Music lovers can turn back time with the annual Old Songs Folk Festival of Traditonal Music and Dance at the Altamont Fairgrounds.Jim Franco / Spotlight News
VOORHEESVILLE — “Hey, I’m looking for an old fiddle. Know where I can find one?”
This seemingly small conversation in the minutiae of life is what Old Songs Inc. is all about. It was no different on a Monday morning when a friendly resident stopped by for some guidance. Joy Bennett, the establishment’s executive director, took three minutes to talk with the customer.
“I can ask around,” she said. “Let me take down your info.” A long pause gripped the air. “I got you,” she continued. “I will see what I can find! Thanks for stopping in!”
Many know Old Songs from the Old Songs Folk Festival that camps out in Altamont each summer. Bennett, who was hired as the new executive director only seven months ago, found Old Songs through the aforementioned festival and has been attending for 27 years.
“My good friend once told me there are only a couple of festivals that she will attend every year without getting compensated, and Old Songs is one of them,” Bennett said. “I feel exactly the same way.”
Bennett has performed at the festival for years. She has been a singer in the Johnson Girls, a maritime chanting group, for the past 23 years. Bennett explained how the group broke the glass ceiling for its genre in 1997.
“This is truly a male-dominated genre,” she said. “People thought we would be just a flash in the pan, but we became a novelty. Part of the reason we’ve been so successful is because we’re not together 24/7.”
Bennett got her start when she was younger. She volunteered at the South Street Sea Port Museum in Manhattan. She quickly grew to love the chants and was hooked. She took a 10-year break from music entirely but found herself coming back and realizing she never wanted to leave again.
“The Folk Music Society of New York is really what brought me back,” she said. “I love what I do and I can never imagine leaving again.”
Bennett’s own trials and tribulations are partially what have made her go from fan to employee. Being a performer, she knows what other performers need. Having been in her position and been a part of planning shows, she can also easily organize shows and be the voice of the venue.
“Something I’m proud of with my work here is how I am able to help performers because I know both sides of the fence in this industry,” she said. “The sheets say one thing for a group, but I’m able to talk to them more personally and really think about what they need to be successful.”
It’s this type of attention, even from the workers before Bennett, that has kept Old Songs going. Kay “Andy” Spence started the business out of her garage. In 1977, the organization became a nonprofit. The website states, “Our mission is to present a diverse menu of traditional, folk, Celtic and world music to the public and encourage live and participatory acoustically-based music.”
Bennett explained that in the 38 years it’s been in business, the organization developed over a period of time — until 2003, it didn’t even have a place to call home. This all changed when the Spences bought the Old Songs Community Arts Center, a special location that hosts a performing studio, office spaces and classrooms. With all of the classes it offers, the organization needs the space to accommodate and the space to grow.
The staff sticks true to the roots of their employer — Bennett said all staff members have a love for music and an appreciation for the work that goes into it.
“I think part of the reason we are so successful is because we are there for the performers,” she explained. “We are able to work around schedules and be flexible. The biggest thing you want for any act is a full house.”
While sometimes it’s hard to avoid conflicts entirely, Bennett said she makes sure the venue does whatever it can to go that extra mile for its guests. It seems to be working; each year, the venue hosts names you know, names you don’t know and names you definitely should know.
“I grew up on pop,” she said. “I love all kinds of music. However, I love how folk music is participatory.”
The festival each summer is just that — participatory. The three-day festival has everything a music lover could want. Taking place from June 28 to June 30 at the Altamont Fairgrounds, Bennett promises there will be “something for everyone” at this year’s festival. Joining the lineup are groups like Emma’s Revolution, Bill Staines, John McCutcheon, Poor Man’s Gambit, Magpie and Mulebone, just to name a few. Parents can kick back and sing along to their favorite tunes while children can join the Great Groove Band if they want a chance to get on the main stage for themselves.
“The Great Groove Band is for children 18 and under,” Bennett explained. “No experience is necessary. We rehearse for two hours a day. On the last day, the students perform a concert on the main stage.”
Bennett said the concerts are often a hit. By the end of the weekend, the students not only perform a concert, but they’ve learned new skills most of the time and they work together to create something. No stress, no competition, just music.
The adults have their own party too. A nighttime dance is hosted from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on festival nights. Bennett said some people come just to attend that, albeit with a nominal fee.
“Music is a tough thing to get an audience in,” she continued. “However, when I go to the festival, I see people of all walks of life coming to hear performers of all different origins. All are enjoying the music and having a great time. The performers listen to others when they’re not on. It’s hard to find that environment in the world these days.”
The feelings of friendship and closeness that the festival — and organization in general — offers is what keeps Bennett coming back year after year.
“Think about a gathering of 1,500 to 2,000 of your closest friends,” she concluded. “These people might not know each other when they walk in. But once you leave, that feeling of community stays with you for a long time. That’s the best thing we have here.”