With a new album hot off the press, this Buffalo folkie chats with Buffalo Rising about the traditional music of New York State, song collecting, and how quitting his day job was among the best things he’s ever done.
AZ: How did folk music, especially historic folk music, become the focus of your career?
DR: Gosh, good question. I wonder that myself sometimes. As I look back, it’s been a long, gradual, even logical progression to this point, but one that I could never have forecast.
The folk music that I am currently so interested in is a whole lot different from most people’s notions of folk music. I’m never even sure what to call this stuff, but I think the term “traditional music” might get close, or “regional heritage music”. It’s the music that ordinary people – nonperformers – used to entertain themselves with here in our region in the days before radio and TV. It rings my bell in many ways – it’s fascinating to me, it’s relatively unknown to the wider public, it’s part of my own culture and history, it’s great fun to research and un-earth, it calls on lots of my musical sensibilities, and there are many more layers yet to explore.
AZ: Who was it that first inspired you to pursue this seriously?
DR: There are many people who have inspired me along this path – some I have relationships with and others I’ve never met. The first is a guy, named Gerald Revzin, is known to many Buffalonians as Jerry Raven. Jerry has been around the music scene here, well, since he was a small kid I guess, singing at temple and playing the violin. But he came of age in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s during a time when so much was happening with acoustic music – when “folk music” was the underground, edgy music of the day, the antidote to the pop music of the time.
Jerry was hanging around Woodstock NY in the summer of 1959 and 1960 with an acoustic guitar, playing music and rubbing shoulders with Roger McGuinn (who was Jim McGuinn at the time) and forming lifetime friendships with people like Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary) and others of that time. Anyways, he came back to Buffalo at some point in the early ‘60s and formed what became a legendary music joint called The Limelight Coffeehouse. It was a coffeehouse in the 1960s sense of that word, and the first of its kind here. The performances were all acoustic, and people came to listen to the music and for the scene. And for the coffee, I guess, although if it’s anything like the coffee Jerry drinks today, it wouldn’t have been a main attraction!
Well, fast forward thirty some years to 1995, when I got a call from Judd Sunshine, a friend and local musician I have known and played music with on and off since about 1983. Judd and Jerry were part of a performing trio called The Hill Brothers that was going into elementary schools with a show called “Across New York State”, a forty-minute musical trip down the Erie Canal and across the state. They had just lost their third member and were looking for someone who could play guitar and sing a bit to take his place. Learning the songs and lines for that show was my introduction to Jerry, to traditional folk music of New York State, to Erie Canal songs (I suppose I learned “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal” when I was in 4th grade), to performing for/working with kids in schools, etc.
As we got that show working well with the three of us, and were enjoying playing together, I got simultaneously more interested in the material and in working in schools and other educational settings, using music to teach and interpret history and culture. I started meeting other performers at showcases who were making a full-time living travelling regionally with shows like this, and it just kind of went from there.
The other person I’d like to mention is Jeff Warner from Portsmouth NH, one of my absolute favorite performers of these old traditional songs. Jeff is maybe a generation older than me, but has been around this music his whole life. His parents, Anne and Frank Warner, were some of America’s pioneer song collectors, travelling the eastern seaboard on their vacations from the 1930s-1960s seeking out singers of these songs. Not professional singers, or even trained singers, and not performers per se – these were rural, front porch singers who were the “trustees” of this old music that had been passed down through the generations to them. Well, Jeff is a wonderful interpreter and performer of this old music, and hearing his approach to singing the songs for modern audiences and talking with him about it and playing with him a bit has been a real inspiration for me.
AZ: What do you enjoy most about traditional folk songs? For me, it’s the fact that they’re passed along from one person to another – that they’re shared – that they preserve history.
DR: I think that’s exactly it for me as well. I’m fascinated with the “home music” that’s been passed down in communities because it is so real and so much a part of the culture, and in many cases part of the identity of the people. In my car, in addition to old field recordings of rural fiddlers and singers from New York State, I listen to French Canadian fiddle and accordion music, southern African-American string bands, New England contradance tunes, English and Scottish traditional singers and pub musicians, etc. I love the feel and language in the old songs, and I love the window that they give us into earlier times.
