New Days for Old Songs

“Andy (Spence) did a tremendous job as Founder and Executive Director since 1977, with 38 successful Old Songs Festivals – a hard act to follow,”  said Joy Bennett, who succeeded Spence in 2018.  

Continuity challenges any organization as founders hand over the keys, and COVID took a sharp blade to institutions and traditions. Old Songs rolls on, verse and chorus, a durable expression of homemade culture that invites participation.

The three leading regional folk-music presenting organizations – all guided by women – share idealistic visions and missions. Cooperating rather than competing, they blur the categories of artists, audiences and volunteers.

“1977, that was the beginning of Old Songs, but that was not the beginning of folk music in this area,” said Kay Spence – everybody knows her as Andy – recently by phone. She said Old Songs is “the permanent result of what went on in the 60s.”

She recalls few folk venues operating then, tracing the folk scene’s growth to young couples arriving for jobs in area colleges and government agencies. Seeking community, they built one. Spence named Lena and Bill Spencer, Richard and Lee Wilkie, Jackie and Joe Alper, Bob and Evelyn Beers and herself and husband Bill among these pioneers.

Bill and Lena Spencer founded Caffe Lena in 1960. Richard Wilkie helped Bill Spence find work in educational communications at SUNY Albany in 1965. Jackie Alper supported music and musicians in crucial ways and would start her long-running “Mostly Folk” radio program in 1971 while husband Joe photographed jazz and folk stars including Bob Dylan. Bob and Evelyn Beers founded the Fox Hollow Folk Festival in 1966 between wooded hills on their Babcock Lake property. And Bill and Andy Spence pitched in, everywhere. They helped found the Pick’n’ & Sing’n’ Gather’n’ (PSG hereafter) as a loose social folk club.

“We had just moved here and didn’t know anybody and music is what connected us together,” said Andy Spence, “making music together, playing music together, socializing and getting to know each other.”

Today, women guide all three major presenters: Joy Bennett succeeding Andy and Bill Spence at Old Songs, Sarah Craig as long-standing successor to the late, great Lena Spencer at Caffe Lena, and Margie Rosenkranz leading the Eighth Step since soon after it began.

In the 1960s, the emerging folk music presenters mixed and moved together, cooperating ever since.

When the Deputy Commissioner of Public Safety closed Caffè Lena for code violations in January 1968, the PSG raised $2,000 for repairs through a benefit concert at Bethlehem High School. The PSG then began meeting monthly for singalongs with as many as 100 voices crammed into the Caffe’s theater and gallery. “We got so good we performed at Fox Hollow,” said Andy. 

By 1969, Andy started organizing concerts in addition to volunteering at Fox Hollow. Trained in theater at Iowa State, she crafted “California to the New York Islands” to celebrate Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” It starred Lena Spencer, Don McLean, Michael Cooney and PSG singers. That same year, husband Bill Spence discovered the hammered dulcimer, becoming obsessed with the percussive, stringed Appalachian instrument.

In 1972, Andy presented a two-day concert of music by folk-singer/songwriter and social critic Malvina Reynolds in the Bethlehem Coffeehouse, starring PSG singers, Michael Cooney and Reynolds herself.

That same year, however, during PSG’s GottaGetGon folk festival and campout at Fox Hollow, founder and organizer Bob Beers died in a car crash on Rt. 2. A huge shadow loomed over the festival he’d founded.

Andy had by then become a volunteer supervisor at Fox Hollow. “In many ways, Bob was my mentor,” she said. “When I asked him what would happen if Fox Hollow ended, he just said, ‘You’ll find a way.’”

Then, recalled Spence, “Fortunately or unfortunately, that became my life.” She said, “For me, in the beginning, I wanted to make sure this would survive.”

The artists had all been booked for the Fox Hollow Festival that August after Bob Beers died, so the show went on as planned; as did the 1973 festival. That same year, George and Vaughn Ward launched the Niskayuna Folk Festival at the high school, where Bill Spence performed and Andy volunteered.

Also in 1973, they recorded Bill’s “The Hammered Dulcimer” album on a two-track machine in their Voorheesville living room, getting a sound so strong it became a demo album for stereo buyers. “We thought, ‘OK, we’ll pay for it and hopefully make our money back,’” said Andy. Instead, he launched his Front Hall Records label the next year. In their front hall makeshift shop, Andy began to sell penny whistles and folk albums. When Fox Hollow emcee Robert J. Lurtsema convinced his radio bosses at WGBH in Boston to use a Bill Spence dulcimer track as the theme music for “Crockett’s Victory Garden,” the album took off, selling 100,000 copies to date. The label became Andy’s full-time job, “an actual business,” she said with some surprise, adding that “Bill made our living.”

Noting that PSG musicians played on Bill’s album and other projects, Andy observed, “It’s all intertwined.” So was the emerging folk scene they helped spark.

