Danny Schmidt, the Songwriter’s Songwriter, Does it Again

The song is called “Standard Deviation,” and it’s from the stellar singer-songwriter Danny Schmidt’s album of that name, which is forthcoming next year.
danny schmidt 2

I get sent a lot of troubadour records, and it’s rare that they rise above the just-OK. Schmidt is a clear exception, and he creates story-songs that are wise, insightful and—this is crucial—melodic. On paper, the songs have to many words to be good songs—they read more like short stories. But Schmidt wraps them around some catchy compositions.

I had Danny on my WPKN radio show a while back, talking about his Detroit/Henry Ford song, “Southland Street” (from Enjoying the Fall).

Henry was a man of steel/He built his cars in twos and fours/With a Motown sort of soulful feel/And phatter than before

The factory was made of gold/And all the workers loved him so/And thirteen hour days are slow/But they kept the children fed

Every year at Christmas time/He’d send em home with pork and wine/So sound the horn and ring the chimes/It’s Christmas time again

Refrain: They had it all til it all went south to Southland St./They had it all til it all went headin’ south/Hammer fall and strike the steel and bend the beat/They had it all til it all went headin’ south

Well, he’s done it again with “Standard Deviation.” It’s a song about theoretical physics, string theory, quantum mechanics—and love. A woman with chalk on her nose (calling Madam Curie) doesn’t get taken seriously by the boy’s club. But then she meets a female kindred spirit and, boy, are they attracted to each other.

danny schmidt standard

They touched in ways that no one else could see/The girl’s eyes lit with fire, like milk and kerosene/It was the smartest thing she’d ever heard and the hottest thing she’d seen/So she grabbed her by the brainstem and she threw her to the floor/And they kissed like their equations had never balanced quite before/Cause every lonesome thesis just describes the unobserved/There’s always one who’ll fall upon the tail of every curve/There’s so many locks, so many doors, so many twisted keys Within the standard deviation from the mean.

Here’s the video:

Schmidt swears it’s not simply a feminist song, though it certainly is that. “It’s about two people with very esoteric passions, and most people don’t understand them very well,” he said. “When they meet, it’s incredibly alluring. And, of course, it’s also hard for women to be taken seriously in a male arena like theoretical physics.”

Schmidt compares the encounter to a meeting he had at a songwriter’s conference with a singer who shared his love for college football. OK, well, maybe that wasn’t quite so passionate.

danny schmidt with maizy and carrie

The album should be out in February. Schmidt is currently on the road, in Denver, with his songwriter wife Carrie Elkin (they have a 22-month-old, Maizy; her new album is The Penny Collector). “Standard Deviation” is the first single.

Schmidt is quite successful on Kickstarter, and he raised $27,115 to produce and release the new record. “I’m thrilled to be back in the studio working on a new record,” he told his supporters. “This has been an interesting period in my life, learning to balance music-making with baby-making, and finding a new comfortable rhythm now that Maizy has come into our world. It’s been incredibly humbling, incredibly joyful, incredibly exhausting, and incredibly inspiring. I can’t even remember what I imagined it might be.  But it’s certainly exceeded the foggiest memory of my wildest imagination.”

Caramoor and Clearwater

Let’s start with Clearwater 2018, because I went there first. I’m no dewy teenager myself, but I’m increasingly convinced that music festivals need to skew younger. The 60s were a half-century ago, and it’s time to recognize that festivals that stick to Woody’s (and Pete’s) children won’t be around for that much longer.

Besides, there’s an incredible variety of great new music that would fit comfortably at a folk festival, so why simply hire the usual suspects? The Falcon Ridge festival is a prime offender here, each year offering essentially the same lineup. I’m not putting the performers down, but it certainly kills my enthusiasm about attending.

river whyless

River Whyless: bringing youthful energy to Clearwater 2018. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Fortunately, Clearwater, held in the lovely Croton Point Park, isn’t like that. I attended on Sunday, and was pleased to see River Whyless and Mipso among the greyer beards.

In fact, River Whyless was the highlight of the festival for me, because I love discovering new groups. Blessed with three lead singers, the Asheville, North Carolina-based group presents a sort of electronically enhanced Americana. It’s all down to the strength of the songs, but Ryan, Halli, Daniel and Alex deliver one earworm after another. Plus, they’re incredibly tight on stage.


