George Ward Interview - interview


ZOOM0024 EDITED 34:06                                                              7/13/17

0:00:04 Jim

This is Jim Haggerty. I'm [here] with Jean Withrow [. . .] and we have our guest [here], George Ward.      [. . .] We are in [. . .] the Catskills [at] Gavin's and we're interviewing George about the Grant Roger's project. [. . .] Today is July 13th, 2017. Thank you. [. . .] Why don't you just introduce yourself, George, and tell them a little bit about your background.

0:00:31 George

Well, my name is George Ward. I am a folklorist, a singer and performer of folk songs, and occasional songwriter. The folklorist part is what makes the most difference here. I need to stress that I'm not a folklorist who specifically worked with Grant [Rogers] much, but I know some of the context for some of [. . .] what [he]did [. . .]. What I said to Jean before was that if you go back to the 1970s [. . .] and maybe 60s as well, rural New York State tradition at that point was basically represented at folk festivals (around at least the northeast) by three people, of whom Grant was one. The other two were Lawrence Older who lived up in Middle Grove, New York, and Sarah Cleveland, a ballad singer from Hudson Falls.

0:01:37 George

[. . .] They frequently appeared together, or at least as a part of, the same presentations. Not only at festivals, but at other things as well. I'm embarrassed to say that I'm sure we [George and his wife Vaughn] presented Grant at some time, but I can't remember when. [. . .] That was really, for most people, what upstate New York tradition was, was those three, and Grant, as long as he was able, was a part of that. 

0:02:20  Jim

...and mostly as a singer.

0:02:21 George

Mostly as a singer, yea, yea.

0:02:24 Jim

Cause he was also a fiddler.

0:02:25 Jim

Very good fiddler, too.

0:02:26 George

He was a fiddler. I honestly don't remember him fiddling as much at events that I saw him at, but that's pretty selective. [. . .] It wasn't at home, it was somewhere else. I don't know, maybe you do, was he ever brought down to the Smithsonian festival?

0:02:53 Jim

Yes, yes. [. . .] I think our friend, Kathy Shimberg…. [said] that's where she met him. I don't know how many times. Once, at least. [. . .] Joe Hickerson got him there [. . .].

0:03:15 George

Could very well have been because Joe [had] first sort of known of him for various reasons, including Camp Woodland. [. . .] So, it could have been [. . .] that he was there when I was a presenter there, but I was doing other stuff and that was a huge festival in those days.

0:03:39 Jim

Did you have any connection with Carol Eaglefeathers' folk thing in Andes at that ski resort? Cause I know he was there.

0:03:56 George

Well, I certainly knew her. The Andes question is a little more lost in the mist of history. I don't think so.

0:04:04 Jim

How about Camp Woodland?

0:04:08 George

I didn't have the [. . .] connection that a lot of other people did. I was involved with a different camp. I knew about it. I knew about a lot of what they did, and so [. . .] that's pretty much that.


Maybe you could talk a little bit about your musical history.

0:04:37 George

I could. One of the things I should throw into that musical history is that from 1964, which was the year my late wife Vaughn [and I] were married, we knew Sandy and Caroline Paton, who at that time lived in Huntington, Vermont, right sort of off the northwest corner. [. . .] At that time, that's where Folk Legacy records was, that was where they lived with their then very small sons and … Lee Haggerty lived up there as well [Lee and Mary Haggerty were co-founders of Folk Legacy Records with the Patons].  I imagine that Grant's Folk Legacy album was recorded in Huntington. I'm not sure of that [. . .].

[. . .]


[. . .] So, that was that was) the beginning, and we lived in Vermont [. . .] twice for a couple of years. We moved around a lot the first eight years of our marriage. Eventually [we] went back to Edgewoods xxxx. The Cooperstown graduate program [. . .] had an American Folk Culture program (that's what my master's degree is [in]) that [. . .] disappeared in the 1980s xxxxx [. . .] Alas, the Cooperstown program survives, but only as a Museum Administration program. [. . .] That was where we got our training, did a lot of our field work.

