Ramblers finally hit the high note

I was 14 years old when I first saw Pete Seeger at Buck’s Rock Work Camp — and my life changed. I loved what he had to say about equality and civil liberties, and most of all, I loved his music.

I used to write him letters and he would write me back. By the time I got to the Bronx House Camps in nearby Copake, N.Y., I was playing the banjo. That’s when I met my friend, Joe Browdy.

When I arrived at Bronx House, Joe was already the legendary music counselor. He and his wife, Sue, sort of adopted me and brought me to their parents’ house in nearby Hillsdale where they would grill steaks. That was the beginning of our life-long journey together. I began to produce folk concerts in New York and Joe was always a part of them, along with the Traum brothers and Winnie Winston. It was incredible fun. It was the spirit of the times.

It was infectious. Somewhere along the way, we all moved to the area and the Berkshire Ramblers were born. We got here in 1971 full-time, so let’s just posit that’s when the formal (if you could call it that) band got started. We would be invited to play on the bed of a pickup truck on Railroad Street during Summerfest.

From the first, the Lovely Roselle was the “girl singer.” When we could, we would add ringers to the band and depending on how good they were, the Ramblers got better or worse. There were people like Bob Salzman, the legendary Monument Mountain music teacher, or Harry Hodgkins, also from the school system who would bring his bass, or David Grover might slum with us (just once that I can remember).

What I loved and still love about the band is that it keeps alive those Sundays in Washington Square Park when we would all gather and sing our hearts out. As our kids, Jonas and Sarah, got older, they would join in. Now they are both much better singers and musicians than we are.

Soon we were being invited to play at the Annual Harvest Fest at the Berkshire Botanical Gardens. That’s when everyone meets to celebrate the past summer and the coming winter. Then the Ramblers became a fixture at the Austerlitz Historical Society’s Blueberry Festival.

Eventually, I got to interview my hero, Pete Seeger, about his life and the resulting tapes have brought an awful lot of money to support WAMC.

A long time ago when I was still a teenager, I told my version of Pete’s children song, “Abiyoyo,” to the Fire Island Summer Youth Group. One of the counselors took Pete sailing on the Great South Bay and told Pete my version of his song, and Pete wrote a column on the “folk process” and how things change for Sing Out Magazine.

When I met Pete again and we began our collaboration on the tapes that chronicle his life, I told him how proud I was to have been so honored. He looked at me stunned and immediately remembered, saying, “That was you?”

One night, Pete and Jay Ungar and a whole troupe came to the Mahaiwe and stayed at our house. We talked far into that magical night. I had read a story about Pete in a magazine that quoted him as saying, “No one needs to live in a house with more than two rooms.” I’ve been in his house and he is true to his words.

When Pete and Toshi arrived, she looked at Pete and, upon being showed their space, said, “Pete, this is the house I always wanted so I could bring my relatives to stay.” I think she somehow knew how nervous I was about the size of our place.

Anyway, last Thursday, The Berkshire Ramblers who, after all, are a living testimonial to Pete and his times, courage and music, were invited to play at the Norman Rockwell Museum as part of their Thursday American music series. I looked at the wonderful pictures of that little girl being led into a southern school by four U.S. marshals, and I thought of how fitting it was that we were there singing Pete’s music.

Our star guitar player Don McGrory was ill, and couldn’t make it and our kids were off doing what they do but Roselle, Joe, Dwight O’Neill, Dr. Susan Thompson, John Barrett and I did our thing. The “Girl Singers” (Susan and Roselle) were great and the audience, comprised largely of out-of-towners, knew all the songs and sang along.

I think the Berkshire Ramblers gave the best performance of our lives. My partner, Joe, once told me as we got off the truck at the top of Railroad Street, “Boy, did we stink!”

But last Thursday, he looked at me and gave his highest praise as we basked in our success. “Not bad,” said Joe.

Not bad indeed, and after all these years, still a work in progress.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 7/31/10

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