What’s Clearwater without jugglers? Didn’t see any mimes, though. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I’m saying this about them despite the fact that Ryan blew me off for a WPKN interview this week. We’ll reschedule. He’ll grovel, and we’ll get over it.

rhiannon giddens

Rhiannon Giddens, force of nature. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Rhiannon Giddens is a force of nature, and was separately entrancing on the workshop and Rainbow stages. Solo, as she was in the workshop, is one of the best ways to catch her. She’s funny, tells interesting stories, and can do amazing things with a banjo and fiddle, not to mention unaccompanied voice (as in the Gaelic tune she essayed brilliantly).


Political displays are part of Clearwater. Pete’s legacy. (Jim Motavalli photo)

With her band, she led off with a couple of generic numbers, and I started to get worried, but things improved when she offered a searing fiddle tune, and let ex-Chocolate Drop Hubby Jenkins take the spotlight for “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” Oh, and she played “Water Boy” and that great old John Hurt song, “Louis Collins.”

dave alvin

Dave Alvin sneaks a smoke before hitting the Rainbow Stage. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Dave Alvin have a new album together, Downey to Lubbock (their hometowns), and they brought it to Clearwater. They’ve been friends for 30 years and it showed in their ultra-relaxed performances, also on the Rainbow and workshop stages.

Jimmie Dale and Dave

Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore join forces for some music making. (Jim Motavalli photo)

While at the latter, Gilmore told a long, amusing but ultimately pointless story that prompted him to quote Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, “Jimmy Dale Gilmore’s train makes all the stops.” Or “maybe none of them,” the artist added.

Also cool was a mini-set I saw of Mike + Ruthy, a/k/a the Mammals, playing with her father and mother. Ruthy sang the hell out of an Etta James song. She could actually get more popular by making an album as simply a belter (as, basically, Giddens did), but it’s not necessarily the right move.

terrance simien

Terrance Simien keeps the kids entertained. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Cajun artist Terrance Simien was a cool children’s performer.

Over to Caramoor, where for something like the fifth year in a row I enjoyed the American Roots Music Festival.

valerie june

Valerie June: A vivid presence. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The headliners, Valerie June and Aimee Mann, were spot on. Both offered strong sets and chatted amiably with the audience–June, cosmically, and Mann, wittily.

It’s too bad that the acoustics in the Venetian Theater (essentially, a big tent) make it difficult to hear all the words, because both of these women are consummate lyricists.

Rain threatened the whole day but fortunately never arrived. Some of the afternoon performers–Anthony da Costa, Front Country–lacked strong material. His songs sounded all the same, and hers melted into an undifferentiated mess, but she could sing and he could play (electric guitar). Hooks? Choruses?


The Caramoor grounds are gorgeous. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I liked Ryanhood, a male duo. The story of how they got together was amusing, and also produced their strongest song. They’re kind of a Simon and Garfunkel act, minus the Simon rancor and contempt for his partner. They should have left the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing” alone, though.

Night Tree

Night Tree: they could play. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Also pretty darned good was Night Tree (introduced as “Night Train”). They’re refugees from the New England Conservatory of Music, and all really accomplished players. The sound is like chamber Celtic, if that’s a thing, with the novel addition of an alto/baritone saxophonist, Zach Mayer.

hunter & seamons

Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons fit well together. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons are an easygoing but politicized blues duo. The two are evenly matched.

Amythyst Kiah has a voice as powerful as Odetta’s but I haven’t heard her do a whole lot with it. I seem to remember that she sang the same songs, including “Jolene,” the last time I saw her. And she needs more accompaniment than her own rudimentary guitar.

Also fine, though I saw them only briefly, were Americana artists Lily Henley (who adds a touch of Israel in there) and Ali Dineen. I’d like to hear more from both of them.

If you’re interested in catching the festival bug, there’s some great ones coming up. I’m excited about the Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots Festival August 16-19 in Manchester, Vermont. The lineup includes almost every young band I like, including 10 String Symphony, Lula Wiles, Donna the Buffalo, the Stray Birds and Rayna Gellert with Kieran Kane.

Also the Newport Folk Festival July 27-29 (wish it didn’t sell out almost immediately every year), the First Acoustics House Concert series (featuring The Levins, Abbie Gardner, Eric Andersen, Goodnight Moonshine and others) in Brooklyn, Pleasantville’s Music Festival July 14, CT-Folk Fridays in New Haven (with a festival featuring Martin Sexton, Alternate Roots, Upstate Rubdown and the Jesse Terry Trio September 8).