0:06:47 George

We were classmates of Gerry Parsons, who was Joe Hickerson's assistant at the Archive of Folk Songs. Gerry died too young. [F]rom there, we came back to pretty much where we live now, a very small radius of where I live now, which is southern Saratoga County. Now, I had met Lawrence and Martha [Older] years before that. 1960. Fall of 1960. Lawrence was a fiddler and a singer. Martha [. . .] sometimes accompanied him on dulcimer, Appalachian dulcimer, although she was the parish organist for the Methodist church in Middle Grove. [. . .] We traveled and played all over the place over the years. From there it sort of explodes. How far afield [do] you want me to ramble? I didn't pay much attention to Grant Rogers.

0:08:04 Jim

Your specialty, from what I understand, is sort of the Erie Canal [. . .] genre.

0:08:08 George

One piece. That's one piece. I never expected that to become the monster it has. [. . .] We were doing a concert [of] New York State folk songs in Schenectady, right here where we lived, and a guy walked up afterwards and said, "I was hoping you'd do more Erie Canal songs," and I said, "Oh, why?" Well, he was the general manager of what was then WRGZ television, which is still General Electric TV, and still in [xxxx] instead of Schenectady at that time. [. . .] He said, "Well, we're doing a documentary on the Erie Canal. Would it be possible to do a soundtrack of canal music?" Well, I had just quit [a] perfectly decent tenured teaching job to become a folk singer, and I said, "How long have I got, and what do you want?"

0:09:13 George

So, that was where the Erie Canal connection came from, and it's grown from there to a whole separate ramble. [W]e did a lot of collecting, and teaching, and working with school kids in the Adirondacks. [P]articularly in [the] southeastern Adirondacks, which is where we live, but not entirely. So, I knew a lot of the older generation fiddlers and dance callers, and a bunch that we wish we had been able to connect with[.]

0:09:48 Jim

[P]iecing together [. . .] how you're describing your vocational career and your interest in which is really the culture of New York, the folk singing and the traditions that have been passed down, [. . .] maybe you could just tell us what you think the state of that situation is. It seems like the culture is under siege in some ways. [I]n our area, apparently, there were tons of fiddlers. There's still dancing though, there's still musicians around. Just sort of your comments and maybe tie that into how well you think some of these traditions are supported by the schools and other institutions.

0:10:36 George

To take the first part first, [I] feel now, at the age of almost 79, the way I fancy [. . .] a lot of our older informants felt when we were a lot younger. [That] is to say that I look like the tradition to a lot of younger people who are asking me to do all kinds of things to represent that, and I'm looking back and thinking you know I'm not really tradition. I mean, I knew these people, [. . .] but that's true with every generation. Go back as far as you want and it's ever changing. It's changing now as all of the human experience is changing very, very rapidly for all [. . .] the big reasons that we can think of: population, climate, [. . .] and of course media. I mean, that's a recording machine [points to Jim’s recorder].

0:11:39 George

When Frank and Ed Warner recorded Frank Prophet singing "Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley," it was a box that big and another one for the batteries. [I]'m thinking Lawrence Older would have loved that [recorder] because Lawrence was a self made folklore collector as well as a source singer. [H]e had recorded a lot of the old timers on a Petron machine that probably weighed 25 pounds, plugged into a wall. [T]here is a younger generation that is interested in  folklore, and traditions, and history, which may be a little bit distinct from what is being labeled as Americana as a music genre nowadays.

