|Feature: Portland's Love Affair with Old-Time Music
In a world gone crazy for excess, Portland often runs the other way. We like it simple, closer to the bone, somehow more meaningful.
On a dreary January Thursday, the cold gym at the McMenamins' Kennedy School, itself an ode to doing the business of beer differently, begins to warm with bustle and anticipation. Musicians straggle in, with nary an electric instrument to be found, and seat themselves around a single microphone. Fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo, doghouse bass. Bill Martin, a legend in local square-dance circles, grabs the attention with a few simple words: "Let's get started."
He calls the children to the center of the floor, children who have been until this moment doing what children do - running, cartwheeling, hopping, and chattering in the echoey hall. Their parent-partners join them. "It's kind of a silly dance," he says, "I'll warn you." He guides them through it, circling them left and right, dancing in and out, pretending they're animals of one sort or another.
The Foghorn Stringband accompanies them in a simple old-time two-beat tune, led by fiddler Stephen "Sammy" Lind. Their prowess in this music is earning them a national reputation. They are young and diligent, many of them expatriates of the rock music scene. What they are not are posers. The music rings with authenticity, because what they are doing is authentic.
The kids' dance is followed by a Virginia reel and then a square dance. Martin is the shepherd. "We'll push you around and get you in shape," he says, as he cajoles a larger and larger crowd to the floor. First 10, then 30 people take the floor. No one is self-conscious. By 7:30 p.m., there are 150 people stuffing the gym. Many know the steps, others want to learn. "If you need a partner," he says, "anybody will do. You only have to be able to count to four." There is a serious lack of self-consciousness.
Beer, wine and harder spirits are being sold, but that is clearly not the focus. There are full families here, with toddler and teens. There's a woman with dreadlocks, a high-school-aged African American boy with a luxurious Afro, young people in tattoos and piercings, the Birkenstock crowd, seniors with huge smiles, and even a man wearing long, loose skirt more, it seems, out of comfort that any sort of sexual contradiction, indecision or proclivity.
The room feels safe, communal, familial. Were it a potluck supper, it wouldn't have been out of place at the turn of the last century. The music thrums along in a kind of pulse, a shared heartbeat among the gathered. It's happy, joyful, ebullient, despite the weather outside, the divisive state of U.S. politics, and the misfortunes of the greater world. Simple resistance can be a powerful force. Foist up even a little resolute and persistent will, especially where a good time is the goal, and great things can happen. Lord, there seems to be salvation in old-time music.
Old-time music, bassist Brian Bagdonas explains to me at this monthly Kennedy School square dance, is different than bluegrass, another favorite Oregon genre. Bluegrass is all about prowess and ability to tear off a blazing solo. Old-time music is all about dancing.
"It's more community-based," he says, "and achieving one sound. It's not about the soloing, like bluegrass. Old-time is more powerful. You can have 10 fiddlers playing the same thing and that can add to a big pulse."
Bagdonas knows a thing or two about power. A native Ohioan, he came out of the punk-rock scene, but was exposed to old-time thanks to an uncle and a cousin who were into the "geeky, redneck thing they do," he says. He didn't appreciate it until much later. As punk fell prey to big business in the early '90s, Bagdonas found less pleasure. "It became less about the grassroots and more about the marketing. Now I play music with friends, and don't play that game."
Bagdonas, unwittingly at the time, was part of the foundation of Portland's exploding old-time scene. As a member of the Dickel Brothers, he and the band began to turn the pop-music tide, a scene which, along with Portland's love of urban blues, the city is known for, with legendary happy-hour sets at rock-music club Berbati's Pan. Everyone close to the old-time scene speaks the Dickel Brothers' name with reverence. They, along with bands Pig Iron and the Flat Mountain Girls, began to form a solid core of players who now populate the scene.
Bill Martin, on his www.bubbaguitar.com Web site, says this about old-time music: "Today 'old-time' refers to the rural traditional music and song from the South and Midwest. It's played primarily on acoustic instruments, such as the fiddle, the banjo, guitar. A modern old-time band often looks and sounds like a really redneck bluegrass band. Old-time, however, is often played solo, or the songs are sung by a single unaccompanied voice. The repertoire is a grab bag of folk songs, popular tunes, gospel songs, ballads from the British Isles, and square dance tunes.
"Those who are sick in love with the music," he continues, "define it more broadly: African-American and Native-American folk music; acoustic country blues and related guitar, fiddle and banjo blues; jugbands; much of the more traditional elements of Mexican and Canadian folk music; Cajun music; the old New England contra dance fiddle tunes and styles; cowboy songs; early bluegrass, etc., played on a wide variety of instruments."
It's not such a stretch from punk to old-time. Players like Bagdonas were seeing a dire need to scuff up a shiny music world that was getting too gussied for its own good. Times seem to call for a stronger sense of community, more self-reliance, more of a do-it-yourself ethos.
