Getting Old In Berkeley Is New Again

The Berkeley Old Time Music Convention celebrates an everyman’s version of fiddles, guitars, jams, and square dances.


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Ben Hunter & Joe Seamons.

Photo by Amber Zbitnoff

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What with repeated clashes between Trumpers and self-described Antifas, KPFA canceling a talk by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, and a housing crisis exacerbated by progress-averse progressives, Berkeley makes it all too easy for the national media to reduce the city’s roiling complexity to lazy clichés. The reality of course is that the city’s tireless cultural activists can’t be contained by tired political labels, which is one reason why the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention is such an embracing institution. More than celebrating the string band music emanating primarily from the red state regions of Appalachia and the Piedmont, the convention fulfills the music’s deeper communal purpose, with numerous concerts, workshops, jam sessions, discussions, and square dances at venues and sites around the city from Sept. 20-24. 

“The kind of old-time music we do at the convention is social music, back-porch music, party music,” said Berkeley fiddler, guitarist, vocalist, and lead conventioneer Suzy Thompson. “That’s not to say it can’t be presented on a stage, but that’s not the purpose. It’s community-building music. There aren’t that many chords and no solos. Everybody’s playing in unison, so you’re not exposed, and it’s easy to get a toehold. It’s not high-art music. Some of the people playing at the convention, like Anna and Elizabeth and Bruce Molsky, are capable of doing high art, but we’re focusing on the social thing.”

Since Thompson spearheaded the convention’s birth in 2004, the event has featured many of old-time music’s leading figures, including Mike Seeger, Alice Gerrard, Kenny Hall, Jody Stecher, and Kate Brislin, and Thompson’s husband, the renowned guitarist Eric Thompson. As in past years, most of the convention concerts and workshops take place at Freight & Salvage, while Ashkenaz hosts the square dances, and UC Berkeley presents a Hertz Hall panel discussion Sept. 22 moderated by professor Ben Brinner featuring half a dozen convention artists (a talk followed, naturally, by a jam session with the panelists under the oak tree outside Hertz).

One of the most popular events is the string band competition at the Civic Center farmers market, an all-comers contest that links the convention to its countercultural roots when Berkeley was a folk music mecca in the 1960s. When the space was known as Provo Park, the farmers market hosted a series of legendary free festivals that gleefully combined the sublime and the ridiculous. Covered in an upstart publication called Rolling Stone, the initial festival in 1968 featured fiddle and banjo contests where the musicians competed for market wares (the first-place finisher earned one bag of rutabaga, while the runner-up took home two bags, and so on). Thompson revived the contest in 2003 and the response was so enthusiastic she launched the Old-Time Convention the following year with backing from Berkeley’s Civic Arts Commission.

Last year the Barefoot Quales, a family band from Alameda that plays old-time music and bluegrass, won the string band contest, and they’ll be back this year to defend their title. Featuring Niko, 8, on fiddle and vocals, and multi-instrumentalist brothers Miles, 13, and Matteo, 11, backed by their parents Mariaelena (banjo) and Christopher (guitar) Quale, the ensemble reflects the way the East Bay old-time music scene continues to draw in young people with no familial or regional ties to the music.

While the Quale boys started learning their instruments with the usual classical path, they got turned on to old-time sounds by family friends Chad and Catherine Manning, respected Berkeley fiddlers and music teachers. Their parents enjoyed American folk music, but hadn’t played it before, and decided that “whatever kind of music that keeps them interested was great,” Mariaelena Quale said. “After a while, Chris sold his classical guitar and bought a steel string. Now I primarily play clawhammer banjo. We took up the instruments to back up the kids. We’re lucky they still let us play with them.”

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