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Voices Spring-Summer 2009:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Upstate column, “The [Adirondack] Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Music!” by Varick A. Chittenden.
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Voices Spring-Summer 2009


Volume 35

The [Adirondack] Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music by Varick A. Chittenden

I should know something about music. I had one grandmother who was a star pupil of Julia Crane, the founder of the Crane School of Music in Potsdam; my other grandmother played the pump organ at church for many years. My mother was a Crane graduate, teaching music in rural schools and piano lessons at home all the time I was growing up. I myself made feeble efforts at piano lessons as a kid and tried to play the trumpet in my high school marching band. Later on, I finally realized that the musical gene must have passed me by. Before someone had to tell me, I fortunately concluded that the world would be better off if I became a listener and a fan.

That’s why I’m about to brag a little about a new web site that we recently launched at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY), which we call “W is for the Woods”: Traditional Adirondack Music and Music-Making. Located at http://woods.tauny.org/, it’s a very impressive piece of work, a thorough introduction to the traditional music of our region, collected over a period of at least 75 years.

Produced, researched, and written by Dave Ruch—a professional musician and music educator from Buffalo, who also has a seasonal camp near Tupper Lake—“W” includes essays on the nature of traditional music, on specific characteristics of the music of our region, and on singers and songs, and fiddlers and fiddle tunes. There is an extensive collection of audio files for streaming, including rare footage of a 1974 small-town music festival, a recording session at the Library of Congress by Judge Learned Hand (an Adirondack native), and radio documentaries we produced on several master artists. There are PDFs of numerous published articles on local artists and their music and a terrific section for educators who want to use the site with their students.

For many who visit the site, the most exciting and interesting parts are devoted to individual musicians and their music. There are profiles of traditional singers like Yankee John Galusha, Sara Cleveland, and Ted Ashlaw; revivalists like Pete Seeger and Milt Okun; performer/ interpreters like Bill Smith, Dan Berggren, and Stan Ransom; and contemporary singer/ songwriters like Roy Hurd and Eddy Lawrence. Fiddlers—who represent the most common kind of traditional music of our region—range from Lawrence Older to Vic Kibler, Alice Clemens to Don Woodcock. More than thirty of the songs and tunes are local creations or local variations on traditional music. Another section is devoted to indigenous and ethnic music found here, including Mohawk, French Canadian, and Celtic. The best part is that we include downloadable audio files of at least one hundred songs and tunes recorded by these artists over time and transcribed lead sheets for each.

I have taken particular interest in the role of the collectors of this music, and we include a section of profiles on them: Marjorie Lansing Porter, Helen Hartness Flanders and her colleague Marguerite Olney, Frank and Anne Warner, Sandy and Caroline Paton, Kenneth Goldstein, Robert Bethke, and George and Vaughn Ward. Without them, much of the music— or at least documentation of it—would be lost. Altogether, this site will make a major new contribution to the scholarship and pure enjoyment of our region’s musical heritage.

For most of us who have gone into the study of folklore, I’d bet it’s the thrill of the chase, the search for traditions of all kinds and the people who carry them on, that makes our work so interesting. And I’m sure we all have particularly fascinating moments out in the field. Remember, I’m not very musical, but one of the highlights of my career was a trip with my old friend Bob Bethke to find one man with a flair for old-time music and a local reputation as a “real character.” This is how Bob describes that day on our site:
“Push U1 and V1 over there on the jukebox,” said the burly patron in suspendered work pants, looking every part the classic Adirondack woodsman. “I’ll show you how to do it.” Gerald “Snooks” Martin, of St. Regis Falls, just happened to be at Bert Susice’s roadside Blue Mountain Inn, on the way to Santa Clara, on the afternoon of August 6, 1979. Varick Chittenden and Bob Bethke, bearing tape recorder and camera, were there to interview Bert Susice, known to play several instruments. The two folklorists were totally unprepared to find “Snooks,” who took interest in the talk at the bar when it turned to playing the clapper bones. Saying he never could manipulate them, Snooks then very deliberately arose from his seat and went behind the bar, where he retrieved an old beer tray and two empty long-neck beer bottles. By then the jukebox was playing “Peace River Breakdown” by legendary Canadian fiddler Don Messer. Snooks pulled up a chair at a table and began to keep time with the piece. He played the bottles in clapper bones style, and used the beer tray to emulate an Irish bodhran [frame drum akin to large tambourine], rhythmically striking it with the back of one hand. The effect was mesmerizing, even magical—pure chance to witness improvised percussion in accompaniment and traditional style, not unlike what one might have witnessed years earlier at the same locale, when lumberjacks would stop in.
What a kick! Bob’s recording of that amazing event is just one of the eye-and-ear opening things about Adirondack music that’s included on “W is for the Woods.” You have to check it out to find lots more.

If you had thought that the only traditional music in rural America comes from south of the Mason-Dixon line, think again. From logging camps, barrooms, and Grange halls in the past to the interstices of cyberspace now, the hills of the Adirondacks have been, are, and will be alive with the sound of music.


Photo of Varick Chittenden
Photo: Martha Cooper
Varick A. Chittenden is professor emeritus of English at the State University of New York in Canton and Heritage Center project director for Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY).

...we recently launched [a new web site] at Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY), which we call “W is for the Woods”: Traditional Adirondack Music and Music-Making... it’s a very impressive piece of work, a thorough introduction to the traditional music of our region, collected over a period of at least 75 years.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 35, Spring-Summer 2009. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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