Adam Ezra calls two friends in the audience up to the stage. They are musicians from Boston, like him. Got your ax? he says, and the woman beside him tunes her fiddle. He strums the opening bars, and the musicians around him casually pick up the beat. They hand off solos and choruses, and he has the audience singing with him — Take a load off Annie. Take a load for free …
Around me people are leaning back and laughing and joining in. We are all sitting on a grassy hillside above the workshop stage on Saturday afternoon at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. For three days, the Dodd Farm in Hillsdale, N.Y., transforms into a community of songwriters and performers with music and dancing, food booths and crafts, stilt-walkers and kites in the air.
In college, I knew a contradance fiddler who would make a week of it, camping and volunteering to set up and wandering into informal music jams around the tents. Musicians from the bands would swap tunes on fiddle, mandolin, accordion, bazouki, percussion.
For the three days of the festival, the music takes over continuously. Bands play live
in the dance tent, from contra and squares to Zydeco to swing, and nationally known and emerging singer-songwriters solo on the main stage and gather in informal groups on the workshop stage.
As I sit here, Adam Ezra has performed two of his own songs in Our Roots Are Showing, trading off with Sawyer Fredericks, the indy singer-songwriter from upstate New York known for winning The Voice in 2015. The Falcon Ridge House Band back everyone on piano, fiddle and guitar, and Tempest, a contemporary Celtic band from San Fransisco Bay, is turning a 17th-century Scots protest song into a rock ballad.
Musical roots can blend together, says Eric Lee, the FRHB fiddler; bagpipes, the iconic instrument of Scotland, may have come to Europe from the Middle East. I think of this kind of variety later as I walk around the food booths, sampling a crepe from The Skinny Pancake from Burlington, Vt., and vegan curried goat from Nyota’s Ting from Jamaica, N.Y.
In the dance tent the lines stretched the length of the floor, in contra sets so long that a pair of dancers would not reach the far end in a full dance. The wide space gives a relaxed feeling, and Will Mentor calls dances that seem to float, as one movement spins easily into the next, as smooth or as wild as the dancers make it. Buddy System plays reels on piano, accordion, jaw harp, fiddle and didjeridoo, melting from acoustic into free-form rhythm that reminds us they will play a techno dance later on.
I walk back barefoot past booths and tents and a yellow school bus showing “Astro Bus” in the destination like the 1960s VW spacebug on the roof of Mass MoCA, and I settle in on the hill that acts as seating for the main stage. I’ve brought a blanket, and a friendly neighbor lends me a folding seat.
A herd of black cattle graze in the pasture across the road, and the afternoon sunlight turns the Taconic ridge golden behind them.
I’ll spend most of the rest of the day here, soaking in sound. When Adam Ezra comes on with his band, I laugh out loud as he sings The Devil Came Up to Boston in a spot-on Boston accent — Corinna Smith on fiddle tears into the solos, and Turtle, playing the hand drums, breaks in on whistle to imply all the four-letter words.
Brother Son sings a cappella in close three-part harmony and gives a tribute to the ASL interpreters who perform here with every band and song. They sing Dave Gunning’s These Hands, a song they say lends itself well to powerful interpretation in sign. Then they call jazzman Reggie Harris up on stage to join them in The Name of Love.
The moon rises over the ridge, looking four times its usual size, and the stage fills in a tribute to Jimmy LaFave, a singer songwriter from Texas and Stillwater Oklahoma who played his “red dirt music” around the world. He was a Falcon Ridge regular until he died in May, and now, in the time when he would have performed, his friends are remembering his with his own songs and Woodie Guthrie’s Oklahoma Hills.
Rod MacDonald remembers him playing a gig in a pub in Italy on a quiet night. Joziah Longo from the Slambovian Circus of Dreams gives an eerily pitch-perfect impression of Bob Dylan’s Like a Woman, with harmonica clear to the back of the hills.
The moon is rising above the clouds as I walk through the booths in the dark in search of hot coffee. I’m staying to hear Sawyer Fredericks sing his own songs before I drive the hour home. He sings new music, some of it music in progress — sad, angry and unprotected. His voice is strong tenor with a catch in it, and it carries over the hill. These songs are not always easy, but they are honest, and the loneliness in them hits high and hard in the chest.
Walking through the field to my car, as the night cools down, I think back over the day. At the end of his set, Ezra said he once met Pete Seeger at a gathering in the woods People’s Music Network.
“He said ‘We need to make sure this music doesn’t die with my generation.’ So, for Pete’s Sake —” he beconned to everyone stand and join him. And you may have to have been there to know how it felt, to hear a hillside full of people singing unselfconsciously together.
Let it be … let it be … let it be … let it be. Shine on til tomorrow. Let it be.
In the photo at the top, Falcon Ridge Folk Festival brings three days of music to the Taconics. (Photo by Kate Abbott)