Kathy Shimberg Interview 10/15/16
I'm here with Kathy Shimberg in our home in Walton, N.Y. I'm interviewing Kathy for the Grant Rogers project about the traditional music in this area. Kathy has a wide background in music, musicology and the traditional music of this area. I'm going to ask her a little bit more about, first of all, her contact with Grant Rogers, and then about her knowledge and experience of this traditional music here in this area. So, Kathy, just tell us a little bit about when you came here to the Southern Tier area how you met Grant Rogers; what kind of person he struck you as, and what other impressions you have of Grant Rogers.
[I] first moved here in 1972 with my then-husband Joel Shimberg and we were playing traditional music. We were interested in looking up traditional musicians, especially fiddlers, but also singers and other musicians from the local and regional area here. We were particularly interested in local and regional traditions, musically and as [part of the] general culture. This was a very rich area in cultural heritage that way. We actually came here so that I could go to, what was then, the Cooperstown Graduate Program in American Folk Culture. So, it all tied in because local fieldwork was part of that program, but we were also interested independently in these people and the music and other art forms.
[...] It all fits together in [a consistent] cultural tradition.
In the course of this you met Grant Rogers?
Well, no. I had met Grant Rogers before, during my involvement with the Folklore Society of Greater Washington (FSGW) when we lived in Washington, D.C. before we came up here. Grant had done a concert there for the Folklore Society and I talked with him after the concert. He was a nice guy, a neat guy, and when we came up here we found out that he was living in Walton. We found that out probably from people we knew in the Folklore Society who had invited him [to perform] there. Probably Joe Hickerson, among others, had him come down [to Washington] and also play for the Library of Congress, where Joe was the head Librarian/Director of the Library’s Archive of Folk Song/Culture.
….So, somehow we knew that Grant was living in Walton and I think when I had talked to him I might have said, "Can we come visit you sometime?" and he said, "Sure." He wasn't always home, but when he was home, he was very open about having people come and visit. We did go and visit him in his home, and I don't remember if it was once or twice, it wasn't very many times….
Did he play any music for you when you visited?
….We chatted, and he gave us a cassette tape that contained some of his music. I don't remember that he wanted to play live music. I think we asked him if he would sing some of his songs [and play fiddle while we were there], and he handed us this tape and said, “Well there are things on this tape.” Also, I had gone [before then] to the Fox Hollow Festival in Petersburg, NY, a couple of times (east of Troy, NY, between Troy and the Massachusetts state line), which was run by Bob Beers and his family. [It was] started by them at their home, and I think Grant was probably one of the performers on that. So he was known in the folklore circles that Joel and I were a part of.
I really don't remember too much about what we talked about [when we visited.] I think we probably asked him about the traditions around here, his songs, his tunes. His fiddle tunes were pretty much what was standard here for square dances in this area. I'm trying to remember if he had written any tunes on his own, and I don't remember that. I know he wrote songs and sang songs, and I think even before I had heard him in concert, or certainly before we had gone to visit him, we had a Folk-Legacy record [LP] that Sandy and Caroline [Paton, with Lee Haggerty] had issued of Grant Rogers. So I was familiar with him before I ever met him, and that record is now reissued on a CD, so that's extant. So, all those things can be heard.
You mentioned that Grant was representative pretty much of the fiddle tunes of the area. Not only from your meeting with Grant, but from your general knowledge and meeting other people, you learned about all this. Could you just explain a little bit about what that is?
Yeah, mostly square-dance music or tunes that were [and still are] played for square dancing, and there would be tunes that are specific to specific dances (for example, “Red River Valley”) that had specific calls [-- “singing calls”] that went to [specific song tunes] in the old square-dance traditions. Some of [this] is still done around here, [although] rarely now. We interviewed a bunch of people [in the mid-1970s] who were callers in Otsego and Delaware Counties, NY, and this part of the Catskills. There was a consistent body of square dances and the tunes that were played, [often derived from familiar songs]. [Local musicians] sometimes played some of their own and other [traditional dance] tunes that fit the dance but that were not specific to that dance, but it seems that more often a particular dance was called consistently to a specific tune.
Where did those tunes come from originally, or were these tunes that came from a long history or more recent popular tunes?
Both. Some were just in the general culture, older tunes like "Soldier's Joy" and "Fisher's Hornpipe," [tunes that] almost everybody knew [throughout the U.S.]. They were published in old books that were compiled in the 19th century or before. Before that they were just in the general oral tradition, and even when they were in books, a lot of people didn't read music. So they were handed down in the oral tradition in the same way as people learned to square dance--they would just go to the dances and watch everybody dancing when they were [very young[. When they were [around] three, four, five years old, they would be old enough to join the dancing, with encouragement and help from the adults and older kids. They’d do what they saw everybody else doing, having a good time, and those were the social gatherings [with the whole family present, kids along with the rest]. The kids would hear the tunes, see the dances, watch people doing them, and pick them up that way.
A tune like "Soldier's Joy," for instance, which was very well known, is not so popular today because there are a lot of other things that have been written since then, and the culture has changed a lot. A lot of new stuff is coming in, but I suppose it's always new stuff when it's coming in. "Soldier's Joy," for instance, goes back to the Revolutionary War or before, and was probably a march before it was a dance tune. That was a very well-known one. [Another very popular dance tune,] "Fisher's Hornpipe,” was written for the stage by a man named Fisher in the early 19th century, and was [widely] published in tune books. Throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries there were [published] compilations of dance tunes, and even before that there were compilations of tunes that were for fifers in marching regiments. Some of those [marching tunes] then got used as dance tunes. There were also dance tunes that came from the court and the countryside in England, Scotland, Ireland, and maybe even Scandinavian countries.