Michael Ismerio, mandolinist for the Government Issue Orchestra and former Dickel Brother (though they all swear once a Dickel, always a Dickel) promotes that theory about why this music is popular in Portland at this particular time. Ismerio owns and operates Q is for Choir, a record-store collective on Southeast Belmont Street, and helps run Liberty Hall in North Portland, "a do-it-yourself community hall and collective of people, events and classes," he calls it, that stages a monthly square dance. He is also the co-founder of the Portland Old-Time Music Gathering, set to begin next week.
The gathering, which takes place at three venues around Portland, got its start six years ago as a simple concert at the Snake and Weasel, "and then a party at my house," Ismerio says. His musical background "was a lot of weird punk, jazz, noise bands." The Dickels, he says, were formed after meeting in Wieser, Idaho, home of a nationally famous fiddle festival. "Wieser left a profound impression," he says. "We said why only do this once a year?" He's drawn almost wholly by the social aspect of old-time music. "It's made to bring people together," he says. "There's a group dynamic, with everyone playing together."
These younger Portland musicians were coming out of a popular music scene and had a sense of how to promote themselves, he explains. The Dickels were fond of a vaudeville-esque stage show replete with period attire. They were joined with the ferocious play of Pig Iron and the more bluegrass-oriented, but no less accepted, Jackstraw. "All these little seeds," says Ismerio, "sort of germinated."
Musicians such as Caleb Klauder of famed Portland folk-rock superstars Calobo, were finding their way to this simpler, more heartfelt music. In an interview earlier this year, Klauder said, "With Calobo, there were so many things I was unhappy about. Then I heard [fiddler] Stu [Dodge] and [mandolinist] Greg [Clarke] just get up and play, you know, take their instruments out of their cases and just play and be at home musically. It was a big step."
As the scene burgeoned, December Jean Carson caught wind. She had been doing public relations for Calobo, who in the mid-90s, were poised to break nationally as a folk-rock act. For a variety of reasons, the band broke up. Bluegrass and old-time were catching on, she says, and she got her early introductions to the scene courtesy of David Pugh, founder of Pig Iron and later Jackstraw. She was enamored and dove more deeply into music management, booking and public relations to help these bands out. Her Siren Music company now handles 15 old-time and other roots acts, including Foghorn, which recently inked a deal with Nettwerk, the record label that's home to Sarah McLachlan, Avril Lavigne and Guster.
"Old-time is really honest," she says. "It doesn't pull any punches. It can be really dark or really upbeat. The music is gut level. It speaks to laborers, the common man."
Young people were flocking to the shows she was booking. The club scene, including the White Eagle and other McMenamins' properties, the Moon and Sixpence, the Mock Crest Tavern and others were seeing the impact of the music and were increasingly eager to have the bands play in their intimate pub settings, with much less fuss than electrified rock bands.
Zale Schoenborn echoes Carson's sentiments. Schoenborn is the founder and backbone of the annual KBOO Pickathon, a fund-raising summer concert that has swelled from a 100 attendees ("Including dogs," says Schoenborn) to nearly a thousand who attended the event last summer at Horning's Hideaway.
Schoenborn stretches his boundaries to include other rootsy, Americana music, but holds fast to the DIY, honest and transparent ethic of the old-time music scene. Schoenborn, a musician himself who got his start promoting festivals for public radio in Colorado, says there are distinct factions to the music in Portland, but that that there is huge crossover.
"Portland is in a unique situation," Schoenborn says, "with so many healthy music scenes contributing quite a bit at the regional and national levels. The Foghorn Stringband is a smash. There's huge generation of kids going to square dances. That doesn't happen in many other communities. I think it's built it up for a number of factors. We've got guys like Kevin Burke and Johnny B. Connolly who have a lot of influence. Same is true with the blues community. Blugerass is same way. A big portion of what's going on is in local clubs, but one of the reasons we're succeeding and that it's a powerful event is that Portland is a major power center for developing a roots-musician community."
Promoters of these events hold several things dear and self-evident. The scene is not about profit, but about honesty, transparency and building a sense of belonging. Too much reliance on money only clouds the issue of why these people love to hear the heartbeat of traditional music, dance to it, and revel in its simplicity. The events are non-profit and volunteer-run. It's a community, more than a scene. Portland, in all its glory as a town built on independence, pride, and doing things its own way, was ripe for the birth and growth of old-time music.
Nationally the spotlight is on Portland in the small but tight-knit world of old-time music. It's an intergenerational phenomenon fostering what may be the closest thing yet to the perfect community, especially one based on music. Foghorn, Bill Martin, the Old-Time Music Gathering, the Pickathon are but a few of the ways the music comes to the people.
Gather 'round, grab a partner, and forget your worries. For Martin and the others, it's always time to dance.
(Don Campbell writes frequently for the Oregonian.)