0:12:40 George

[I]t's fun to watch because they're interpreting it their way, which is what we were doing when we were younger. [I] can imagine most of his personal sources looking at Pete Seeger and thinking, "Well, you know, it's pretty good. It's not exactly the way to do it, but..." and thus the tradition does change. Always does. The old rural traditions are gone, really. [I] mean, if you have any house dances left in the Catskills you're better off than the Adirondacks. [T]here are dances, but mostly they're not the old dances as they would have been called by the old callers. I mean, we documented some of the last of those back in the 80s,

0:13:47 George

mostly by recreating them, by pulling people who had stopped doing it back to the grange hall, and saying let's do this as a recreation because community was different. [Y]our range as a young person looking for a mate [today] is considerably larger, for example. [Y]ou get the old people telling these stories about bands going all night and then going home and working all day milking the cows, and [. . .] that doesn't happen that way anymore. So, people that are interested in tradition now are not as a general rule people who are keeping it just within the family. There are a few exceptions to that.  The Clevelands are, to some degree because Colleen played and Sara's granddaughter is such a powerful singer herself.

0:14:53 George

She has done a certain amount with her siblings and nieces and nephews, but that's because they were already recognized as singers. [F]olks on xxxx would call her up and say, "Hey, Colleen, would you come to our weekend and teach us how to sing ballads?" So, what's keeping that going is the fact that she loves it, but the audience that she's finding, like the audience, really, that Lawrence found, and that Sara found, and that I suspect Grant found, (there were a lot of people in Lawrence Older's family that thought, you know, "Why is he bothering with these old songs and what does he get out of it?" Well, what he got out of it) was other people who really loved the stuff and enjoyed it even though they might be city-billy kids, they might be Ralph Rinzler from Washington, or wherever.

0:15:54 George

[I] suspect that same thing was very true for Grant, as well, that [. . .] here came Sandy and Lane [and] Caroline [Paton] saying, "Oh, gee, Grant, this is really important stuff, and you don't have a record." Which probably made him hope, not knowing any better, that it was going to make some money. Folk records don't. They're [. . .] valuable, but only to a small audience[,] and now that audience is largely urban. Same thing happens for these [Irish] folks. I mean, here's Caitlin [Nic Gabbhan, Irish concertina player]] talking about coming back with Ciaran [O’Maonaigh, Irish fiddler], in the fall, and oh, yea, we're doing Rochester on Sunday, and we're doing Burlington, Vermont on Tuesday, and somebody said the Ale House in Troy, and where's that, and I said, "Well, let me talk to Peter and get back to you because that's right between where you're coming from and where you're going."

0:16:58 George

[T]hat's not staying at home. She's [Caitlin’s] making music [. . .] and that was [. . .] definitely true for [. . .] all the old tradition bearers, root singers, that we think of that are legendary people from a generation ago, from Grant's generation. They had the attention of people like us, people like Ralph Linzer, people like Joe Hickerson, and [. . .] various others. [E]zra Barheitz['s], who lived in the southern tier of New York State[,] repertoire was recorded by Ellen Stellard. That's out of the community again. It's a wonderful record still on the Smithsonian Folkways.

0:18:00 George

I guess in the sense that there are interest groups that keep the tradition alive, but not in the same old way [. . .] it's still alive. [I]t's like some of our Irish friends who are traveling all over the world playing, doing workshops, in Japan and Thailand. It keeps the tradition alive, but is it the same as people who didn't have enough work, and still had to work deathly hard to stay alive making music in the pub because it is what they had? No, it's not the same thing.

0:18:46 Jim

[A]s far as people making their own music, [we've] sort of lost a lot of that[.] Just people participating in [. . .] making their own, not so much consumerists. [W]e have a lot of groups that pass through Walton who maybe they're bluegrass, or they're old time musicians, [. . .] or ballad singers and [they're] making new songs[.] We finally [found an] audience that had an interest in it [in] the schools and locally anyway. [. . .] We're just wondering if that connects in a broader way to other areas in New York[,] and what [. . .] role can the libraries and schools and music people [play to] help to offer to the community some reflection on their own experience.

