Many musicians performing in the Western Catskills today carry on the legacy of traditional music. Some may have been directly influenced by Rogers and his contemporaries, while others may have become involved through other avenues…. from recordings, from friends and older musicians, from their own research, and nowadays, from listening to what is available via modern technology.
We interpret the word legacy to indicate this rich heritage of traditional music. Rather than indicating just a one-on-one mentoring relationship between Grant Rogers and present day musicians, we wish to acknowledge with gratitude not only Rogers, but also the many others who have passed on this wonderful musical inheritance. We acknowledge as well the dedication of modern day players, singers, storytellers, listeners, and dancers who continue to carry on these traditions.
In this spirit, we present the stories of some of the musicians of this area who represent what we think of as “traditional” music, though what we mean by the concept of traditional remains a constant talking point. Some of the questions we ponder include “What is traditional or folk music?” “How has it evolved over time?” “What elements from other music genres have been blended or absorbed into traditional music?” Specific questions for each musician interviewed may include: “Where did you learn your music?” “How did you get into this kind of music?” “Who/what has influenced you?” “How do you see yourself as part of a continuing tradition?"
Finally, we realize that this musical tradition is not separate from people's lives. From the house dances and barn dances of Grant Rogers' time to the coffeehouses, music sessions, and concert halls of today, this music in some way remains connected to our local/small town rural culture and its values. We ask, then, is there continuity with the inevitable change? How does this tradition (if it does) remain an expression of our rich local history?
We look to musicians' stories to help us answer these questions. (More stories will be added as we continue interviews.)
WES ST. ONGE
In 1958, Wes St. Onge’s father Edwin was asked to play saxophone for a barn dance in Otego. He said he couldn’t do it, but his teenage son Wes could. And that job with Lynn March and the Nighthawks was the beginning of Wes’s musical career. At the age of 5 or 6 his parents had sent him to Irene Dunn of Oneonta for piano lessons and he continued those lessons for two or three years. He started playing the guitar with his father at about age 10, and later studied the saxophone and clarinet in high school. In later years, he played with several local country western and square dance bands, among them Red Lawrence and Tagalongs, Jerry Madore and the New Prairie Ramblers, Ken McMullen and the Hi-Hatters. Wes went on to form what became a very popular dance band of his own, The Country Express with Robert Utter, and Ben Shackleton. He joined Dick Thompson and the Driftwoods from 1980 to 2000 before retiring from the music scene. He came out of retirement a few years later, once more joining Dick Thompson, and finally played with The Country Blend band.
During most of his career, Wes also sang and called square dances.
Wes still plays guitar and keyboard at occasional dances, plays and sings at restaurants and coffeehouse events, and, for about 10 years now, has played one of his father’s fiddles at traditional music sessions. The sessions include a bi-monthly session for players of Irish traditional music and a weekly session for players of traditional music in many forms: Celtic, Quebecois, Swedish, Contradance, and Old Time.
In September 2017 Wes moved permanently to Citrus County Florida where he continues to play, sing, and even call a few square dances.
Kathy Shimberg is a life-long musician and a nearly life-long folklorist. She has a special interest in music, stories, humor, and other forms of creative expression in the context of culture and especially in traditional folk life. Her music spans various styles, genres, and historical periods, with a focus on American folk music from the rural oral tradition, learned as much as possible directly from older musicians in home visits and informal sessions, as well as from older recordings of rural musicians. She has played publicly and presented traditional music in a wide variety of settings and occasions in local and regional communities from 1960 to the present, solo and in various small ensembles. She plays piano, fiddle, guitar, banjo, recorders, and also sings.
In 1980, Kathy received an M.A. from the Cooperstown Graduate Program in American Folk Culture affiliated with New York State Historical Association and State University of New York in Oneonta. Her Master’s thesis project was based on a field-recorded collection of traditional New York State square dances and interviews that she and her husband/musical partner conducted with square dance callers in Otsego and Delaware Counties in the mid-1970s. She has taught, called, and played music for many of these traditional square dances and for older forms of New England square and contra dances for over 50 years.
Kathy first met fiddler/singer/song-maker Grant Rogers when she was active in the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, DC (FSGW) in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Grant came to DC and was presented in concert by FSGW and in the Library of Congress. After she moved to central New York, she and her husband visited with Grant at his home, inspired by hearing his recordings and by meeting him in DC.
