Exploring New Jersey's Musical Heritage

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In Michael Gabriele's latest book, New Jersey Folk Revival Music: History & Tradition, the Jersey native traces the Garden State's role in America's folk-music history, from the Lenni-Lenape to the Pinehawkers, and Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan.

MILLVILLE, N.J. — Looking for “untold” stories is what drives author Michael Gabriele.

In the long-time journalist’s latest book, New Jersey Folk Revival Music: History & Tradition, his third for The History Press, the life-long Garden State resident, 1975 graduate of Montclair University, folk-music fan, and “recreational” tenor sax player, uncovers several (rollin’) stones related to the important role that New Jersey has played in shaping folk revival music into an art form.

Gabriele (un)covers terrific stories and information about the Garden State’s long history— over thousands of years’ worth—as it relates to folk music. Including chapters (and terrific photos, such as the ultra-rare pics of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez at the 1963 Camden Music Fair—snapped by Philadelphia's John Rudoff, who was 15 at the time— that grace the book's cover and appear inside) on the traditional music of the Lenni-Lenape tribe in Bridgeton, the songs of Colonial-era taverns, fiddlers and other early string players in the Pine Barrens region of the state, the “Guitar Mania” that swept the region in the early 1800s, Bob Dylan’s first meeting with folk icon Woody Guthrie in East Orange in 1961, and one of Dylan’s early live concert appearances (at the aforementioned Camden Music Fair), Gabriele helps to connect the dots between New Jersey and what he dubs “folk revival music.”

Pinelands musicians and archivists, such as the original Pinehawkers, and Cumberland County’s own Jim Albertson; guitar heroes of yore such as William Foden and Henry Spahr; Paul Robeson; Pete Seeger; Joan Baez; John Gorka; Waretown’s Albert Music Hall, Philadelphia Dylanologist Peter Stone Brown, and Camden’s old Victor recording studios are just some of the many cast members and touchstones in Gabriele’s fascinating new book, which explores southern New Jersey as well as its northern and central regions.

From the "boisterous" songs of the 1800s to the songs of Jersey natives Janis Ian and Bruce Springsteen, and from bluegrass to "New Grass," Gabriele's book serves as a catalog of folk music in New Jersey, a quirky collection that would make one of the original folk-music archivists of the modern era, the late Harry Smith, proud.

Gabriele will appear at Bogart’s Books & Café (103 N. High St., Millville) on Saturday, March 11, for a free book-signing event with folklorist, musician and radio personality Jim Albertson.

Gabriele took some time to answer our questions prior to the event.

(PICTURED TOP: Gabriele's latest book, courtesy of The History Press.
CENTER: Musician, scholar, teacher and New Jersey folk-music guru Jim Albertson in his Millville home surrounded by his collection of folk recordings. Photo by M. Gabriele. BELOW: Author Michael C. Gabriele)

What was something that blew you away while you were working on this book?
The fact that Camden, N.J., (the old Victor Studios) was such an important hub for folk and folk revival music during the early years of the 20th century. Camden's role in the music was a revelation!

What prompted you to tackle the subject of the history of the folk music revival in New Jersey?
This is my third book published by The History Press. I considered various ideas to explore for a new book, but I kept coming back to folk music and the history here in New Jersey. When I did my “due-diligence” research, the more I investigated, the more I was convinced there was an important story to tell. … I’m a big fan of folk music; have been for many years [and] I think it’s fair to say that I approached the topic of N.J. folk music as “an outsider.”

My aim was to write a comprehensive, chronological narrative. Names, dates, places and events are important, but “the story” that connects everything is equally important. I’m always curious to learn about the “back-channel” story that illuminates how and why someone goes from Point A to Point B and then eventually ends up at Point C.

You mention that New Jersey’s earliest music dates back thousands of years to the Lenni-Lenape people. What are some of the earliest recordings?
The Lenni-Lenape have inherited musical traditions for dance and sacred rituals that go back thousands of years. These musical traditions have been handed down over the generations. As such, this is a process that describes “traditional” folk music—music handed down over the generations. It is an element of cultural anthropology that identifies an ethnic group or region, much like food, clothing, pottery, architecture, language, etc.

The earliest folk revival recordings took place at sessions held at the Victor Studios in Camden, NJ, 1915-1918. Cecil Sharp, a scholarly British folklorist, came to the United States to document folk tunes that traveled from England, Scotland and Ireland to “the New World” (America). He transcribed the songs and arranged to have them recorded at Victor. The work by Cecil Sharp marks the start of the “folk revival”—a rediscover of traditional tunes, which inspired 20th century musicians to compose new folk (revival) tunes.

Dylan’s most important connection to the Garden State occurred in late January/early February 1961, when he took the bus (from New York City) to East Orange, NJ, to meet his hero Woody Guthrie.

You write about many milestones that have happened in New Jersey regarding folk revival music, what are some of the biggest ones?
The folk revival milestones I discovered convinced me that I needed to tell this untold story. Pioneers like Paul Robeson, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers all did their first commercial recordings at the Victor studios in Camden. Woody Guthrie recorded his first album (Dust Bowl Ballads, 1940) in…yes, the Victor studios in Camden! In 1965 Pete Seeger made arrangements to host and produce a UHF TV program named Rainbow Quest in Newark, NJ. In my view, these milestones certainly are part of the foundation for American folk revival music.               

