Dancing All Night, Circa 1518

In the hot summer of 1518, as many as 400 residents of Strasbourg, France were overcome with an irresistible urge to dance. According to The History Channel, “The hysteria kicked off when a woman known as Frau Troffea stepped into the street and began to silently twist, twirl and shake. She kept up her solo dance-a-thon for nearly a week, and before long, some three-dozen other Strasbourgeois had joined in. By August, the dancing epidemic had claimed as many as 400 victims.”

dancing plague

A contemporary artist’s interpretation of the dancing plague, complete with band.

Nobody could explain it, but you can’t blame the town for not getting into the spirit of things—a band was even hired. Some of the dancers kept it up until they collapsed from sheer exhaustion, and there were multiple deaths.

Historian John Waller, author of A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518, concludes that these folks were probably suffering from stress-induced psychosis. They’d been through a lot—war, plagues, famines, etc.

But never mind about all that. Let’s turn instead to the Holy Modal Rounders and their recording of “Spring of ’65,” on the classic Good Taste is Timeless album. The song is about a dancing plague, this one taking place in some remote American farming hamlet. Farmers leave their plows and gather to hear a fiddler play “The Crippled Kingfisher” for hours on end. The mass hysteria only lasts a day, and nobody dies, but it’s an eerie, compelling song. Here it is on video:

  I must have never checked the credits on an album I’ve owned for decades, because I thought Peter Stampfel—who sings it—also wrote it. But no. Eli Smith, who runs the estimable and just-concluded Brooklyn Folk Festival (and recorded with Stampfel), tells me the source is an unaccompanied song by J.B. Cornett, collected by New Lost City Ramblers veteran (and Smith associate) John Cohen. The original is on Mountain Music of Kentucky, and issued on Smithsonian Folkways. Stampfel takes a few liberties with the lyrics, but not that many. Here’s the video:
  All this was triggered by a brand-new song, “Mercy,” by a group called Petunia. The accompanying video documents just such a dancing plague, inspired by the events of 1518. The costumes look more like 1818, but never mind. Here’s Petunia:
  The History Channel again: “The Strasbourg dancing plague might sound like the stuff of legend, but it’s well documented in 16th century historical records. It’s also not the only known incident of its kind. Similar manias took place in Switzerland, Germany and Holland, though few were as large—or deadly—as the one triggered in 1518.”

Did I mention that “Mercy” is a great song, even if it’s not obviously about dancing plagues? Petunia has a bright future.

So what’s our modern equivalent of dancing plagues? The disco era? Studio 54?

The Eighth Annual Brooklyn Folk Festival: Roots Music Lives!

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK—Brooklyn Heights has an impressive literary pedigree. It harbored Walt Whitman, Truman Capote (who said he lived there “by choice”) and Norman Mailer—to name a few highly disparate penmen—and we walked past the brownstone where W.H. Auden had labored for a decade in the period around the Second World War.

Brooklyn Folk Festival

The Old Scratch Sallies–your country 78s, reborn. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Today, Brooklyn Heights’ pedigree seems more musical—every young and ambitious band, in virtually every genre, relocates there. And so it is that singer songwriters, techno duos, jazz singers and string quartets call the place home today.

The homey St. Ann’s Church, on Montague Street, has a huge stained glass window, and a bas relief of the Last Supper—more than one performer at the Eighth Annual Brooklyn Folk Festival commented on the symbolism of rocking out in front of it.

Brooklyn Folk Festival

Piedmont Bluz: A welcome reintroduction to country blues. (Jim Motavalli photo)

This festival is a minor miracle in the middle of a trendy Brooklyn neighborhood. It’s the brainchild of emcee Eli Smith and the Jalopy Theater (in nearby Red Hook). The Jalopy is a bit out of the way, and I’ve sadly never been there, but it’s the absolute party central for old-time music in New York. And, yes, the city—Brooklyn, especially—has a thriving scene for pre-bluegrass music. Imagine this—Saturday was a sellout, and the church was packed with young people who may have come for Spirit Family Reunion (great, by the way) but stayed to hear jug bands and family groups celebrating the pre-war music of rural Georgia (the Hickhoppers).

I don’t recall having such a good time at anything. For something like 10 hours, I did very little but occupy my front pew as one fine ensemble after another hopped on stage. It’s plain that the old-time community here has stars—Jackson Lynch, who looks like Justin Timberlake’s country cousin—played fiddle or banjo in half a dozen groups; and Jerron “Blindboy” Paxton, who’s played at all eight of the festivals. More on him later.

Brooklyn Folk Festival

Rafe and Clelia Stefanini could easily switch instruments. He learned to love the music in, of all places, Italy. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The first band, Old Scratch Sallies, is a loose aggregation (there was Jackson Lynch!) from New Orleans that more or less perfectly recreates the all-play-together-and-hopefully-end-at-the-same-time spirit of recordings made during the 1920s country recording boom that was killed by the Depression. If you’d somehow missed “Jailbird Love Song” by the Mississippi Sheikhs, you could hear it reproduced faithfully by the Sallies.

Another group, the Whiskey Spitters, does this too. I missed their set, but they were kind enough to pass around a card good for a free download. The album is called “Greatest Spits.” I love their version of “Going to German,” given that odd title by Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers in 1929. To illustrate how American music is often best appreciated by Europeans, the version I’m most familiar with is by the—British—Panama Limited Jug Band from about 1968.