Kathy has spent her adult life furthering the transmission of traditional music through her performances and her informal contacts with fellow musicians and the public. Her love of the traditions of music in New York State and beyond helps carry on the legacy of traditional musicians like Grant Rogers.
Jay Ungar was born in the Bronx and says he grew up on the pop music of the 1940s and 1950s, often hanging out at the coffeehouses in Greenwich Village in New York City just listening to musicians in the folk tradition. He later honed his fiddle skills by traveling to North Carolina and Tennessee to listen to the many traditional old time fiddlers in that part of Appalachia.
In his late twenties, Jay was in a band called the Putnam String County Band, which was part of The Traveling Folk Festival, sponsored by Sing Out magazine. The Festival had four to six different acts and the group would travel from location to location putting on music performances. Grant Rogers was one of the acts, and that’s how Jay met him. Here’s what Jay says about that experience:
“He was probably getting close to 70 years old at the time, and he was so encouraging to me. I’d just started to be a professional musician. I had been playing since I was a kid, but here I was out in the world trying to be a performer, starting to write some tunes. He just encouraged me in every possible way.” (Jay Ungar Interview, 10/16/16)
In the 1980s, Jay started the Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camps to promote music and dance traditions of New York State and beyond. The Camp continues to this day, hosting enthusiastic musicians young and old, with the goal of passing on folk traditions.
Jay has teamed up with his wife, Molly Mason, and together they write, perform, and record traditional and music of many types and origins, among them Appalachian, Celtic, Scandinavian, Kletzmer, and Swing. The team is especially noted for their orchestral suite “Harvest Home Suite” and for the tune “Ashokan Farewell,” which was used in the Ken Burns PBS documentary, “The Civil War.” They have since provided music for many more of Burns’ documentaries.
“The Lover’s Waltz” is an original tune that can be heard on their CD, “The Lover’s Waltz.”
Jay Ungar and Molly Mason are among the best known of America’s traditional musicians. They play an important part in furthering traditional music and dance in this country.
For more information about Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, see www.jayandmolly.com.
Larry said he started playing ukulele when he was about eight, and then he moved to a guitar. He first learned chords from a book and then from his dad. He would practice playing along with popular records, figuring out the chords. He said that’s how he learned to play by ear. In fact, his mother (who also studied music at Ithaca Collge) tried to teach piano to him and his brothers, but they were so well trained by ear that they had a hard time learning to read music. Larry eventually developed the skill when he studied baritone horn with his father in high school and also learned to play bass for the high school orchestra.
When he was about 12, Larry once played for a square dance with his father, using a banjo tuned like a guitar. The chording, he said, was simple and predictable. He soon began to play with other dance bands. One of the bands was composed of Hilton Hoyt on guitar, Larry on bass, a Hathaway from Downsville on guitar, and Bill Shampine from Delhi on fiddle (at one time a New York State champion fiddler). Later Larry also played on occasion at the Bell Hotel in Schenevus with Charlie Hughes, a square dance musician, singer, fiddler and guitarist. The Hotel would have square dances every Saturday night with 10 or 12 sets of squares on a large dance floor. (For detailed information on Charlie Hughes and the Westernaires, see Old-Time Music Makers of New York State by Simon Bronner, pp. 143-155.)
While in high school, in the mid-1960s, Larry, Steve Rowell, and John Clark formed a small band called The Mustangs. They had two acoustic guitars and sang, then added a drummer, Dave Lynch, and Larry’s brother Rex on bass. They would play for high school dances and for civic groups, like Rotary. They also did talent contests, including the Genie Sparks talk show out of Binghamton and Hank Brown’s Twist-o-Rama. The biggest crowd they played for was at the New York World’s Fair on Delaware County Day at the New York Pavilion.
Every week Larry would record the top 10 tunes of the week and then would figure out what chords to use, write down the words, and add them to the band’s repertoire. Larry said until the Beatles came along, the form and chords used on early rock and roll were fairly consistent, 12 bars and the three basic chords (one, four, five). However, the Beatles “just went crazy,” said Larry. “They used all kinds of chords, changed keys in the middle of songs, and did all kinds of inventive stuff….it was a whole new breed of rock and roll.” In addition to rock and roll bands, Larry said he was also influenced by the folk singers of the 1960s, like Peter, Paul and Mary and The Kingston Trio; he especially liked Joan Baez.