Here’s some video of Dave Alvin singing Merle Haggard’s “Never Swim Kern River Again,” with Jimmie Dale Gilmore on second guitar:

The Horse-Eyed Men Invade New England

Fresh from their triumph at the Brooklyn Folk Festival, Providence-based family band The Horse-Eyed Men will barnstorm New England for the first week of May, opening up for retired preacher and acrobat Willy Mason.Oh, he’s a consummate songwriter, too.

horse-eyed men

The Horse-Eyed Men are looking for truth in New England.

The bill’s first stop will be The Space Ballroom in Hamden, Connecticut on May 1 at 8 p.m. Led by brothers Noah and Dylan Harley, the Horse-Eyed Men valiantly, if ill-advisedly, attempt to mash classic country, surf, and a wee bit of Captain Beefheart into a coherent sound, mixing the best of the Louvin Brothers with the worst of The Kinks.

Horse-Eyed Men

Willy Mason: Weirdly related to the Horse-Eyed Men, but worth seeing anyway.

“We recently completed a 23andme exam which proved once and for all that we are actually related, and we have been wanting to play with Willy for a while,” says Noah Harley, the elder of the two. “We planned the tour with Mason in grateful celebration of our confirmed fraternity, and also of spring.” The Horse-Eyed Men will offer proof of their shared genetic material in the form of close harmonies and the sort of petty, incessant banter that only siblings are capable of. As the headliner, Willy Mason is a singer and songwriter from Martha’s Vineyard known for his broad, generous baritone and smart, sensitive songs. Mason has toured with numerous luminaries including Death Cab for Cutie, Radiohead, Mumford & Sons, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. After taking a siesta off from the bizarre, serpentine world of the music industry Mason has begun to tour again regionally, returning from a sold out U.K. tour in March 2018. Tickets are on sale, come and sing in spring with us! Here’s the Horse-Eyed Men on the B-Side TV show with the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Hubby Jenkins as host:

From the First Pew: The Brooklyn Folk Festival 2018

In chronological order, impressions from the 2018 Brooklyn Folk Festival—the tenth annual! St. Ann’s Church wasn’t always packed, but it was enough of the time over the three days to make a bigger venue seem sensible.

jackson lynch

Jackson Lynch, an MVP, playing jug band music and New Orleans R&B.

Eli Smith, who was everywhere over the weekend (as both player and organizer), doesn’t think that has to happen yet, but if the crowd keeps growing it will be inevitable. Remember, this is a packed house for…old-time country music! In New York!

birdman of rome

The Birdman of Rome: a street performer you won’t soon forget.

The crowds are a mix of young and old, fuddy duddys and the tragically hip. It bodes well for a future for this music, especially considering how young many of the performers were. I cornered comics legend R. Crumb, who was playing with the East River String Band, and asked this legendary pessimist about the human condition if he found the number of under-30 audience members and musicians inspiring. “Absolutely,” he said. “It’s uplifting. It makes me feel we can avoid the end of the road.”

downhill strugglers

The Downhill Strugglers, with (from left) Eli Smith, John Cohen, Jackson Lynch and Walker Shepard.

Speaking of young, they don’t come any younger (at least not on stage) than Little Nora Brown, who’s all of 12. She’s making steady progress, and can now legitimately open the Brooklyn Folk Festival. At 12! She invokes names like Roscoe Holcomb as inspiration, and conjures Uncle Dave Macon as she flays away on her banjo, clawhammer style.

east river string band

The East River String Band. That’s Mr. R. Crumb on the right.

Young Brown probably doesn’t really know what “Morphine” or “Half Shaved” are really about, but she still sings them with conviction. She even essayed some shape note singing, and offered a compelling duet with fiddle player Stephanie Coleman.

Little Nora Brown

Little Norah Brown last year at Old Tones, channeling Ola Belle Reed.

Mamie Minch and Tamar Korn were engaging, playing music written long before they were born. “Over the Garden Wall,” “Royal Telephone” (written around the time of the first transatlantic call), and such delights as “Ragtime Millionaire,” recorded by William Moore in 1928.

Mamie Minch and Tamara Korn

Mamie Minch, Meredith Axelrod, Tamara Korn and Craig Ventresco.

