The Folks Who Keep the Music Playing

By Benjamin Pomerance

From musical legends Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to contemporary regional favorites like Roy Hurd and Jamcrackers, the Adirondack Folk Festival — celebrating its 25th year in bucolic Schroon Lake — is still going strong.

If you really want to pin this legacy on somebody, start with Aunt Flora’s employer. It was the mid-1950s, and Flora Wilson Whitty was waiting tables at a diner in Schroon Lake, N.Y. One afternoon, Pete Seeger showed up at the restaurant where she worked. Long before he attained almost mythological status as a folk singer and activist, Seeger was no stranger in the Adirondack community. He had been coming since the early 1950s, sampling the local musical brews. The trek from his home up Route 9 to Schroon Lake had become almost an annual rite of summer.

When Seeger learned that Whitty knew several Adirondack folk songs, a conversation immediately ensued. As it turned out, Seeger had a gig coming up in town. The family of record producer Milt Okun — the man who would eventually ignite the careers of artists from John Denver to Peter, Paul and Mary — owned a resort in the community, a spot called Schroon Crest. Nobody seems to remember exactly where it was located, but a September 1953 edition of The Warrensburg News places it at “three-fourths of a mile north of Pottersville on Route 9,” encompassing a 130-acre tract known as “Moon Hill.” It had all the comforts a guest could desire: clay tennis courts, horseback riding, boating, and gourmet food.

Most importantly, though, Schroon Crest had music. Throughout the 1950s, Okun hosted an annual summertime Adirondack Folk Song and Dance Festival there. Woody Guthrie, Seeger, and other luminaries of America’s folk revival movement made frequent appearances. Even an unknown Los Angeles folk singer named Alan Arkin, who would later achieve fame in movies like Catch-22 and Wait Until Dark, showed up one summer. Often, the performances were collaborative, with the likes of Seeger and Guthrie making music alongside the everyday folks from around town.

That’s why Seeger asked Whitty to join him at the festival that day. Not just to sit in the audience but to sing onstage with him. Apparently without much hesitation, Whitty agreed.

Then her supervisor stepped in. No, his waitress wasn’t running off to Schroon Crest in the midst of peak tourist season. If she wanted to keep her position, she would stay in that diner and serve the customers. Evidently, she needed that job. She never did sing with Pete Seeger that night.

Nineteen times out of twenty, that would be the end of the story. Yet in this case, the tale picked up again three decades later. By this point, Okun’s festival was long gone. Yet the interest in those gatherings was reborn thanks to Dan Berggren, a native of the Schroon Lake region dedicated to playing and writing folk songs — and who just happened to be the nephew of Flora Wilson Whitty.

As a teenager, Berggren attended a Pete Seeger concert in Saratoga. That night, he became a lifetime devotee of the man’s music and crusading spirit. After several more years went by, he would wind up not only meeting Seeger, but also interviewing him, carrying on an intermittent correspondence with him, and even playing music with him.

In 1985, Berggren reminded Seeger about Aunt Flora and her boss. As it turned out, Seeger hadn’t forgotten the encounter in that diner. In fact, after Berggren brought up the subject, Seeger responded with a surprising idea.

“Pete suggested that maybe it was time for the Adirondacks to have its own [folk music] festival again,” Berggren recalls. “His point was that it’s never too late to try again by having my Aunt Flora sing, and that there ought to be local festivals everywhere to celebrate regional music.”

Reviving a Festival

Then more time passed. Seeger’s comment remained only a vague, abstract concept. Nobody developed any immediate plans for a folk music festival in Schroon Lake. It took another chance remark to break the inertia. In 1986, Berggren had just finished a gig when he was approached by Darlene Gregson, a former high school classmate who was active in the regional arts scene. During their conversation, Gregson unexpectedly asked a question that she likely considered rhetorical: “Wouldn’t it be great to have folk music festival in Schroon Lake?”

Sensing an opportunity, Berggren pounced. “I told Darlene about what Pete and Milt Okun had done in the ‘50s,” he remembers. “As a member of the Schroon Lake Arts Council, she brought the idea to the group, and they worked to bring it about in ’89.”

And when the first notes sounded at that first festival in 1989, a special guest was there to hear them. Aunt Flora wasn’t working at a diner this time. Instead, she was right there in the crowd, singing along heartily on every chorus.

