Strings to the past
The old-time sounds of fiddles, mandolins and banjos funk up a too-glossy music scene and resonate in a modern world
Sunday, January 16, 2005


In a world gone crazy for excess, Portland often runs the other way. We like it simple, closer to the bone, somehow more meaningful.

On a dreary Thursday in January, the cold gym at the McMenamins Kennedy School begins to warm with bustle and anticipation. Musicians straggle in and seat themselves around a single microphone. Fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo, doghouse bass.

Bill Martin, a legend in local square-dance circles, grabs attention: "Let's get started."

He calls the children -- who up until that moment have been running, cartwheeling, hopping and chattering in the echoey hall -- to the center of the floor; their parent-partners join them. "It's kind of a silly dance," he says, then guides them through it, circling them left and right, dancing in and out, pretending they're animals of one sort or another.

The Foghorn Stringband accompanies them in a simple old-time two-beat tune, led by fiddler Stephen "Sammy" Lind. They are young and diligent, many of them expatriates of the rock music scene. What they are not are posers. The music rings with authenticity, because what they are doing is authentic.

The kids' dance is followed by a Virginia reel and then a square dance. Martin is the shepherd. "We'll push you around and get you in shape," he says, as he cajoles a larger and larger crowd to the floor. First 10, then 30 people take the floor. No one is self-conscious. By 7:30 p.m., there are 150 people stuffing the gym. Many know the steps, others want to learn.

"If you need a partner," he says, "anybody will do. You only have to be able to count to four." There is a serious lack of self-consciousness.

There are full families here, with toddler and teens. There's a woman with dreadlocks, a high-school-age African American boy with a luxurious Afro, young people in tattoos and piercings, the Birkenstock crowd, and seniors with huge smiles.

The room feels safe, communal, familial, like a potluck supper at the turn of the last century. The music thrums along in a kind of shared heartbeat. It's happy and ebullient, despite the weather outside, the divisive state of U.S. politics, and the misfortunes of the greater world. Foist up even a little resolute and persistent will, especially where a good time is the goal, and great things can happen. There seems to be salvation in old-time music.

More and more people are being drawn to the communal joy old-time music fosters: Nationally the scene is exploding, and the spotlight is on Portland as local musicians like the Foghorn Stringband earn a reputation in the small but tight-knit world of old-time music with their prowess. Many see the city as a major emerging player in roots-musicianship. It's about dancing, and community

Old-time music, bassist Brian Bagdonas explains, at the monthly Kennedy School square dance, is different than bluegrass, another favorite Oregon genre. Bluegrass is all about prowess and ability to tear off a blazing solo. Old-time music is all about dancing.

"It's more community-based," he says, "and achieving one sound. It's not about the soloing, like bluegrass. Old-time is more powerful. You can have 10 fiddlers playing the same thing, and that can add to a big pulse."

Bagdonas knows a thing or two about power. A native Ohioan, he came out of the punk-rock scene but was exposed to old-time thanks to an uncle and a cousin who were into the "geeky, redneck thing they do," he says. He didn't appreciate it until much later. As punk fell prey to big business in the early '90s, Bagdonas found less pleasure. "It became less about the grass roots and more about the marketing. Now I play music with friends, and don't play that game."

Bagdonas and the rest of the Dickel Brothers started Portland on an old-time music trajectory with a series of legendary happy hour sets at Berbati's Pan, best-known for alternative rock. They, along with bands Pig Iron and the Flat Mountain Girls, began to form a solid core of players who now populate the scene.

Bill Martin, on his Web site, says this about old-time music: "Today 'old-time' refers to the rural traditional music and song from the South and Midwest. It's played primarily on acoustic instruments, such as the fiddle, the banjo, guitar. A modern old-time band often looks and sounds like a really redneck bluegrass band. Old-time, however, is often played solo, or the songs are sung by a single unaccompanied voice. The repertoire is a grab bag of folk songs, popular tunes, gospel songs, ballads from the British Isles and square-dance tunes.

"Those who are sick in love with the music," he continues, "define it more broadly: African-American and Native-American folk music; acoustic country blues and related guitar, fiddle and banjo blues; jug bands; much of the more traditional elements of Mexican and Canadian folk music; Cajun music; the old New England contra dance fiddle tunes and styles; cowboy songs; early bluegrass, etc., played on a wide variety of instruments."