PSG artists performed and volunteered at Fox Hollow, and when PSG met at Caffe Lena for monthly group sings, “we brought people to her for an audience,” said Andy, “people who had never gone there before.”

Of the now-legendary Lena, Andy said, “She was a strong woman who hung on, you know, to the Caffe despite the fact that she had hardly any money” (after her husband had left). She hardly had any money, ever.”

Andy speculated the low-dollar world of folk music may have encouraged cooperation. “You don’t make money in folk music,” she said with a wry laugh. 

Folk presenters never lacked for ambition, however. When two artists on the Spences’ Front Hall Records, John Roberts and Tony Barrand, put together their presentation “An Evening at the English Music Hall” in 1974, Bill and Andy booked the Troy Music Hall. The show sold out and Bill recorded it for a Front Hall album. “That was quite a feat, really,” said Andy; “to get people to come to that who had never heard of folk music and never heard of Tony or John. They came, in costume, and they sang!” In 1975, Front Hall recorded another Roberts and Barrand production, “Mellow With Ale from the Horn.” 

Working with PSG, Andy had booked the Bothy Band from Ireland in 1976. “I got permission from (the Town of) Guilderland to use the St. Mark’s Community Center in Guilderland Center.” The show proved almost too successful. “Police came because we sold it out and there were still people out on the street,” she said. “Something like 300 or 400 people showed up, but the Center only held 200.” Amazed, she recalled, “This was a phenomenon to me. It was like, ‘What?! You mean we can do concerts, and people would come?”

And this was the beginning of Old Songs, which was incorporated in March 1977. For 13 years, Old Songs presented monthly concerts in St. Mark’s Community Center. Old Songs also started presenting classes in traditional techniques, starting with Richard Wilkie on mountain dulcimer.

Meanwhile, the Fox Hollow Festival ended in 1980, leaving a vacuum and an opportunity for a crucial breakthrough.“The Pick’n’ & Sing’n’ Gather’n’ wasn’t into presenting on a regular basis,” said Andy. “But I was.”

“We presented some people that would never have played in this area if we hadn’t presented them,” said Andy. “Old Songs’ mission was mainly in traditional music,” she explained, “and Caffe Lena was mainly up and coming performers that Lena liked.” 

The Eighth Step, however, worked both sides of the fence between traditional styles and singer-songwriter innovators. Formed in 1967, seven years after Caffe Lena, in the same year Fox Hollow went public and a full decade before Old Songs incorporated, the Eighth Step made its home in the basement of Albany’s First Presbyterian Church, eight steps down from Willett Street at the Northeast corner of Washington Park.

Just as the Eighth Step expanded over time into the upstairs main sanctuary of the church, went nomadic for a few years then found a permanent home at Proctors, Old Songs grew as well.

“We were three years with Old Songs (in St. Mark’s Community Center) before we started the Festival,” said Andy, “three years of infrastructure building…without knowing that we were.”

Andy organizes the Old Songs Festival to run so smoothly that she can see everything, roaming the sprawling Altamont Fairgrounds, its home since its second year (1982) to help as needed. 

But if seeing all the performers remains Andy’s great delight, her greatest headache was “renting places for an organization that didn’t have its own until 2003.” Then, she reported, Old Songs “bought the building in Voorheesville where we can keep stuff and keep all the Festival stuff and, you know, desks and computers – and you can go to work every day and go home.” The concert hall portion of the Old Songs headquarters at 37 South Main Street in Voorheesville holds 100. 

The Old Songs Festival welcomes thousands.

Presenting its first (1981) Festival on the original (roof-less) stage at Tawasentha Park in Guilderland, Old Songs moved it the next summer to the Altamont Fairgrounds, where it has remained.

Staging the Festival at the Fairgrounds tests the human infrastructure Old Songs had built, with 30 separate areas to staff with volunteers. At 70 people, “Creature Comforts” – to feed everyone – is the largest. “I’ll never forget how loyal they were to me, to the organization and to the Festival,” said Andy.

Stressing cooperation in audience building, she said, “If a person performed at the (Old Songs) Festival, it wasn’t a competition with any of the other places.” She said, “In fact, if we had artists at the Festival that nobody had ever presented in the area, then many of them got work here later because people liked them so much.”

“We have each cultivated a unique niche within the huge wide world of roots music,” agreed Caffe Lena Executive Director Sarah Craig by email recently. “Sometimes a show will be pitched to me (by an artist’s agent) that I feel is a better fit for one of our sister organizations so I’ll say, ‘Why don’t you reach out to Margie (Rosenkranz, Eighth Step Director). I think the artist will be better served by their audience.’ I would say that Lena’s specialty is introducing new artists. Old Songs is a Cadillac of traditional music. The Step is where you see a very deeply- rooted folk community.”