Every tooth in my head is solid gold/Make those boys look icy cold/I brush my teeth with diamond dust/And I don’t care if the bank would bust/All you little people take your hat off to me/Because I’m a ragtime millionaire.


Mamie has a gorgeous voice, an alto that even shades into tenor, and it rings out clear as a bell. She’s even better as a songwriter, on the evidence of her wistful ballad “No More is Love.” Korn, meanwhile, is a totally engaging performer, providing beautiful harmonies, dramatic arm movements and mouth instruments. The pair have a seven-inch record together on Jalopy, the in-house label for the sponsoring Jalopy Theater in Red Hook.

ever-lovin jug band

The Ever-Lovin’ Jug Band looking south from Canada.

I was entranced by the Ever-Lovin’ Jug Band from Waterloo, Ontario. Julia Narveson and Bill Howard are big fans of the Memphis Jug Band, Jim Kweskin and Memphis Minnie. Anything with a jug. “”Pretty much if you are into old country music and work backwards in time, you will hit jug band music at some point,” Narveson told her local paper in Canada. “I friggin’ love it so much.”

Both Howard and Narveson sing this south-of-the-border stuff with absolute conviction and authenticity, and they can play their asses off, too. This was my discovery of the festival. I liked the American jug band, the Steel City Jug Stompers (from Birmingham, Alabama), too. They understand this music is supposed to fun, and played with all-in energy.

king isto

King Isto’s Tropical String Band dreams of Hawaii.

Another discovery was King Isto’s Tropical String Band, who invoke the islands (but live and freeze in the tri-state area). A husband (brilliant guitarist and singer Christopher White, a/k/a Isto), a wife (Ellen), another guy (Steve, I think)—and pure magic (especially “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”). Influences include “King Bennie Nawahi, Sol Hoopii, The Moe Family, and other Hawaiian musicians from the 1920s and 1930s.”

Molsky's drifters

Bruce Molsky’s Mountain Drifters: a musical peak.

Jackson Lynch is one of most valuable players at the Brooklyn fest every year, sitting in with everybody. In addition to his usual spots with the Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues and the Downhill Strugglers (which also includes former New Lost City Rambler John Cohen and promoter Smith) he appeared this year fronting Jackson and the Janks. New Orleans R&B.

steel city

The Steel City Jug Slammers from Alabama had the energy down.

And it was damned good, with Lynch out front (minus his fiddle, but with a guitar). The band featured a bass saxophone (doing the horn parts), drums and a lap guitar for the solos. Unorthodox, but it worked.

Clifton Hicks, an archaeologist and Georgia farmer when he’s not making banjos or music, was also a revelation. He’s a musical historian, and presents old songs—from “Pretty Polly” and “East Virginia” to “Big Stone Gap”—as carefully curated bulletins from the past. But it’s totally alive, not archival. And he really sings clearly, as well as being a brilliant banjo player. How have I missed him?

Axelrod and Ventresco

Meredith Axelrod and Craig Ventresco. The view from 1905.

I’ve seen Molsky’s Mountain Drifters before, about a year ago, and they’ve only gelled since then. Their set was flawless. They all sing and play well, but Molsky himself is in a class by himself—maybe our greatest living old-time country singer and musician (banjo, guitar, fiddle). “The Little Carpenter” was it for me.

Jerron Paxton is a prodigiously talented—on piano, fiddle and guitar. I hate to keep throwing out superlatives, but it’s just true. He needs to be known nationally. I enjoyed seeing the dawn-of-the-20th-century-oriented Meredith Axelrod again, this time with partner Craig Ventresco. He’s superlative on anything with strings. I like this bio:

Craig Ventresco plays a repertoire of songs from the brief but fecund era of acoustically recorded music. Like Fred Van Eps—the gifted banjoist who recorded hundreds of cylinders and 78 rpm records between 1897 and 1927—who mastered his instrument by listening to earlier recordings, Mr. Ventresco has developed a repertoire of songs learned by listening to wax cylinders and shellac records of the acoustic era. For over twenty years, San Franciscans have heard Craig Ventresco’s evocative guitar playing on street corners and in cafes. He has performed and recorded with Bo Grumpus and Janet Klein.

Pokey LaFarge

Pokey LaFarge: A return to the Brooklyn Folk Fest, solo this time.

