Shall We Gather In Brooklyn?
New York may be America’s biggest city but it lives like a collection of villages that shelter those with the same passions, daily pursuits, or simply the love of their particular corner of the metropolis. The city’s musical history is written into those neighborhoods: the jazz clubs and dance halls of Harlem and Midtown; Broadway’s musical theater; the punk beachhead on the Lower East Side. The folk revival of the early ’60s brought a second wave of enthusiasm midwifed by the populist singers of the 1940s, and it played out every night in Greenwich Village’s basket clubs by gaslight and candles. There’s a new echo of that revival and it’s happening across the river in Brooklyn.
The real-estate boom of the ’90s assured that Brooklyn would become the home of NYC’s artists, writers and musicians as they abandoned the unaffordable lofts and tenements of Manhattan’s downtown. Brooklyn offered an appealingly pugnacious personality, dormant warehouses for makeshift housing and rehearsal spaces, cheap bars, and abundant, varied music communities, including, and by no means limited to, indie rock, funk and R&B, Haitian rara, experimental and modern composed — and bluegrass, country and old-time. Now, that sounds unlikely in a city that hasn’t had a country-music radio station in the living memory of most, but a real community thrives, supported by proliferating jam sessions, tolerant and even downright welcoming bars and restaurants, instrument shops, and, most important, players with deep knowledge and enthusiasm for the music.
Much of the traditional music community circulates through Brooklyn’s jam sessions. They’re equal parts social meet-up and instrumental workshop, a place to hone new material or just hang out and learn the repertoire. The longest-lasting Brooklyn session I know is the Ponkiesburg Picking Party . Founded in 2000 in Brooklyn Heights, the session has migrated from bar to bar (UPDATE: the last location is now closed and it’s unclear where the Picking Party will surface next… I will update with further information), and in flavor from large, rambunctious song scrums to tightly focused bluegrass sessions that rival anything you’ll see on local stages. In fact, several bands have emerged from the session, and many of the crowd attend bluegrass festivals and workshops. Depending on who brings what instrument, the material ranges from old-time fiddle tunes, bluegrass breakdowns, mournful ballads, or honky-tonk standards. It’s an invaluable opportunity for less-experienced players to pick with musicians who played on one of the city’s stages the night before. I first showed up at the Picking Party around 2002, shyly strumming a guitar on the outer edges of the circle, and, like many who wind up at the session, a rock refugee. Over that time I’ve learned songs from players I admire, witnessed outbreaks of clogging (and, yes, there are occasional clogging and square-dancing workshops in Brooklyn), improved my mandolin and guitar playing, and made real friends.
Jams pop up everywhere, even on top of parking garages
Some of the players at the Picking Party come in bleary because they have been at Sunny’s until the morning starts to color the cranes on Red Hook’s still-active docks. Looking like a relic from On the Waterfront, Sunny’s caters to artists, longshoremen, and other Red Hook denizens. It’s generally agreed that Sunny’s remains Sunny’s because it’s so damn hard to get to (and get home from at 4am), and therefore impervious to the merely curious. The Saturday night jam session gets going late, but by midnight half the crowd is playing an instrument – and the ensemble and repertoire is as eclectic as the patrons, from country sing-alongs to accordion-pumping waltzes.
Sunny’s on a Saturday night
Nearby on Brooklyn’s Columbia Street waterfront, Jalopy has become a combination drop-in center and performance space for the folk, bluegrass and old-time scene. A pocket opera house, Jalopy’s raised stage welcomes touring artists and local luminaries, as well as regular Wednesday night Roots and Ruckus shows hosted by Feral Foster. Jalopy also serves the community with instrument workshops, classes, instrument sales and repair, square dances, hoe-downs and other assorted hoo haw.
A definitive list of bluegrass, country and folk venues and sessions would be impossible as more appear every time a couple of folks with guitars asks a bar owner if they can sit and play a little. Saturday and Sunday brunches are long-time staples: the Nolita House on Houston Street hosts regular afternoon sets for the Manhattan types – with Brooklyn players; Superfine in Dumbo has had a long-running bluegrass brunch on Sundays. There’s been a long-running jam at Buttermilk in Park Slope the first Thursday of every month that’s getting a relaunch; stay tuned because it always draws a crowd.
To set the mood for a Brooklyn bluegrass crawl, or get some tunes you’re liable to hear at the sessions under your fingers, Wolfgang’s Vault offers some old-time and bluegrass treasures in the Ash Grove collection – and even hidden in the rock archives. I’ve picked out a playlist here.
More at Smoke.
Sunny’s photo by Tim Murphy via Ponkiesburg