Roots Resurrected at Berkeley Old Time Music Convention

Nine-year-old festival conjures the old American South.

The Berkeley Old Time Music Convention is one of the best-known gatherings of old-time musicians in the country. In an era when almost anybody with an acoustic guitar can claim to be a folk singer, the music festival is nourishing the authentic roots of American traditional music by presenting artists that are still deeply connected to the music they make.

And it’s not “folk” per se. “Folk music means different things to different people,” said Suzy Thompson, the event’s coordinator and booker. “To an academic folklorist, old-time music is traditional music, and traditional music is folk music. In the Fifties and early Sixties, old-time music was folk music, but not anymore. Today’s folksingers often have no connection to traditional music, so we don’t call old-time music ‘folk.'”

Today, old-time music refers to the style of music that was played in the American South before the development of bluegrass, although bluegrass players like Ralph Stanley still play in a style that harks back to the days before music was recorded for mass consumption. “The people I bring to the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention are playing in a pre-World War II style,” Thompson said.

Two notable bands will be making their local debut at the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention this year. The Macrae Sisters, from Portland, Oregon, are a vital part of that city’s old-time music scene. Gabrielle, who is also a jazz singer, plays guitar and banjo; Marian is a top-notch fiddler; and Joanna sings lead and harmony. Their harmonies have that old-time family blend. They play with an infectious relaxed energy, and plenty of swing.

Jimmy Triplett, Scott Prouty and Andy FitzGibbon play an old West Virginia mountain style of fiddle music that includes dance tunes, as well as strange solo fiddle pieces in non-standard tunings. They’re all folklorists and collect obscure melodies from the older generation of fiddlers.

Although it’s now in its ninth year, the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention is still a small gathering, which Thompson says fits the music’s origins. “Things happen at an intimate event that you don’t get with a huge festival,” she said. Old-time music doesn’t play well to a huge crowd. It’s music meant for a social settings, like neighborhood dances, house parties, or playing on somebody’s porch.” Or, in the case of Berkeley, three concert venues, a park, and two public libraries. 

The Berkeley Old Time Music Convention runs from September 8-12 at various venues.


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