0:19:46 George

Well, it's fitting that we don't have Dave Ruch sitting here because he and I represent really two different generations of doing arts and education. I think it was easier in my day because I think schools had more freedom to create their own curriculum. So, if you had a music teacher or if you had an English teacher or anybody else who wanted to have a visiting artist there was a lot more space to fit that in. My wife, Vaughn, taught a field oriented high school course for juniors and seniors doing work, maps, doing interviews. There's a whole archive, part of which is [at the] state museum, part of which is at my house, unfortunately. I didn't realize it was there. [Y]ou could [. . .] never work that in now. I mean, she had developed a whole taxonomy for meeting,

0:20:47 George

specifically, English objectives, but other courses as well which was actually self published. [I]t was rigorous. [T]he trouble is you can't fit it in with the contemporary curriculum. Now, there are things you can do, and that's where Dave comes in. He knows more about how to approach that better than I do. I'll go if somebody asks me, but I'm not chasing it anymore, certainly. I did for years. We did with the Irish band that I play in. The three of us toured all over the northeast in the early 80s, but we would have kids build instruments that (not all from found materials because that gets too chaotic when you're talking to 300 kids) [. . .] worked on the principles of the instruments that we played[.] I had kids building modern model canal boats and all kinds of stuff.

0:21:57 George

You can still do it, but it's harder. I mean, you need a PTO or something. Libraries, they have the resources, a lot of librarians who are eager to do community events. Eagerness doesn't always translate into money and that's [ . . .] a toughy.

0:22:21 Jim

[T]his is not just ancient history. It was of interest to people; had some value.

0:22:49 George

[I] wasn't always an artist in education. Sometimes, I was a folklorist in education, and what I was doing was going into schools and helping teachers and kids to do their own community field work. [W]hat moved me about that as a historian, and somebody who'd been a history teacher, is that so much of history sort of starts at the top level. You start with a history textbook that is not a primary source, and its sources aren't even primary sources. You have to get way down the pyramid, and if you can instead have a kid go home and interview parent, grandparent, neighbor, whoever, and then begin to interpret that for themselves, for their family, for their class[,] it's a much more visceral firsthand experience [than] what historians or folklorists do.

0:23:52 George

[I] worked with the Ticonderoga schools for a number of years, and one fella in particular one day, his kids were going home. I said, "You know, Steve, this is really great. They're all very turned on and very excited, and seem to be having a wonderful time." [H]e said, "Yea, but it's such a messy way to teach." [I]t's true because [. . .] kids were getting into family stories and all kinds of other things. We had to think, what can you bring out in public, what shouldn't you, and schedule interviews, and give extra time to write up things, and make up for the fact that the recorder was never turned on, and all the things that happened. [T]he payoff to me is [. . .] that I still get feedback from people that remember it.

0:25:00 George

So, [. . .] that makes me think that, ok, I did something. 'Cause that's [. . .] the hard thing, always[,] who carries away what from any experience, but certainly from the classroom? [I]t also enables kids to see their own communities in different ways. [T]here's lots of kids whose families go boating up in the great Sacajawea lake in the Adirondacks. Sacajawea is a reservoir, and the fact that it's a reservoir means that once upon a time it was just a valley, and people lived there in settled villages in that valley that were removed, as the graves were removed, and [reburied], and the houses were burned down.


Just like the reservoirs in the Delaware River.

0:25:51 George

Exactly, and kids didn't know that. They sort of knew that the water went up and down in these kind of weird looking things, and when they start to realize what's there, the local historian in the town of Charlotteton, who would come into the middle school that I was working with, Laura, had been turned on to history. It's actually this way in seventh grade because of one of the New Jersey reservoirs went down very far and you could see the foundations. [S]he would tell this story, and you could see the wheels turning--wait a minute, we ride our four wheelers around up there. [W]hat's down there? [T]hey would start to ask and they would start to find out, and it became theirs and that was the important thing[ . . .] and still is.

0:26:50 George

Sometimes, bringing people like Grant into schools or into community events can provide that connection too because ok, here's somebody who doesn't look like an upwardly mobile middle class teacher. [L]ooks like a working guy; hey, he's important? Oh. [T]hat can be pretty cool. [A]s I feared, I'm not sure how many direct Grant Rogers connections I can make to you.

