Weekend of events celebrates North Fork and national roots music

DICK WATERMAN PHOTO | The Rev. Gary Davis in Cambridge, Mass., in 1963. Rev. Davis, a blues and gospel singer and finger-picking guitarist who was an ordained Baptist minister, spent much of his career in North Carolina before the folk music revival in the 1960s.

Call it Americana, folk or roots music, traditional song is having a revival nationwide and on the East End. In Southold this weekend, that tradition will come alive in a performance and photo exhibition at Rothman’s Gallery on Southold’s Main Street.

On the walls there will be photos of young Bob Dylan and Joan Baez as they nervously wait to take the stage at a Cambridge, Mass. folk club. Of Joni Mitchell as she plays one of her intricate, astute-woman-in-a-young-girl’s-body signature songs. And of the many bluegrass and blues players who came to the northeast in the 1960s at a time when educated young people were beginning to take an interest in American musical traditions.

The collection is a portion of the New England Folk Music Archives collection, based in Cambridge and founded by Betsy Siggins, a former college roommate of Joan Baez and a friend of East End recording artist Caroline Doctorow.

Ms. Doctorow, who put Rothman’s Gallery owner Ron Rothman in touch with Ms. Siggins, will give a performance at the show’s opening this Saturday, May 7, from 5 to 7 p.m. Tickets are $10.

This is the second art and music pairing this year that Mr. Rothman has undertaken with Ms. Doctorow. The first was an opening for the work of pop artist Mike Stanko in February.

Mr. Rothman hopes that the show and the events surrounding it will serve as a reminder of the East End’s vibrant music scene, and as a birthday celebration for Bob Dylan, who turns 70 on May 24.

Mr. Rothman is hosting an open mic at Custer Institute in Southold from 7 to 10 p.m. on May 6, at which Ms. Siggins will speak about the history behind the photo collection. Participants are invited to bring in one of Mr. Dylan’s songs to sing and play.

“This is kind of becoming a big thing,” said Mr. Rothman “There’s just so much involved with this. Caroline hooked me up with the whole thing. We did an event here in February that was the most fun thing all winter.”

Mr. Rothman plans to host several other local singer-songwriters in his gallery throughout the photo exhibit, which closes on July 4 weekend. Rob Bruey and Fred Bredfrey will play in the gallery on June 4 and Job Potter will have a CD release party there on June 17.

Ms. Siggins, who lives in Cambridge, will be coming to Southold Friday afternoon with a collection of some of the photographs, which she didn’t always think of as archival material.

“It was just stuff you dragged around,” she said of the material that later became the New England Folk Music Archives, including both photographs and original recordings made when she worked at Club 47, a folk hot-spot on Harvard Square. Joan Baez, a former Boston University student, helped popularize folk music there, along with a cadre of folk musicians that included Ms. Siggins’ first husband, Bob Siggins, and a lanky banjo playing Harvard graduate named Pete Seeger.

“For some time I had 15 reel-to-reel tapes in a plastic bag, which would probably make any archivist shudder,” said Ms. Siggins.
Since she started the archives two years ago, after a long career in non-profit service and music promotion, Ms. Siggins has received help from Harvard University and the Grammy Foundation in restoring and digitizing her tapes. The center has also received a gift of the complete catalogue of the company’s recordings from roots music record label Rounder Records and will begin giving lessons on traditional instruments this spring.

“I was there when Club 47 was being born,” said Ms. Siggins. “I did some of the booking, was  on the board, I was a waitress. One did what one did. It gave us all a family. At 18 to 20 years old, we were running away from our biological families.

“It attracted a lot of students, but it was music by, of and for the people, somehow, when you crossed the threshold, there was no class distinction. People who would have never crossed paths with each other made lasting friendships through the music,” she said.

Another hallmark of the club was its open-door policy for blues musicians from the south, many of whom had marginal success decades earlier, but did not reach a northern audience until the folk revival in the 1960s.

“Doc Watson did his first northern performance in the club,” said Ms. Siggins. “There were a lot of people working for both the Smithsonian and the Newport Folk Festival Foundation who were doing what Alan Lomax had done, connecting with blues players who never left the south. We were stunned by the music. We didn’t know anything about their lives and this made us very aware of that.”

Many of the photographs of blues musicians in the show were taken by Dick Waterman, whom Ms. Siggins met at Club 47 in 1959.

“He was Bonnie Raitt’s manager and the single-handed savior of many of the portraits done of the black blues singers in the 1960s and 1970s,” she said. “To see his body of work in one place is one of the most memorable things I have.”

Bob Morey is another photographer whose work is prominently featured in the show. Ms. Siggins met him at a festival on the bank of the Charles River in Cambridge, when “he came walking by and said, ‘you know, I think I’ve got some negatives stored away,’” she said.

“That was the understatement of the decade,” she added. “He took tons of pictures at Club 47 and at the American Folk Music Festival in Boston in 1969. He had every single negative labeled and they were in impeccable shape. We’ve now made an individual exhibition of just the blues musicians he took pictures of.”

Also included in the show are photographs by Don West and Steve Nelson. Ms. Siggins said that she believed many photographers who documented the 1960s folk revival didn’t realize that anyone was interested in their work until the recent resurgence in popularity of folk music.

“In the ‘80s and ‘90s, people turned against folk. They said we weren’t interpreting real life, we were making stuff up based on older music. But people made it up in the 1100s. Almost everyone has started out interpreting other people’s music. That’s the folk process. That process is very open and embracing. It can be encouraged by being around a community place.”
Ms. Siggins hopes that this weekend, that community place will be Southold.

Open mic/Betsy Siggins talk May 6, 7 p.m.
Custer Institute
1115 Main Bayview Rd., Southold

Caroline Doctorow concert/Photo exhibit opening
Saturday, May 7, 5 to 7 p.m.
Rothman’s Gallery at Rothman’s Department Store
54100 Route 25, Southold