By GWEN OREL
Before Springsteen, before Sinatra, there was music in New Jersey. Folk music has deep roots in this state.
Michael Gabriele, who has written about the history of New Jersey diners, recently published his third book on New Jersey history, “New Jersey Folk Revival Music: History and Tradition.”
Gabriele, an alumnus of Montclair State University, will talk about the book at the Montclair Public Library, 50 South Fullerton Ave., on Monday, Nov. 13, at 7 p.m. He will also perform live acoustic music. Admission is free.
The book, which is published by The History Press, features more than 80 pictures and traces folk music from colonial days to archival recordings made in the early 20th century, through the 1960s and up to the present day.
“I just thought it was a story that needed to be told,” said Gabriele. “I was a full-time journalist for about 40 years. When I do my books, I approach them as I would a news story. I plan my strategy, interview people, and write like a journalist.
“Instead of scoops, I’m looking for the untold story.”
Gabriele plays saxophone, and though not a folk musician, he knew a little bit of history of the genre. Before signing a contract, he worked for more than two years to see if his hunches paid off. They did.
“The story starts way back in the 1700s, when people would gather in town taverns, someone would pull out the fiddle, everybody would sing and dance,” Gabriele said. Those were social skills you needed back then, he said with a laugh.
Legendary musicians came out of the Pine Barrens, according to a release: Sammy Giberson, a wayfaring fiddler from the mid-1800s; the Pinehawkers and their performance at the 1941 National Folk Festival; the Albert brothers’ “homeplace” cabin in the Waretown woods, which served as the inspiration for today’s Albert Hall in Waretown; and the exploits of musician and author Merce Ridgway Jr. are all included in the book.
And Gabriele said he has a radical statement to make: Folk Revival music started in Camden.
In the early 20th century, a famous British folklorist named Cecil Sharp came to the United States, visiting Appalachia and other places, with the idea that the people playing ballads there might have retained the way they were once played in England, Scotland and Ireland. (The 2000 film “Songcatcher,” starring Janet McTeer, fictionalizes Cecil Sharp’s work.)
“He was right,” Gabriele said. “There was an oral tradition.”
The first recordings Sharp made were made in Camden, which sparked a renaissance, Gabriele said. Folk musicians came from the Pine Barrens, and the Ramapo Mountains.
Later, other folk musicians recorded in Camden, such as Woody Guthrie in 1940. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez had important early performances in Newark and Asbury Park, Gabriele said, adding that the history continues with the New Jersey Folk Festival, held at Rutgers each April, which has been going on for 40 years; with town coffeehouses that play live acoustic music, and with groups such as the Folk Project in Morristown.
That long history and legacy impresses Gabriele: “It’s a living tradition. It’s alive today every time someone picks up a fiddle or a banjo. They are following in the footsteps of those who came before them.”
For more information visit montclairlibrary.org, or call 973-744-0500.
“New Jersey Folk Revival Music – History and Tradition”
On April 15, 1915, an apprehensive Cecil Sharp wrote that he had taken the train from Philadelphia to Camden to supervise the Victor recordings. “Great fiasco—scores badly written.” Despite Sharp’s concerns, the session produced ten recordings by the Victor band, a “light orchestra” composed of “19 men personally supervised by Cecil J. Sharp,” according to information provided by the Discography of American Historical Recordings, a database of master recordings made by American record companies during the 78 RPM era and part of the American Discography Project—an initiative of the University of California–Santa Barbara and the Packard Humanities Institute. The list of songs from the session included titles such as “The Butterfly,” “Row Well, Ye Mariners” and “Goddesses.”
Prior to his initial journey to Asheville, NC, Sharp made arrangements for another recording session at the Victor studios in Camden. His March 7, 1916 diary entry states that he caught the 8:00 a.m. train in Philadelphia and arrived at the Victor studios at 10:30 a.m. “Thank heavens I had another conductor, one Mr. Rogers, who really was a musician and knew his work. Consequently I was able to finish off all the records.”
The Newark Evening News, in its Saturday, November 24, 1962 edition, printed a review of Baez’s performance at Newark’s Mosque Theater. “Joan Baez, the saddest and maybe the richest of the folk-singing set, chanted her melodious woes to an immense and affectionate audience last night at the Mosque Theater. The house was crowded to the legal limits…and it was obvious that the Baez cultists were having a grand old time.” Near the end of the night, Baez encouraged the audience to take part in a singalong of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “Everything Miss Baez did at last night’s hootenanny seemed to please her public. Miss Baez scored a personal triumph with her sweetness and purity,” the Evening News review reported.
Baez returned to the Garden State in August 1963 for two concerts, but this time, she had a musical partner: Bob Dylan. The duo performed under a tent at the Camden Music Fair on August 3 and then sang at Asbury Park’s Convention Hall on August 10. Shortly after these two New Jersey appearances, Baez and Dylan traveled to Washington, D.C., and performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the August 28, 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”