Michael Daves and Chris “Critter” Eldridge (from the Punch Brothers) offered jaw-dropping guitar duets and a lot of Stanley Brothers. Their obvious joy in playing together was very infectious. “I never get to play bluegrass!” Eldridge said.

Daves and Eldridge

Michael Daves and Chris “Critter” Eldridge:. They loved playing together.

I can’t write about it all—the music sprawled across three days!—but it was well curated by Smith. As usual, there was great international music that emerges out of the melting-pot diaspora of New York. Women’s Raga Massive, Radio Jarocho and Zenen Zeferino (from Mexico), Bulla En El Bario (Afro-Colombian), Seyyah (Turkey) and Elizabeth Mitchell doing Spanish songs with Suni Paz. I liked all of it.

In the workshop room, I caught some of the ‘60s hippie film Gold, which was almost too inept to be camp (though copious nudity probably won it some followers) and stopped in for a workshop on Alan Lomax’ Global Jukebox.

The only thing on the negative side of the ledger is a stiff back from those too-upright church pews. By the way, the music continues all year–at the Jalopy Theater in Red Hook. Check out Roots & Ruckus on Wednesday nights, because they’re a festival in one night. Jalopy now has a burgeoning record label, and all sorts of worthwhile projects, including lots of music instruction.

Jin Hi Kim’s Collaborative Music Brings the World Closer Together

Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut is known for its celebration of world music and jazz—I used to go to what were known as “curry concerts” there when I was in college. Now the school is taking another important step with the world premiere of Korean composer Jin Hi Kim’s “One Sky II for Orchestra” on Monday, April 16, 7 p.m., in the Crowell Concert Hall. The music is dedicated to the unification of the two Koreas (which share the one sky) and is free. Panel discussions and film screenings are also part of the two-day Open Sky event.

jin hi kim

Jin Hi Kim with her electric komungo.

Kim is based in Bridgeport, and lives at the downtown Read’s Artspace (a former department store), surrounded by both visual and musical artists. She’s a master player of the Korean komungo, a stringed instrument that dates to the fourth century.

Korea has a rich vein of classical music that Kim has mastered, but that’s not where her heart is. She’s all about collaboration, including with many western jazz musicians over the last 30 years.

jin hi kim

Four Directions, featuring Jin Hi Kim with Elliot Sharp, William Parker and Hamid Drake.

“I got involved in jazz because I like to improvise,” Kim told me. She met avant-garde guitarist Henry Kaiser in 1986, when she was living in San Francisco and he was in Oakland. “He was fascinated by the kumongo,” she said. Since then, she’s made cross-cultural music with some of the best players in free improvisation—William Parker, Elliot Sharp, Gerry Hemingway, Oliver Lake, Derek Bailey, Reggie Workman, Jane Ira Bloom and Eugene Chadbourne.

“In the beginning, Korean music had a lot of improvisation in it, but once we were exposed to the western music system, everything became notated,” Kim said. “Since then, it’s all been memorized.” But things are changing. Jazz is increasingly popular in Korea, and not just Kind of Blue—free music is getting a listen, too, she said.

Jin Hi Kim_komungo in Mohegan Park, CT

Jin Hi Kim and her komungo get inspiration from nature at a Connecticut park.

Kim was in Germany when east and west were reunited, and she’d love to see that happen in Korea, but isn’t sure if and when that will happen. “Right now there’s not even much conversation between the two sides,” she said. “Families are separated.” The Olympics in South Korea created an opening that hopefully will get bigger.

“We share one sky; let’s talk rather than fight,” Kim said. In addition to “Open Sky II,” the second half of the concert will feature a collaborative performance with U.S., Japanese, Korean and Iranian musicians.

Kim is a prolific composer, and was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2010. As a soloist, she’s performed her own works at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Freer Gallery, and at numerous locations in Germany, England and Asia. I’ve seen her perform in an informal downtown show, and on a major festival stage.

Kim’s choral piece, “Child of War,” was dedicated to Kim Phuc—the girl in the famous picture of aVietnamese napalm victim running down a road.  Here’s some of Jim Hi Kim’s music on video from Public Radio International:

Don’t Miss the Brooklyn Folk Festival, April 6-8

Ordinarily I write about the Brooklyn Folk Festival (April 6-8, at St. Ann’s Church) after it happens, but this year I’m previewing it. Maybe that will help sell a few more tickets to what I believe is the old-time event of the year. The festival sprawls across the weekend, with afternoon and evening concerts, as well as lots of side events and jams. There’s food, artifacts, crafts, book signings—all in a historic church.

st. ann's church

St. Ann’s Church is an intimate space, and just right for the festival–unless it gets bigger.

