Philly Folk Festival the next day to perform at the gathering.
In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Deitz also performed at many Long Island Folk Festivals, once held at Nassau County Community College, where he shared stages with his idols like Tom Paxton and Collins. And several years ago, he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by student and non-student organizers of the New Jersey Folk Festival for his contributions to folk music in the state of New Jersey via his decades in music journalism, his activities as a folk festival organizer, and his time spent performing.
At this year’s New Jersey Folk Festival, an audience unfamiliar with Deitz can expect some funny songs, some even funnier stories, and some serious topical songs — some from “Love Songs, Now and Then,” a self-released album with a black and white photo of his then-newlywed parents on its cover.
“I always consider where I’m going to play and what kind of history I have with the venue,” Deitz says, “but at the New Jersey Folk Festival it’s much more relaxed. I know that I’m pretty much performing for students and fans of the music to begin with, and it is a place where I was always made to feel that I was part of the family. It’s a place that I feel pretty comfortable when I’m performing there.”
New Jersey Folk Festival, Woodlawn, Douglass College campus, Route 18 and George Street, New Brunswick. Saturday, April 25, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free. 848-932-5775 or www.njfolkfest.org.