A lot of those came over to New England, and then they also came over into the southern Appalachian states. Sometimes in the South they got amalgamated with some of the [traditional] music that was coming in from the slaves in the South, and it just gets spread around culturally over time. I think a lot of the tunes that Grant played, for instance "Larry O’Gaff," were Irish tunes that were played a lot in New England for square dancing and contra dancing. [Contra dances, in longways formation, were] done traditionally in New England from colonial days, and also in what became the southern states in the Colonies. [...] "[The] Virginia Reel" [-- probably the best-known survival in America from colonial days --] was known as "Sir Roger de Coverly," for instance, and there are [other] specific dances that were brought over from the countryside and the courts in England and France [along with the tunes they were danced to].
Now how long did this culture continue on?
Well, it's still continuing today in some form. It changed somewhat according to some of our dance caller informants. We were going around interviewing people in the middle 1970s about old square-dance traditions, old callers in Otsego and Delaware Counties here in this part of the upper Catskills, and a couple of them told us that into about the mid-1950s [before TV or even extensive radio came to spread the dominant culture around throughout the U.S.], everything was about the same -- very rural- oriented farm communities. So people would … work on the farm, then they'd go and have a dance, dance all night, and then go home and milk the cows at 6:00 in the morning or something like that. That was their social life, with neighbors, families, and family friends, just within the neighborhood.
This was [also] before mass-transit travel, mostly, into about the 1950s. Then, apparently with rural electrification in the 1930s and 1940s, and then the 1950s when radio and TV started to spread around mass culture, a lot of the square-dance traditions sort of started to fade away a little bit. When we first moved here in the 1970s, we found a lot of the older square dances were [still] being done, but they were being done in bars, mostly, and [in local] fire halls and at fire carnivals. They were being done a lot to the music of the time, which then turned out to be a little bit of rock-and-roll and country-western music more than the older traditional tunes. Those became traditional too, after awhile. So, I think a lot of what Grant played was probably from the older pre-1950s traditional square-dance tune [standard and regional repertoire], and just general tunes that were floating around for one's own home and family self-entertainment.
Some of it would probably [have] been influenced by people gathering around the piano in the parlor and singing songs, things like that, too. I know Grant wrote his own songs also, as did other people, based on topical happenings of the day.
Like the [the one about the] Cannonsville Reservoir (“Cannonsville Dam” by Grant Rogers).
Yeah. Local, and what you would find out from other people was happening in the wider part of the world that you would be acquainted with. There was a song that was written that was called "There's a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere" that was a World War II song. One of the callers that we interviewed, Hilton Hoyt, from Delaware County, [NY,] had a square-dance call to it. It's a really neat tune. Now, I had not been acquainted with the song. I heard it on the radio later as a song from World War II, but this has a really nice square-dance call to it. As with a lot of traditional songs with migrating verses that go from song to song, similar verses and similar stories … with different tunes, there are [likewise] different dance calls for the [same tune and also some] dance calls that would be [called or] sung to [various] tunes.
[....] So there's an intermingling of all of that, and I think that Grant was part of that tradition.
Thanks, Kathy, that was really, really helpful.
1. The Folklore Society of Greater Washington (FSGW), founded in October 1964, is an all-volunteer organization dedicated to preserving and promoting traditional folk arts in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. It’s very active, with a full schedule of concerts, public dances of various kinds, festivals, getaway weekends, and such.
2. Joe Hickerson, probably one of the founders and a major force in FSGW, was a friend, fellow musician and FSGW Board President during my few years in DC before I left for upstate NY. Joe spent 35 years (1963-1998) as Archivist and Head Librarian/Director of the Archive of Folk Song/Culture in the Library of Congress (LOC), as well as being a musician, singer, and performer on his own. The Archive of Folk Song was its own particular division within the LOC. It has since become expanded as the American Folklife Center, still within the LOC. It’s a great resource.
The mid-1960s were a fertile time for folklife study and increasing awareness of its value within (at least part of) the general culture, along with the growth of independent record companies like Folkways, Folk-Legacy, County Records, and Rounder Records. They recorded and issued home-based and fieldwork-based recordings of authentic traditional musicians, as well as re-mastering and reissuing earlier commercial recordings of traditional musicians from the 1920s-1930s. Joe Hickerson joined the Archive of Folk Song in 1963; Folklore Society of Greater Washington began in 1964; Cooperstown Graduate Program also opened to its first students in 1964, with an emphasis on fieldwork with local people, local history, and rural traditions and folklife. And of course Grant Rogers’s music, family, and personal history received attention as part of the resulting surge of this interest in “folk traditions and tradition-bearers” on the part of people who themselves came to a love of the traditional cultures that had not been a part of their own growing-up years.
3.Folk-Legacy FSA-027 LP, “Songmaker of the Catskills” Grant Rogers of Walton, New York, which originally came out in 1965, was reissued on CD in 2002 as “Grant Rogers, Catskill Mountain Songmaker” (Folk-Legacy CD27).