The first festival was in 2009, so this is the 10th anniversary, and there’s an appropriately splendid lineup to celebrate. The big news addition this year is Pokey LaFarge, the retro rockabilly/old-time guy, who will fit right in. The young and enthusiastic folk-rock collective Spirit Family Reunion (with an ecstatic following in Brooklyn) is back, and I’m excited to see Molsky’s Mountain Drifters. Bruce Molsky is the greatest living exponent of old-time country music, bar none.

bill and the belles

Bill and the Belles were a highlight of last year’s event. Their music is a brilliant amalgam of 20s pop with old-time country.

Don’t miss Elizabeth Mitchell, who’s recorded a wonderful overview of the folk repertoire (with kids as backup singers) for Smithsonian Folkways, and just made an album—all in Spanish—with Suni Paz. And the East River String Band would be great, even if the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb (a fanatic prewar music collector) weren’t also on board to play along and paint their covers.

brooklyn folk festival

Yes, there’s folkloric stuff, but it’s not a world music event. But expect a celebration of New York’s many ethnic communities.

Also returning is the miraculous Horse-Eyed Men, a brother act that defies description. Deftly written country-western with a humorous edge? Maybe, but they’d be equally adept skewering techno. I’ve heard good stuff from Wyndham Baird, Jerron Paxton (a wunderkind on multiple instruments) Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues, Piedmont Bluz (a charming husband-and-wife blues duo), Little Nora Brown (who’s what, 12 now?) and Michael Dawes.

John Cohen

John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers meets his young fans.

It occurred to me that the old-time scene in New York owes a lot to two groups, the New Lost City Ramblers and the Holy Modal Rounders. Peter Stampfel of the Rounders was at the Brooklyn festival last year, and fellow traveler Michael Hurley the year before that. New Lost City Ramblers’ John Cohen is a regular, as a member of the Down Hill Strugglers with Brooklyn Folk Festival founder Eli Smith and the great Jackson Lynch.

jerron paxton

Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton is a virtuoso on at least three instruments.

I talked to Smith earlier this week, and he says there are still seats available for next month’s festivities. “I had the idea back in 2008, so I looked to see if there was an existing folk festival in Brooklyn,” he said. “There wasn’t.” In fact, there probably wasn’t another regular folk festival in all of New York, which is pretty shameful considering the city’s past nurturing Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Dave Van Ronk, Patrick Sky, and many more.

“So we put the first two festivals on at the 100-seat Jalopy Theater in Red Hook, and they sold out immediately,” Smith said. “It was an idea whose time had come.” Indeed.


Acoustic music dominates, but some groups plug in, too–there aren’t rules about it.

The Brooklyn event isn’t just about old-time country, though that’s a lot of it. There’s also music this year from Morocco, Mexico, India, Hawaii and Italy, as well as sea shanties and other musical byways that represent New York as the cultural melting pot it has always been.

meredith axelrod

Meredith Axelrod and the eternal Jim Kweskin. Axelrod featured almost-forgotten songs from the 1910s, and did them justice.

Find out more about the festival and buy tickets at http://brooklynfolkfest.com. If you come just once, you’ll be back every year, and also attending concerts and workshops at the Jalopy, a New York treasure whose good works should be better known.

Brian Geltner took all the photos, which are from the 2017 festival. Here’s some appropriate video, featuring Eli Smith:

Remembering Sally White (And Her Record Store)

With two partners, I started a record store in Fairfield, Connecticut, circa 1975. It was called Trident, because there were three partners—one of whom was my twin brother. The two of us had just graduated from the University of Connecticut, where we took not one business course.

Sally White

Sally White gets a plaque from Westport First Selectman Gordon Joseloff in 2013, when her store closed. “When you think about how long I’ve been around,” said White, who was then 84, “how many can say they’ve been around 50, 60 years, doing what they love to do?” (Westport town photo)

We had a plan—we would pioneer the sale of used records in Connecticut—but beyond that we didn’t have a clue how to set up and stock a store. Fortunately, we had a friend, Sally White, then running the record haven at the downtown Westport, Connecticut department store Klein’s. Far from stocking just the hits, Sally made sure that the store was bulging with jazz—including albums from players who lived in the area, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan (and, later, McCoy Tyner and Max Roach).