Bob Dylan has many deep connections to the Garden State. Anything you learned about these ties during your research?Author Michael C. Gabriele
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan [performed] at the Camden Music Fair on Aug. 3, 1963 (Joan was the headliner). Two weeks later, they performed together at Convention Hall in Asbury Park. And then, on Aug. 28, 1963, they performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, during the legendary “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

Dylan performed solo in New Jersey in November 1963 at Princeton University and Newark’s Mosque Theater. He connected with The Band [Levon & the Hawks at the time) in the summer of 1965, when the Band was performing in [Somers Point at the Jersey Shore].

Dylan’s most important connection to the Garden State occurred in late January/early February 1961, when he took the bus (from New York City) to East Orange, NJ, to meet his hero Woody Guthrie. Guthrie, at the time, was a patient at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains. On weekends, his friends, Bob and Sidsel Gleason, would take Guthrie to their apartment in       East Orange, which is where Dylan met him.

Aside from the work of people like Millville’s own Jim Albertson, how can the tradition of folk and folk revival music gain traction in the 21st Century and in the Digital Age?
I think the “traction” already exists, but there is a need for “stewardship” for the current generations of musicians and fans to sustain the music. I will say that, unfortunately, many NJ people aren’t aware of the folk music traditions we have. More outreach is needed. I hope that my book helps people in New Jersey (and beyond) realize that we have a major tradition and history regarding traditional folk and folk revival music. Important things happened here that shaped this musical genre. This is a source of Jersey Pride. It’s a living history, thriving today in village coffeehouses; in organizations like the Folk Project in Morristown, the NJ Friends of Clearwater, and the Princeton Folk Music Society; in popular venues like Albert Hall in Waretown and Tuckerton Seaport; and at the annual New Jersey Folk Festival and the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival.

Getting back to Jim Albertson, and particularly his “Down Jersey” series and related projects —how lucky are we all that he has put his soul into collecting, researching, playing and everything else related to preserving and making folks aware of New Jersey’s musical heritage and culture, which dates back, as you write in your book to the Colonial Era.
Jim Albertson is a good man, a good friend, and a living treasure of N.J. culture. I dedicated my book to him, and to Angus Gillespie, the founder and current director of the NJ Folk Festival. We are lucky to have him as a Jersey guy.
 
Are there any recordings of the Original Pinehawkers, based in the Pine Barrens of N.J.?
I sure hope so, but don’t know where the recordings are. The Original Pinehawkers—a talented, stout-hearted trio from the Pine Barrens—performed at the National Folk Festival, Washington DC, in May 1941.

When is the next New Jersey Folk Festival?
It’s alive and kicking and celebrating its 43rd gathering on April 29 (njfolkfest.org).

From radio DJs, archivists, musicologists, guitar players, banjo players and fiddlers, open-mic night organizers and venues, to the listening public and audiences that go out and hear folk music in New Jersey, in a nutshell, who’s more important in keeping New Jersey's folk revival music alive and well - the performers, the archivists and writers, or the audiences?
As I say in my book… all of the above. The history that I present illustrates how folk revival music in the Garden State has changed lives: the musicians on stage; the members of the audience; the organizers of venues and organizations; and the people who spin tunes at radio stations. Everyone plays a part in keeping the music alive. I tried to make this history very “personal,” and sought out people to tell their stories about how they became connected to the music.  Many people told me that—one day, out of the blue, without warning—they were enchanted by a singer’s voice, the sound of a certain instrument, or a catchy tune. There some nice human chemistry and magic when it comes to the subject of music.
 
How does modern music such as hip-hop play a part in the chain of New Jersey folk revival music. It’s definitely another oral - albeit more recent -  tradition in the Garden State.  
Hmm…, let’s see, hip-hop as part of the chain of New Jersey folk revival music? Well, yeah, now that you mention it—it’s an oral tradition and a revival tradition (as it keeps getting reinvented). Bob Dylan “rapped” "Subterranean Homesick Blues" in 1965, and did some melodic “spoken poetry” on his early albums (as did Woody Guthrie). Maybe the time has come for someone today to “rap” a new, acoustic folk revival tune. Maybe someone is already doing it at this very moment. If not, then this is a great opportunity for someone to do it! Now that would be cool.
 
Regarding other examples of “modern” music in the chain of NJ folk revival music?—you certainly can point to “New Grass” music as a vibrant, recent extension of Bluegrass music. It utilizes electric instruments, keyboards, drums, etc., but still maintains a Bluegrass spirit. The Garden State is an important home for New Grass, dating back to the early 1970s. And I do make mention of this in my book.                                                                                                                                                                                                          
 
Other “links in the chain?”—well, New Jersey is a very diverse state, so people of African, Asian, Hispanic, Australian, and Eastern European ancestries are adding their beautiful voices to the mix of folk revival music. The tradition is very inclusive, as it should be. Hey, the more links in the chain, the better. As it says on the one-dollar bill: “E Pluribus Unum,” (out of many, one), or something like that.

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