After college in Oklahoma where he studied Radio and Television and Country Music, Larry then returned to Walton, started a band called Country Express, and eventually took over the Walton Music House. Larry’s brothers have also continued the family’s musical interests. Rex studied percussion and cello in college and went on to play in the U.S. Army Fife and Drum Corps; he still plays percussion with a band in Virginia. Ted sings in a church choir and plays drums, most often with Steve and Kevin Rutherford in Coyote Junction, or in Larry’s band, Country Express. Larry's wife Jody is also an accomplished pianist.
The family music tradition continues with Larry's son, Nate, who sings and plays guitar, and who has recently taken over the Walton Music House.
George Ward is a singer, composer, and folklorist active primarily in the southern Adirondacks. We include him as part of the tradition of song after Grant Rogers because he knew Rogers’ work and because he has been an important part of the folklore tradition in New York State from the 1960s through the present.
As a singer, George draws on the America Northeast for his main inspiration. His repertoire includes ancient ballads that have migrated to this part of the New World, along with local songs of the lumber woods, the rivers, and canals, in particular, the Erie Canal. George’s song writing includes contemporary songs, often in traditional style, dance tunes for a variety of instruments, and original music for soundtracks of stories of the Erie Canal.
As folklorists by training, George and his wife Vaughn Ward, having both graduated in 1969 from the Cooperstown Graduate Program in American Folkculture, were active for over thirty years in documenting folk artists through recordings, concerts, exhibits and festivals. They also did work with schools, helping teachers develop curricula on local history and culture.
In George’s view, three of the important folk singers in New York State in the 1960s were Lawrence Older, from Middle Grove, NY, Sarah Cleveland, a ballad singer from Hudson Falls, and Grant Rogers. George says that Sandy and Caroline Paton’s interest in recording the singing of Grant Rogers and Norman Studer’s invitation for Grant to attend Camp Woodland certainly caused Grant to focus more on the folk song tradition rather than the country western music Grant was hearing on the radio. In other words, according to George, “If he (Grant) came to Woodland…to our Niskayuna Fest, if he went to the Smithsonian Festival, he was being asked for more of the old tradition. He might get a few things in that were country, but it wasn’t all that he was a part of. I’m not sure that was honored, respected, drawn out, and asked about as much as it should [have been] back in the 60s and 70s.” In other words, how much do artists change because of what folklorists seem to think is important?
Although George’s wife Vaughn has passed away, George is still active in the music world. He has made a number of recordings including “Oh! That Low Bridge!: Songs of the Erie Canal (Mulesong 001CD); “Pea Soup and Port: Songs of the Batteau Era” (Mulesong 002CD); and “All Our Brave Tars: Songs of the Age of Fighting Sail” (Mulesong 003CD). George also plays a variety of instruments including concertina, especially for Irish traditional music.
IRA AND LAURIE McINTOSH
Born and raised in Delaware County, NY, Ira McIntosh has an innate love of the history and traditions of this part of the Catskills. Greatly influenced by his parents, a Catskill Mountain woodsman and a folklorist/ethnomusicologist, Ira grew to especially appreciate the music and storytelling of this part of the world. He loves nothing better than entertaining children and adults alike with some of the songs and stories of his native Catskills. He is often joined by his wife, Laurie (“Story Laurie”) in presenting programs at schools throughout New York State.
Because of his mother’s folklore work in collecting traditional songs of this area, Ira often met many of the older musicians, including Grant Rogers, who, Ira said, encouraged him to sing with him. Ira said that he was greatly inspired by such local musicians as Ernie Sager, the Coss brothers, and Hilton Kelly. Ira too, has collected local traditional songs including many about the building of the area reservoirs. Ira says that Grant Rogers’ “Cannonsville Dam” is the only dam-related song that he knows of that tells both sides of the reservoir-construction story. He says, “[Grant] wrote that song to kind of try to help everybody understand that even though it was a difficult thing, [moving towns and people], he [Grant] had what it took to see beyond himself and be able to tell both sides of the story in that song.”
Ira tells of also playing and singing with Pete Seeger for many years, especially at festivals that his mother organized and later at the Clearwater Festivals on the Hudson River.
These experiences have obviously had a great influence on Ira, both as a musician and as a promoter and educator of the cultural traditions of this region.