Asked to elaborate on Old Songs, Craig wrote, “It’s an organization with a clearly-defined artistic scope of traditional music. And within that sphere, it is wide open to new talent.” Craig continued, “I see the Old Songs crew at Folk Alliance attending showcases for any band that plays traditional music, and if the band meets their artistic standards, they book them. That’s bold, and it’s the way it should be. It’s known for unfailing excellence on stage, and it’s also a very well managed organization.”

Commenting on Andy Spence’s 2018 retirement, Craig wrote, “Joy (Bennett) shares Andy’s knowledge and love of traditional music, and she has a similar no-nonsense approach to the business. I expect their community to remain intact, for it to grow with new artists and attendees, and for it to remain an honored contributor to the preservation of traditional music.”

Andy said, “I retired at 81 (in 2018) and I had gotten pretty tired. I was working pretty hard to keep up and things were changing so fast on the computer with doing stuff. And I just couldn’t keep up with all that.”

Now 84, Spence has dealt with the loss of her husband and help-mate Bill Spence in 2019 and health challenges including a recent leg or ankle fracture. But she has also continued with the creative work of archiving Old Songs and PSG historic materials at the UAlbany Library’s M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections & Archives, including many photos and videos Bill produced. Her ambitious mixed media productions also continue, following 2009’s presentations of “The Visitors” about the Adirondacks, an anti-war show, another on the anti-rent protests, and a new work based on George Ward’s Erie Canal repertoire.

“Old Songs was a way of life for Bill and myself for almost 50 years,” Andy said. “Bill was the musician and great social connector and I did the organization and creative work for a non-profit that has lasted since 1977 – community-based and pretty successful for our dedication to folk music.”

The strengths of Old Songs endure in new hands, Executive Director Joy Bennett inspired by the Spences’ long shadow as “a hard act to follow.” 

Joy Bennett (Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen)

Bennett came to Old Songs first as an audience member at the 1992 Old Songs Festival, whose lineup follows below. Then she performed at the Festival with Sol Weber’s Rounds Galore & More Singers, then her own Johnson Girls quartet.

In 2018, Andy Spence asked Bennett about succeeding her as executive director. Bennett interviewed with the Old Songs board and took over that September, bringing Dan Roesser on board as assistant director. A trained special education teacher, Bennett had served on the board of the Folk Music Society of New York for 20 years, ten as its president, while working as director of contracts for the New York City Transit Authority.

Andy Spence prepared Bennett with typical thoroughness, explaining the roles and interactions among the board and its committees and nearly 500 volunteers. “During the past three and a half years, Andy has made herself available to answer any questions or to offer advice,” wrote Bennett by email. 

She had to hit the ground running. “Starting in my first week in 2018 I began planning the first festival fully planned and directed by me,” she wrote, “with of course input from the board of directors, the program committee, lots of help from my assistant director, Dan Roesser, and the tireless work of the many volunteer crew chiefs and 469 volunteers, without whom this festival would not happen. It was well-received and very successful.”

Fall 2018 to Spring 2019 season and the Fall 2019 concert season also went well, but COVID forced Old Songs to replace the 2020 Festival with an audio-only recorded event over Folk Music Notebook online.

The concert series went online, too; through cooperation with presenters in Quebec and the UK. And the Old Songs Festival streamed 70-plus performers over three days from five virtual stages.

As with Caffe Lena and the Eighth Step, Old Songs presents hybrid concerts both live, in-person and live-streamed via equipment borrowed from the Dance Flurry Organization while fundraising to purchase its own gear.

However, Old Songs – with a paid staff of two, a 13-member board and 500 volunteers – hopes to present a live in-person Festival this summer. 

“If we have learned anything these past two years, it is that we need to be flexible,” said Bennett, “to continually look for new ways to reach our audience, and to find innovative ways to support the artists without whom we would have no reason to exist.” She added, “We are constantly looking for ways to streamline processes behind the scenes with no negative impact on operations and the participant experience.”  

Bennett wrote, “I was determined not to let the pandemic bring it all to an end” – showing the same determination that Andy Spence had when the end of Fox Hollow brought the birth of Old Songs. 

Looking back, Andy said, “It was a work of love. When I got the Eddies Award last spring*, all I could think of to say is, ‘You have to do what you love.’ Love – that is my main word.” 

*Andy and Bill Spence were inducted into the Capital Region Thomas Edison Music Hall of Fame on October 27, 2021 at Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs. They were among the third group of regional music pioneers so honored.

  1. Steve King says

    Thank you so much for that history of folk music in the capital district. We were early members of PSG and Old Songs seeing several concerts at St Narks and following The Gottagetgon from Fox Hollow to the Boy Scout Camp to Saratoga . Thank you Bill and Andy Spence, Lena Spencer and all who gave their time and energy to the music we love

  2. Don E. Wilcock says

    Thank you, Michael. Talk about seeing a portion of my life lay out in front of me. Great job!

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