AZ: You’ve been able to make a full-time career out of performance which, for so many artists, is such a difficult thing to do. In your opinion, what are some of the best decisions you made along the way?
DR: Quitting my day job in 1992 was the first good move I made, because it forced me to find ways to make this work. I was a single guy in my late twenties at the time, which was a big help in that my needs were relatively humble.
Ironically, the best move I ever made was injuring my right arm by playing too much music! At the time it happened (1996 or 97?), I was making my living mainly by giving guitar and mandolin lessons out of my house and playing out in the bars as many nights a week as I could, which averaged maybe 2-4 times a week. I was playing a lot of bluegrass music, which is fairly demanding physically if you don’t relax your muscles properly while you play. I didn’t, and still don’t. So, the injury forced me to concentrate on whatever musical activities I was involved in that required the least of that arm, which ended up being the school performances.
In a typical school program, you talk and demonstrate and joke and teach and schmooze with the audience as much as you actually play, and generally speaking, the playing is not as physically intense either. So, I put all of my efforts into generating as much of that kind of work as possible so that I could continue to play music while allowing my arm to heal. Now, my arm has healed, but I’ve never looked back to playing out in the bars several nights a week. I still love to do that occasionally, but the hours and the pay are just not conducive to keeping a family of four together, or at least they wouldn’t be for me.
Another great decision was buying a hybrid vehicle in January 2005. It now has 100,000 miles on it, 90 percent of which is driving back and forth to performances all over state and into PA and OH. Getting 48 miles per gallon has certainly helped.
AZ: About how many shows are you playing per year?
DR: About 300 per year, but that includes concerts, workshops and residencies in school settings. You can do several of those in a single day, so it’s not like I’m on the road 300 days a year. In fact, I am home most nights to tuck my kids into bed.
AZ: How about Buffalo specific songs? Which are most notable? And can you share a lyric or two from a song that references the Queen City?
One I like a lot is a song called “The E-ri-o Canal”, which is on my brand new CD “The Oldest Was Born First”. It comes from an Ontario lake sailor who was an old-timer in 1933 when folklorist Ivan Walton took down the lyrics from him. The first verse is:
We just came down from Buffalo on the good ship called The Danger,
a long long trip on the Erie boys and I feel just like a stranger,
terrible winds and heavy weather forget it I never shall,
For I’m every inch a sailor boy on the E-ri-o Canal.”
AZ: Of the songs in your repertoire, which date back the farthest? What are they about?
Probably one of the oldest is Cabbage Head (Our Goodman), which is about a man who comes home, usually drunk although not in the 1880s Adirondack version I do, and things don’t look the same as when he left. He suspects his wife may have another man there, and a humorous series of questions and answers unfolds from there. This song has been traced back to the 17th century in the British Isles. It’s on my new CD.
AZ: Tell us about that new CD.
DR: I just got it in my hands a few days ago, so it’s hot off the press. It’s called The Oldest Was Born First, and features thirteen songs and tunes from New York State along with a twelve-page booklet of song notes and historical background.
I used lots of Buffalo talent to help me flesh out the songs a bit – Alison Pipitone, Joe Bellanti, Rob Lynch, John Martz, Tom Santarsiero, City Fiddle, Babik, Judd Sunshine and Jerry Raven. It’s available on my website (www.daveruch.com) and at all public performances.
AZ: Who are your audiences?
DR: I work with a number of different audiences. In schools, it’s preK-12th grade kids. In public concerts at libraries, museums, etc., it’s often families with young kids, grandparents, etc. At historical societies and for other work I do as a “Speaker in the Humanities” for the New York Council on the Humanities, it tends to be older educated, interested adults, who love to sing by the way. At music festivals it’s your typical range of music heads. And then there are the oddball things I do, like last week I played in Albany for a group of Department of Transportation professionals from all over the country.
Lead image: By Greg Meadows