Sept. 9-13, 2009 — Ballads and Banjos in Berkeley

This release from the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention came in just after the print folknik’s deadline, so we’re running it as an online-only story for this issue.

Fiddles, banjos, ballads and square dancing will take over Berkeley once again this September, at the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention, with headliners including 2009 National Heritage Award winner Mike Seeger, 89-year-old North Carolina fiddler Benton Flippen, Virginia ballad singer Elizabeth LaPrelle, and North Carolina flatfooter and square dance caller Rodney Sutton. This year’s festival adds a film premiere to the already packed schedule of square dances, string band contest, workshops, concerts and other activities, including several geared towards families.

This year the convention opens on Wed. Sept. 9 with a film premiere at the Pacific Film Archive. “Always Been A Rambler,” a new full-length documentary about the New Lost City Ramblers, includes footage shot at the 2006 BOTMC. It will be followed by discussion with director Yasha Aginsky and Mike Seeger (one of the New Lost City Ramblers.) Come early and bring instruments for jamming — instrument check will be available. After the film, we hope to find a friendly nearby bar where we can all go jam. On Thursday and Friday, doors open at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse’s new downtown digs at 1 p.m. for jamming, followed by a triple-bill concert each night starting at 8 p.m. Thursday’s concert features Mike Seeger, cited by Bob Dylan as an early inspiration; the Tallboys, an energetic young string band from Seattle; and Eric and Suzy Thompson, whose touchstones range from Kentucky fiddler Doc Roberts to blueswoman Memphis Minnie to Cajun icon Dewey Balfa. The Friday concert includes a performance by last year’s sensation, 89-year-old fiddle master Benton Flippen, with banjoist and NPR broadcaster Paul Brown; ballad singing by 22-year-old Elizabeth LaPrelle; and the Knuckle Knockers, an old time trio from San Francisco’s Bernal Hill.

We’ve expanded our daytime panel discussions on Friday. Come have lunch at the Freight — on Friday Sept. 10 from noon to 1:00 p.m., there will be a Dance Demo and Discussion, with Rodney & Clay Sutton (great father-son cloggers from western North Carolina), Charmaine Slaven (she cobbles her own wooden taps for her shoes, it makes a beautiful sound) and Mike Seeger will be the moderator. Later that day, from 4:30 to 6, at U.C. Berkeley (125 Morrison, in the Music Building) there will be a panel discussion with Mike Seeger and Elizabeth LaPrelle, moderated by Professor Ben Brinner.

On Saturday, free daytime activities include a family concert at the Berkeley Main Branch Library, followed by a youth showcase and string band contest in nearby Civic Center Park. This contest is a low-stress affair—the only real rule is that bands must have at least two members and a fiddle or banjo—that’s sponsored by and adjacent to the Berkeley Farmers’ Market (a program of the Ecology Center.) Winners get handfuls of “wooden nickels” redeemable for sacks of peaches and tomatoes. The tunes are traditional but can come from anywhere. Fiddle-banjo-guitar bands crank out the purest of Appalachian tunes but entrants have also played swing, Greek rembetika, Tex-Mex polka, bluegrass, and pan-ethnic political satire. The Youth Showcase for the under-18 set gives awards to all the participants, and jam sessions are scattered throughout the contest site. In the evening, there’s a rollicking square dance party at Ashkenaz, with a welcoming wood-floored hall for all ages.

Sunday features master classes with the out-of-town performers at the Jazzschool and the Freight. This year we are offering, for the first time, a clogging workshop and a square dance calling workshop, both taught by Rodney Sutton. Most of the workshops do tend to fill up, so please visit the BOTMC website ( for registration info. Sunday afternoon we have 2 activites: a family dance at Ashkenaz with the Mt. Diablo String Band and caller Paul Silveria — for kids of all ages, with some dances that even babes in arms can do!—plus another free event, the sign-yourself-up “cabaret” at Jupiter, a terraced beer garden and pizzeria. Many insist the four-hour cabaret is the convention’s tastiest event. Acts have included various spontaneous fiddle-banjo mashups along with such zingers as the Disciples of Markos, a Greek bouzouki ensemble and the Stairwell Sisters in petticoats, pink gingham, scarlet pigtails, and bubble gum wads, performing the 1890s novelty number Chawing Chewing Gum.

You can find out lots more info at

The BOTMC is funded in part by Ed Littlefield, Alliance for California Traditional Arts (in partnership with the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, James Irvine Foundation), Zellerbach Community Arts Program, Bill Graham Foundation, Hellman Family Foundation and Alameda County Art Commission. Our nonprofit sponsors are: KPFA-FM, KALW-FM, the California Bluegrass Association, Freight & Salvage, and the Ecology Center.