Brooklyn Folk Festival

The Spirit Family Reunion filled the hall with life-affirming songs that Pete would love. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues, featuring the vocal stylings and guitar of Ernesto “Lovercat” Gomez (and Lynch again!), was another Brooklyn-based group that respected the tradition. But they also had a jug player, which Gus Cannon would have appreciated. The group had seven members—two banjo players, two guitarists, twin fiddlers, a washboard, a jug guy and a harmonica. I know that’s nine; there must have been some doubling up. Highlights: “Tear it Down,” “On the Road Again.”

Brooklyn Folk Festival

Jerron “Blindboy” Paxton: a hometown favorite, authoritative on any instrument he picks up (including fiddle). (Jim Motavalli photo)

I met Rafe and Clelia Stefanini at the Summer Hoot last year; they’re a father-and-daughter duo, and both very high-level players who switch off on guitars, banjos and fiddles. Rafe is Italian, and a veteran of a thriving country music scene there. He has thoroughly absorbed the old-time tradition and—a difficult thing—sings the stuff well, too. I could listen to them play “Apple Blossom” and rarely heard vocal refrains like “Roustabout” (which had an exquisite instrumental coda) all day long. Here’s a moment on video:

Brooklyn Folk Festival

Ed Sanders (center) and the 2016 Fugs. It’s “Morning, Morning,” still. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Rayna Gellert, who I’d really wanted to see, was unfortunately ill so the Pearly Snaps duo (Rosie Newton, fiddle and vocals and Stephanie Jenkins, banjo and vocals) took their place. They don’t get together all that often, and a few numbers were a bit ragged, but both are exceptionally good musicians and singers. Unfortunately, on ballads like “Silver Dagger” (memories of Joan Baez at Club 47) the group was ill-served by the marauding children who had taken over the front of the stage. If they were just running around it could have been OK, but they were also screaming their heads off, and that was really distracting. Fortunately, they were soon corralled.

I’d also seen Piedmont Bluz before, at the 2015 CT Folk Festival, and the husband and wife team of Valerie and Ben Turner revive the Southern country blues tradition. Valerie is a very strong singer and guitarist, and Ben chimes in on harmonies, little instruments and handclaps. A highlight was a song associated with Taj Mahal, “Needed Time.” Here it is on video.

Brooklyn Folk Festival

Roy Williams and Human Hands–gypsy jazz lives! (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Hickhoppers were great to see, because the patriarch, Mick Kinney, has plainly taught his children well—both his sons were nearly as good on fiddle, banjo, guitar and vocals as the old man himself. Mick by the way, has done it all. According to the John C. Campbell Folk School, “He has worked with Stranger Malone, John Hartford, Sarah Guthrie, Vic Chesnut, Victoria Williams and REM’s Peter Buck. Along his musical journey, Mick has played stride piano at Manhattan’s Swing 46 with veteran tap dancer Harold Cromer, fiddle with Creole jazzman Al Broussard in New Orleans’ French Quarter, and lap steel at Louisiana’s Cajun Rendez-vous. He has performed at McCabe’s in Los Angeles, the Bluebird in Nashville, and on NPR’s Mountain Stage.” How’s that for a diverse career?

The Hickhoppers gave us Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers songs, as well as a tune from an obscure Georgia player who “made a few Edison cylinders in the early 1920s.”

Brooklyn Folk Festival

Gaida, from Syria, wails in front of the Last Supper. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I was getting a bit tired, but I never saw the Fugs—though I was briefly a promo man for their label, ESP Disk. And so a trio with Fugs leader Ed Sanders (yes, the same guy who wrote that book about Charles Manson) was a must-see. And they were gently great, combining old Fugs songs like “Morning, Morning” with musical settings for William Blake poetry, properly credited to the late Tuli Kupferberg—a great New York character if ever there was one. It certainly wasn’t rock, but it made sense as a 2016 version of the Fugs. The salute to Bernie Sanders was perhaps the only song ever to mention the Glass-Steagall Act.

The Spirit Family Reunion was, as I noted, lovable, offering a series of original, melodic and life-affirming sing-a-longs that Pete Seeger would have loved. The audience, on the floor at their feet, knew every word. Who could criticize a group that gets an audience of Millennials singing along to a Woody Guthrie song?

Paxton is also well-loved by the Festival audience, and turned in a crowd-pleasing set that saw him playing—really well—piano, guitar, banjo, harmonica and fiddle. He’s a totally compelling singer, and funny, too. He did a lot of songs that were either already old or current when FDR was Presidential timber, including one from the Great American Songbook, “The Very Thought of You.” British vocalist Al Bowlly recorded that one in 1934, then died in the Blitz.

There was a LOT of music over the three days, and I’m sorry to have missed some of them, including a set by a favorite band, Dubl Handi, and a tribute to Sonya Cohen Cramer, a wonderful singer and interpreter. She was the voice on Dick Connette’s indispensible “Last Forever” recordings. And it goes without saying that Michael Hurley is a unique experience.

I stumbled out into the night after a fine set by Roy Williams and the Human Hands. It was gypsy jazz, a change of pace for the folkies (did I mention Syrian vocalist Gaida?). Once again, there was a stage full of young, fully committed musicians up there, giving their all to an antique but still vibrant musical form.