0:27:36 Jim

You're hitting on the main points of what Grant was all about[.] Maybe even broader [. . .] with the music and the singing. [I]t's a very different world, as you say, out there now and lots of different interests. [D]o you think that [. . .] some of this stuff is [. . .] connected to a lot of the music today? [T]here's evolution in music, but [w]e've had these discussions. [B]ands getting excited because they talk about how they got together, and they formed a little garage [band] somewhere. Just ordinary people making music, and now here they are playing. [I]t's not like [. . .] it was before, exactly, but the roots of what [. . .] they're doing is there. [D]oes that [. . .] kind of thing, maybe, inspire kids to say, "Wait, I can make my ordinary life become extraordinary?"

0:28:40 George

 [I] wish I had known then, what I know now[.] The whole business of folklorists seeking informants who knew the old musical traditions by itself shaped what those informants did to that folklorist audience. There was a wonderful cartoon somebody drew sometime: a couple of banjo pickers on a porch. Down the road is a cloud of smoke coming up, and one turns to the other and says, "Better make up another tune, Jake. Here comes Alan Lomax again." [I]n a way, that says it all. [W]hat we found, of course, was that country music, and I'm thinking really pre-bluegrass here, pre-World War II, a lot of it, was its own  [. . .] genre. Its own performing ethos, which is different from the folky by a lot. More performance oriented.

0:29:51 George

[O]f course, Grant was a part of that, too. If he came to Woodland, if he came to our Niskayuna Fest, if he went to the Smithsonian Festival, he was being asked for more of the old tradition. [H]e 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 be back in the 60s and 70s. So, I think that maybe [. . .] not a lost part, but something worth exploring. [N]ow that was my digression. Your question was about younger people finding their own sort of identity in this music, and that [. . .] I'm coming to have a certain amount of faith happens in every generation. There's a certain number of young people, either because they're exposed to it in places like this [or through family, they like it].

0:30:54 George

I will guarantee you that a lot of these kids go home and never talk to their schoolmates about what happens here because [. . .] they won't get it and they'll look weird. [T]hat happens with the kids who go to folk music camps with their parents, too, [and] lots of other things. So, then, of course when they find one another one way or another, maybe in college or maybe somewhere else, that can be [. . .] very exciting. [They've] suddenly found somebody else who is a singer, songwriter even, or who plays the fiddle or plays the banjo. I used to teach about the banjo. A young fellow called up from Skidmore one day and said I needed to give banjo lessons. I do. I live 20 miles away. "Oh, I have a car," says he. Skidmore student. So, he drives down, and he walks in, and I say, "Well, what's your interest?"

0:31:52 George

He opened up a book of CDs, and he had all the old times traditional players that had been recorded. He had Boggs, he had Pete Steel, he had all those old time players. [H]e looked, and he said, "Well, I want to play like these people." Oh, wait a minute, that's about half a dozen different techniques. So, we did. So, we did more of a trick for me than a trick for him, maybe[.] I've often wondered what became of him because he was that into it. [Y]ou see, some of the young people now, some of the young people that come out as folkies, how'd that happen? [S]o, yea, [. . .] they find one another. "The music as father," Charlie said, "is strong enough to bring people together." [I]t still does that. [S]o, it's worth presenting, which is me encouraging you to keep going.

0:33:05  Jim

I was just going to say that we luckily found some music teachers in the schools who are very excited to have the workshops, and P.E. teachers who are excited about having dance. [Also a] seventh grade history teacher who is really excited about teaching her local New York State history [. . .] piece of her curriculum starting with the Grant Rogers stuff. We're quite excited.

0:33:35 George

You should be because there are places where that's really hard to get that going at all.

0:33:43 Jim

What's amazing is that it just happened. We're just sort of there, and it looks like it brought people together, and it's just a natural thing.



Note:  George Ward describes himself as a traditional folk singer, weaver of stories of the rich folk history of New York and New England.  He currently lives and works in the southern Adirondacks.  For more information, see:‎