It's not such a stretch from punk to old-time. Players like Bagdonas were seeing a dire need to scuff up a shiny music world that was getting too gussied for its own good. Times seem to call for a stronger sense of community, more self-reliance, more of a do-it-yourself ethos.

Michael Ismerio, mandolinist for the Government Issue Orchestra and former Dickel Brother, promotes that theory about why this music is popular in Portland now. Ismerio owns and operates Q is for Choir, a record-store collective on Southeast Belmont Street, and helps run Liberty Hall in North Portland, "a do-it-yourself community hall and collective of people, events and classes," he calls it, that stages a monthly square dance. He is also the co-founder of the Portland Old-Time Music Gathering, set to begin this week.

The gathering, which will be held at three venues around Portland, got its start six years ago as a simple concert of several acts at the Snake and Weasel, "and then a party at my house," Ismerio says. His musical background "was a lot of weird punk, jazz, noise bands." The Dickels, he says, were formed in 1996 after meeting in Wieser, Idaho, home of a nationally famous fiddle festival. "Wieser left a profound impression," he says. "We said, 'Why only do this once a year?' " He's drawn almost wholly by the social aspect of old-time music. "It's made to bring people together," he says. "There's a group dynamic, with everyone playing together."

These younger Portland musicians were coming out of a popular music scene and had a sense of how to promote themselves, he explains. The Dickels were fond of a vaudeville-esque stage show replete with period attire. They were joined in the mid- to late- 1990s with the ferocious play of Pig Iron and the more bluegrass-oriented, but no less accepted, Jackstraw. "All these little seeds," says Ismerio, "sort of germinated."

Musicians such as Caleb Klauder, of famed Portland folk-rock superstars Calobo, were finding their way to this simpler, more heartfelt music. In an interview earlier this year, Klauder said, "With Calobo, there were so many things I was unhappy about." Then, he said, he heard fiddler Stu Dodge and mandolinist Greg Clarke "just get up and play, you know, take their instruments out of their cases and just play and be at home musically. It was a big step." It's gut-level music

As the scene burgeoned, December Jean Carson caught wind. She had been doing public relations for Calobo, who in the mid-'90s were poised to break nationally as a folk-rock act. For a variety of reasons, the band broke up near the end of that decade. Bluegrass and old-time were catching on, she says, and she got her early introductions to the scene courtesy of David Pugh, founder of Pig Iron and later Jackstraw. She was enamored and dove more deeply into music management, booking and public relations to help these bands out. Her Siren Music company now handles 15 old-time and other roots acts, including Foghorn, which recently inked a deal with Nettwerk, the record label that's home to Sarah McLachlan, Avril Lavigne and Guster.

Young people were flocking to the shows she was booking. The club scene, including the White Eagle and other McMenamins properties, the Moon & Sixpence, the Mock Crest Tavern and others were seeing the impact of the music and were increasingly eager to have the bands play in their intimate pub settings, with much less fuss than electrified rock bands.

"Old-time is really honest," she says. "It doesn't pull any punches. It can be really dark or really upbeat. The music is gut level. It speaks to laborers, the common man."

Zale Schoenborn echoes Carson's sentiments. Schoenborn is the founder and backbone of the annual KBOO Pickathon, a fund-raising concert that has swelled from 100 attendees to nearly a thousand last summer.

Schoenborn stretches his boundaries to include other rootsy, Americana music, but holds fast to the DIY, honest and transparent ethic of the old-time music scene. Schoenborn, a musician himself who got his start promoting festivals for public radio in Colorado, says there are distinct factions to the music in Portland but that there is huge crossover.

"Portland is in a unique situation," Schoenborn says, "with so many healthy music scenes contributing quite a bit at the regional and national levels. The Foghorn Stringband is a smash. There's a huge generation of kids going to square dances. That doesn't happen in many other communities. I think it's built it up for a number of factors. We've got guys like Kevin Burke and Johnny B. Connolly, who have a lot of influence. Same is true with the blues community. Bluegrass is the same way. A big portion of what's going on is in local clubs, but one of the reasons we're succeeding and that it's a powerful event is that Portland is a major power center for developing a roots-musician community."

Promoters of the old-time music events say the scene is not about profit but about honesty and building a sense of belonging. The events are nonprofit and volunteer-run. It's a fellowship more than a scene, an intergenerational phenomenon fostering what may be the closest thing yet to the perfect community, especially one based on music.

Grab a partner, and forget your worries. It's time to dance.

Don Campbell is a freelance writer; 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland, OR 97201.

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