I’ve been going to the Old Songs Festival at Altamont , New York, for five years now. This year marked the 30th instance of this perfect gathering. It has everything and everything is done right.
The festival is family-oriented and there are numerous special events for children, most of them participatory. That’s a feature of the Festival overall - an astonishing number of workshops which are truly instructional rather than just another opportunity for artists to perform. Want to learn to Yodel ? There’s a workshop for that! Got the urge to write a song? There was a workshop for that, led this time by Canadian James Keelaghan.
Of the workshops I sat in on the most personally interesting, helpful, and entertaining had to be Peter “Madcat” Ruth’s harmonica stint. I’m used to seeing a handful of instrumentalists show up to a festival workshop but who knew that there is an uncountable number of harmonica players seeking instruction? It was truly standing room only! And then there are the sessions … Celtic ,of course, but how about a chorus of hammered dulcimers? Old Songs has everything in variety, whether it be craft booths, food concessions, instrument vendors and an instrument exchange, and an unusually broad representation of traditional music, song, and dance from around the world.
This year the show was stolen by the Paul McKenna Band from Scotland. This has to be the hottest band on the UK trad music scene. For sure it was a huge hit at Old Songs! But so were the Russian folk trio ‘Moscow Nights,’ the Buffalo-based gypsy-jazz group ‘Babik,’ and the effervescent but earnest all-female group ‘Gadelle’ from Canada’s Prince Edward Island. As fresh as some of the bands are there was fresher talent on display in the ‘New Artist’ performance series. Among these, I discovered too late, was New York’s Annie Crane; I’m sorry I missed her. And there were well-established artists in abundance, from balladeers a la Tony Barrand and John Roberts to folk musicians such as our locally-owned Sally Rogers and Howie Bursen. And let’s not overlook what seems like never-ending folk dance or community singing opportunites. As I say, Old Songs has everything and everything is done right.
Ending on a personal note, I’ll mention that during the first Paul McKenna Band concert the audience was asked about their travels in Scotland. Of course there were enthusiastic and multiple responses from the audience members at the mention of well-known destinations. But mine was the lone wave from the crowd when the fiddle player, Rua MacMillan, asked, “ Anyone here ever been to Nairn?” Afterwards I introduced myself to the young MacMillan. I explained that I had lived in Nairn for a few months late in 1939, after our family had returned from Hong Kong where my father had been serving with his regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders. “Get away!” said MacMillan, “My Grandfather returned from Hong Kong then too . He was in the same regiment.” Then he said, “I have an old picture of the senior ranks and officers of the Regiment at home and I’ll certainly look for your Dad.” I was then able to reply, “I’ve got that same group photo and I’ll look for your Grandfather!” And so it is that I found Rua MacMIllan’s grandfather in that picture… standing right next to my Dad!
P.S. The last chance to catch The Paul McKenna Band nearby, on their present US tour, is July 3 and 4 at the New Bedford Summerfest (http://www.newbedfordsummerfest.com/index.html). This is one of the best festivals in the north-east and well worth the two-hour drive from this area. If you go, look out for WHUS’ own Susan Forbes Hansen who may be MC-ing a concert or two.