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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the April 21, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Traveling Mercies, Folk Style
Like a journeyman carpenter who has built hundreds of homes, folksinger Rik Palieri has carefully honed his craft and his presentation by performing thousands of shows. Back in 1985, Palieri made playing in 1,000 schools around the U.S. his goal. He accomplished that goal three-and-a-half years later. Since then, he’s performed at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the Vancouver Folk Festival in Canada, Boston’s Bread and Roses Festival, and many other large music gatherings around the U.S. and Europe.
These days, Palieri — who was born and raised in East Brunswick, but moved to Vermont in 1980 — puts on a well-paced show that engages his audiences and displays his talents on a wide variety of instruments, including six and 12-string guitars, banjo, Polish bagpipes, mouth bow, trumpeta, and a variety of Native-American flutes.
Palieri is one of several regionally famous, national touring acts headlining this year’s New Jersey Folk Festival on Saturday, April 24, in New Brunswick. Other performers include the Lumzy Sisters, Tony Trischka, Jim Albertson, and the Kvellers. “They have me doing a lot of different things this year at the folk festival, and I’m happy about that,” Palieri says from his Vermont home.
Fans and friends can access Palieri’s wanderings by looking at www.banjo.net, his website. After a recent tour of Germany, Palieri and his wife Marianna were able to track E-mails from Germany. They saved the addresses for a future tour.
“Marianna really is the person who pushes me in new directions all the time, if it weren’t for her, I think I’d still be in the dark ages,” Palieri says.
Having a computer and Internet access, he argues, is like opening a Pandora’s box. “I answer so much E-mail that I find myself looking forward to being on the road where I’m not near a computer,” he says. “The kind of touring I do now, I’m just away for a month at a time. I’ve really become the old Johnny Appleseed traveler guy who collects stories and brings a little bit of entertainment into people’s lives. You realize, when you’ve been performing as long as I have, no matter where you are, whoever you’re meeting, you’re always on stage.”
Nonetheless, as a traveling folksinger, Palieri looks forward to “that little bit of light you bring into people’s lives.” Palieri recently self-published a road diary of sorts, “The Road is My Mistress, Tales of a Roustabout Songster,” and went on a short book tour last fall.
“The whole singer-songwriter scene that’s happening now is these people are like fire flies in the night, doing house concerts and getting music to the people,” he says. Sometimes, they aren’t doing it in a big way, but nonetheless, they’re making an impact, “and maybe, because you’re performing in such an intimate setting, it has more of an impact,” he says.
Palieri grew up in East Brunswick, in a working class section of the township that borders on Spotswood and dates back to the 1940s. He graduated from East Brunswick High School in 1973.
“I grew up listening to AM music, with [DJ’s] Cousin Brucie and Barry Harrison and in love with the Beatles,” he explains, “and I didn’t really understand my purpose in life until I was 15 and began playing banjo.” The Beatles, he argues, based as they were in skiffle music, the blues and classic American R&B, “were the folk music of my generation.”
He was acting as a roadie in high school for a band called Exit, based at East Brunswick High School, when he discovered folk music via Pete Seeger’s book, “How to Play the 5-String Banjo.’ A few months of working out with Seeger’s book and Palieri was beginning to learn complete tunes on banjo. A few months later, Seeger came to the chapel at Douglass College in New Brunswick to perform.
‘When I went to that concert at Douglass, it changed my life around,” Palieri says, noting so many other folksingers have similar stories to tell, including Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary. With his father working two jobs and his mother working full-time, Palieri was a latch-key kid before the term was coined, he argues.
“In some ways, I had a rough childhood, but when I went to the Pete Seeger concert, I really felt a light within me,” he says. A few years out of high school, living in Helmetta, Palieri brought Seeger to the first Clearwater Festival, an environmental gathering, in Perth Amboy, and along with his high school rock ‘n’ roll friends, Exit.
“The thing with organizing and putting on a music festival is you learn quickly it’s a much bigger job than you thought it was at first,” Palieri says. Seeger performed and brought people down to Perth Amboy’s then-rundown waterfront and cosmetic changes began happening at the waterfront within a few years. The festival continued and a then-budding Suzanne Vega performed there a few years later, in 1985.
Since he launched his recording career, Palieri has recorded several memorable tapes, vinyl LPs and CDs. His self-released albums include “Last of the Gypsies,” “The Music in Me,” “Panning for Gold,” and “Hard Traveling,” a release with British folk and blues guitarist Gareth Hedges.
“Gareth was one of my earliest mentors, and at the time he and I played around coffee houses and bars in central New Jersey after I got out of high school, people didn’t think about recording a CD, we were just trying to survive,” Palieri explained. Years later, when Palieri was on tour in England in 2000, he hooked up again with Hedges, by then back home in England.
“He said, ‘We should record all the songs we used to play together,’” Palieri explains. The two entered the recording studio and banged out “Hard Travelin’” in the space of a few days. It includes many classic blues and folk songs by Leadbelly, Josh White Sr., Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, and others.
“We wanted to do them live in the studio, very much in the style of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Deroll Adams,” Palieri says.
Palieri’s two most recent albums, showcasing more original songs, are “Hoboes and Heroes” and “Balloon Adventure,” the latter an album for children. Both are available on Laura Records, a German record company.
Asked what the audience can expect on April 24, or at any of his performances at coffee houses and other festivals around the Garden State, Palieri, who gets back here four or five times a year, says an audience can expect a diversity of styles and a range of instruments.
“There’s always some traditional folk songs, always some blues but there are more originals these days than ever before,” he says. Like Bob Dylan and other now-prominent singer-songwriters, Palieri started his performing career the old-fashioned way, by performing the songs of others. He did that for many years, developing his own style before he began his first attempts at songwriting.
“Because there are issues I want to talk about in songs, you find the only way you can talk about them is through your own music,” Palieri says.
“You feel as an artist you want to contribute something, but at the same time, you want to carry on the tradition. So I carry on the things that Pete Seeger, Jimmy Driftwood and Utah Phillips taught me.”
— Richard J. Skelly
New Jersey Folk Festival, Eagleton Institute Grounds, Rutgers’ Douglass Campus, George Street, Route 18, & Ryders Lane, New Brunswick, 732-932-5775. The all-day free folk music and culture festival. Saturday, April 24, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
A workshop by Rik Palieri and Frank Watson, “Bagpipes from Poland and Scotland,” is set for the Pinelands stage from 10:30 to 11:10 a.m. Another workshop, “British and American Traditional Ballads” with Jim Albertson and Kathy DeAngelo, will be from 1 to 1:40 p.m., also on the Pinelands Stage.
Palieri’s solo set on the main Skylands Stage is from 2:20 to 2:40 p.m. He follows Tony Trischka and Skyline. For the complete schedule visit www.njfolkfest.rutgers.edu
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