We called her, and she came over to talk business. Despite the fact we were planning to compete with her, Sally held forth all evening on all aspects of dealing with suppliers, getting credit, buying a cash register, handling returns, and was endlessly helpful.

I was thought of this episode on learning that Sally White died this week. She had closed her store, Sally’s Place (which succeeded her long stint at Klein’s) in 2013—a victim of the digital revolution. I’m sure not being able to greet her many friends took something out of her—she’d sold records for 57 years!

record store

The “record store” is making a surprising comeback. It’s just CDs nobody wants. (Moody Man/Flickr)

I’m part of the problem. I didn’t get down to Sally’s Place often enough, and I too started getting addicted to digital downloads. Sure, the music was cheaper that way, but nothing replaced talking to Sally in the store about her favorites—Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington. I once bought a June Christy record from her, and to be sure that was a purchase she approved.

Perhaps ironically, record stores are coming back as 2017 turns into 2018. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, Americans are buying LPs again, even as CD sales plunge to the zero point. Around my neighborhood on the Lower East Side, there are five LP-only stories, and nary a one that sells CDs.

Noting this trend, I decided it was time to sell my stash of 1,500 LPs. I called my friends at Academy Records on 18th Street in Manhattan, and they came up and surveyed. As it happened, they offered me a very nice price, but a comparable pittance for my 6,000 CDs. Nobody wants CDs!

jim's records

I’ve been collecting these records for about 50 years. And now it’s time to say goodbye. So long, old friends! (Jim Motavalli photo)

I’ve been collecting those records for 50 years at least. Gone, Lothar and the Hand People, gone the first Velvet Underground (with Nico) record—complete with unpeeled Andy Warhol banana. Gone the battered country music compilation I bought in a drug store when I was 14. The records are mostly rock, country and folk, since I sold the jazz albums years ago. I wish I’d held onto them a bit longer, because they’re five times as valuable now.

I can’t think of another example in which Americans have embraced an outmoded audio technology. It’s like eight-track tapes coming back. Maybe that’s next, because I’m seeing a tentative embrace of cassettes.

I asked John Corbett, the author of Vinyl Freak: Love Letters to a Dying Medium (Duke University Press), about the LP resurge. “It’s a boutique thing,” he said. “Rare records are a little more expensive and sought after. Recorded music begs to be accompanied by something—and the square record album format has the space for the full visual art, liner notes and lyric sheets. Records are cool—people like having them.”

Corbett has basically stopped collecting. He’s found most of the holy grails. When he wants to flip through records now, he goes down to his Chicago basement. I asked him if there’s anything he really, really wanted, and he mentioned a super-obscure record (pressing of 10 or thereabouts) by avant-garde British guitarist Derek Bailey. His crazy collector friend has two of them!

Vinyl Freak is a collection of Corbett’s columns from Downbeat, which lasted until 2012. The albums profiled, almost all jazz, and most exceedingly rare, are the stuff of dreams. In a half century of flicking through the bins, I’ve never seen Elmo Hope’s Live at Riker’s Island, Kenny Graham and his Satellites’ Moondog and Suncat Suites, Herbie Fields’ Sextet Live at Kitty’s, or Rufus Jones’ Five on Eight. Of course, I’m nuts enough myself to own (or have owned) about a dozen other entries in the book.

I interviewed Corbett on my WPKN radio show, and used as background music saxophonist Sonny Criss’ Sonny’s Dream/Birth of the New Cool (Prestige, 1968) with arrangements by Horace Tapscott. I’ve never seen another copy of this magnificent big-band album, but Corbett knew all about it—and waxed enthusiastic. I have it on CD, and have no burning desire to also own the vinyl, which I guess is what separates me from the true collector.

I mostly care about the music, not the object. I have 160,000 MP3s, and they’re not too cuddly, but they do have the sounds I want to hear—in a format that makes finding the exact right song very easy.

That’s progress, I guess. Goodbye Sam Goody’s, Goodbye Tower Records. It’s not likely I’ll mourn the passing of these corporate superstores, but I will shed a tear not so much for Sally’s Place, but for Sally herself. A real mensch.

Here’s a loving video tribute to Sally, by Claire Bangser:

Back to the Basics: A Portrait of Sally White from Claire Bangser on Vimeo.