Plenty of people joined her. Admission was free, the music kept going all afternoon, and the outdoor venue provided a postcard-worthy view. Many attendees sang and danced for hours, just as others had done three decades earlier at Schroon Crest. The whole program was a hit. A year later, buoyed by this success, the Arts Council members decided to do it again.

They’ve been doing it ever since. This year, on August 10, the Adirondack Folk Festival celebrates 25 consecutive years of existence. And according to Schroon Lake Arts Council President Jack Osborne, the daylong event remains largely the same as it always was. Admission is still free, restored to that status after a period in the mid- 1990s when the Arts Council charged adults a nominal fee. Approximately 400 people each year show up to watch. Schroon Lake Town Park’s panorama of the lake and mountains remains one of the region’s finest vistas.

The performers change frequently, of course, with plenty of new acts joining the returning favorites on the program. Yet Osborne emphasizes that the artistic values of the event don’t change. At a time when the label of “folk music” seems to encompass a wider variety of styles than ever, the organizers of this event have a pretty strong notion of what they’re seeking.

“We’re not going to be doing cover tunes, that’s for sure,” Osborne says. “The type of music that we have [at the festival] is very recognizable, for the most part. Folk music certainly has a spectrum, and we account for that in the people we pick. But we don’t have that loud, over- amplified music.”

The Roots of Their Work

In remaining traditional, the festival sustains a birthright that extends much further than its own quarter-century story. Since the days of the area’s earliest inhabitants, this region has rung with folk tunes. As decades passed, a unique brand of music emerged in the North Country, one that evolved from small-town dance halls to lumber camp bunkhouses, family parlors to hotel taverns — and just about anywhere else where people were willing to play or sing.

French-Canadian and Irish influences tinged many of these creations. Yet the music designed by the local

legends developed a special flair of their own. People 5 like Minerva’s “Yankee John” Galusha, a larger-than-life logger and forest guide of Irish descent, and Lena Bourne “Grammy” Fish of Black Brook, whose extensive song repertoire came largely from her lumber salesman father

and mountain-dwelling uncle, became leading creators and interpreters of these works. Tireless collectors of these songs like Marguerite Olney and Marjorie Lansing Porter preserved these pieces for the generations to come.

Today, a significant number of folk musicians still draw inspiration from the Adirondacks. This year’s festival features four of them. There’s Roy Hurd, a singer- songwriter whose music has become almost synonymous with the region that he calls home. And there’s the three- person band Jamcrackers, with Dan Duggan, Peggy Lynn, and Berggren spinning out both mountain classics and crisp originals. Yet the gathering also has a history of welcoming artists from outside the region, and this summer’s installment is no exception. Family duo Dana and Susan Robinson hail from Ashville, North Carolina. The Michelle Fay Band comes from Vermont. The Boxcar Lilies, an Americana trio, is based in Western Massachusetts.

Music for Everyone

To Berggren, the entire experience’s imprint goes far beyond a single day. “Folk music is for all ages, not just old hippies,” he says. “When young people become engaged in dancing, singing, listening to and making music, it becomes part of their heritage, the fabric of their lives. This can happen at home, in school, on car rides, at concerts, and at festivals. If it doesn’t happen, the music and the stories it tells fades away.”

There seems to be no fear of the music fading away in Schroon Lake. Osborne says that while times are financially tough for arts organizations, the festival’s future is secure. From those early gatherings at Schroon Crest to the festivals of more recent vintage, folk music seems bound by a steel-tight thread in this place.

The folks who wove that thread form a remarkable group — musical legends like Milt Okun, Woody Guthrie, and especially

Pete Seeger; visionaries like Berggren, Darlene Gregson, and the local leaders of that 1989 festival; devoted contemporary stewards like Osborne; and stalwart community members like Aunt Flora and the countless volunteers who keep the program going. As individuals, their differences are striking and wide- ranging. Yet this festival owes its life and evolution to their unity in one harmonious objective: keeping the music playing for generations to come.

The 25th annual Adirondack Folk Festival takes place on Sunday, August 10, from noon to 5 p.m. at the Schroon Lake Town Park. Admission is free. For more information, please call (518) 532-9259 or visit www.