FEATURE: Wanda Fischer’s Wondrous, Folkie Heart
When Wanda Fischer tugs a microphone close, one of four things happens.
She speaks on the radio.
She reads from her published fiction.
She gazes down from the Fenway Park press box, doing play-by-play for her beloved Boston Red Sox.
Singing came first, but radio soon followed. Fischer recently celebrated 40 years hosting the “Hudson River Sampler” on WAMC at the NPR station’s The Linda with folksinger friends and fans.
Closely identified with the area folk scene, Fischer’s musical story starts near the site of country music’s Big Bang. She was born in Kingsport, Tennessee, just a hop and a jump from Bristol on the Kentucky border, where the Carter family first sang.
“My father went to school with members of the famous Carter Family,” said Fischer. “Their music, and music like theirs, was a constant in my house when I was growing up,” she said, name-checking Hank Williams and Tennessee Ernie Ford. “I made my singing debut at one of our family reunions by singing ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ when I was four years old in front of several members of the Carter Family.”
The Carters were lifelong friends to her father Giles Adams, who passed in 1987. “I credit my father with exposing me to the music that gave me the foundation,” said Fischer. And when the former Navy diver turned construction worker moved the family to the Boston area, seeking work, Fischer began building on that foundation and the meticulous perfectionism of both parents. Her mother, Gertrude Adams, worked at Polaroid, idolizing the photo juggernaut’s inventor-founder Edwin Land since neither had made it past 10th grade.
“In the 1960s, I started listening to Joan Baez; Judy Collins; Peter, Paul and Mary; Tom Rush; Eric Andersen,” said Fischer. (Collins and Rush both sent congratulations to Fischer, best wishes shared in her tribute-anniversary live broadcast at The Linda; but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.) Fischer took guitar lessons and turned to singing the singer-songwriter tunes then reaching mainstream pop culture; as she’d later unite tradition with personal expression on the radio.
She sang in Boston area coffeehouses, but stoically said, “I was never good enough to make it to Club 47 – now Club Passim.” The words of topical troubadours Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs attracted Fischer. “Political activism was part of it,” she said. “I was involved in anti-Vietnam war activities and civil rights.” Literature and poetry helped shape her vision of what music could say. “The writings combined with music pulled it all together.”
Her first music gig (she now guesses it was 1967) was opening for another now-forgotten singer at the Sword in the Stone in Boston. She earned $5. “I also saw Bonnie Raitt there when she played an open mic. She played Joni Mitchell’s ‘That Song about the Midway.’ She was a student at Wellesley College at the time.”
Radio brought Mitchell’s songs, too, when Dick Summer played early tapes of Tom Rush singing her “Urge for Going” and “The Circle Game” on WBZ. Fischer later realized how DJs on another favorite Boston station, WBCN, “always thought in segues,” as she does now on WAMC.
When husband Bill Fischer was in medical school in Worcester, Fischer listened to WCUW there. She volunteered to edit the small community station’s program guide, then found herself in the right place at the right time. When a DJ left, she became the next folk DJ. “They knew that I knew the music,” he said. “They had to train me on the board, and I had to get a third-class FCC license.” She was on the air there from 1975 to 1979, when she and Bill moved to Schenectady, her home ever since.
Fischer had also found another home. “I was hooked on being on the radio.”
However, she was “petrified!” – since the station manager sat alongside during her first show. “I wrote down every mistake so that it wouldn’t happen again.”
“When we arrived here in 1979, Caffe Lena and the Eighth Step were pretty much the leading folk venues,” said Fischer. “The Pickin’ ‘N’ Singin’ Gatherin’ (predecessor to Old Songs) was also active.” She recalled, “The first time I tried to find the Eighth Step, when it was located on Willett Street in Albany, it took me about an hour and a half. Mother’s Wine Emporium (in the Student Union) at RPI was also in existence, but if I couldn’t find a place in Albany, how would I ever find a place in Troy? Little did I know that I’d find a job in Troy at RPI in 1980!”
As her physician husband Bill established his practice and they raised two children, Fischer began a long career in public relations.
“Frankly, when I look back, I don’t know how I was able to do the balancing act,” recalled Fischer. She worked first at RPI, then the New York Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (NYAHSA, now LeadingAge) in Albany, then at Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital in Schenectady, and finally at the New York State Office of Medicaid Inspector General in Albany.
Meanwhile, radio beckoned. By often nomadic DJ standards, Fischer only bounced a bit from station to station (gratuitous/fun David Bowie reference).
“I had only been on WCUW (in Worcester) doing folk music prior to WAMC,” said Fischer. “But I did a short stint doing part-time news on WTRY in 1981 and ’82.”
“When we moved here, I tried to get on the air,” said Fischer who approached both WAMC and WMHT. Neither door opened right away. WMHT broadcast only classical music and WAMC then aired mainly pre-recorded NPR programs and produced only live news in house. As at WCUW, she volunteered, producing WAMC’s program guide. When WAMC’s Alan Chartock and David Galletly reviewed tapes of her WCUW programs, “They asked me if I wanted to take a slot on Saturday night right after ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’” said Fischer. On September 18, 1982, her “Hudson River Sampler” was born.
Fischer found another folk show already airing here: Jackie Alper’s “Mostly Folk” on WRPI.
“I wasn’t in competition with Jackie; I was delighted to find her on the dial,” said Fischer who planned her Sundays around hearing Jackie’s show. “When she was in a bad car accident, I filled in for her for several weeks…. We were great friends. She and I traveled to (the pioneering Saratoga Springs folk coffeehouse) Caffe Lena together many times.”
“I loved the way she did radio and her selection of music,” said Fischer. “I learned a lot from her.” She found Jackie’s “taste in music tended more toward…political music. I do play some political songs, but she played almost all political music.”
As with the political-personal division, Fischer chose “both-and” when faced with the traditional-versus-personal split among fans and folksingers.
“Some traditionalists did have issues with the proliferation of singer/songwriters,” said Fischer, echoing the purists’ quibble with “self-absorbed, depressing songs.” She sees this mix as dynamic and evolving, noting also, “The other difference I see is that the folk musicians are using much more instrumentation in their presentation on their recorded music.”
Fischer’s willingness to play music from both sides of a fence she acknowledged, but then ignored, won fans over time. Folk fans formed factions but Fischer appealed to both.
“There have been challenges in the folk community between the contemporary and traditional camps,” said Adirondack singer-songwriter, story-teller and chef Christopher Shaw. “But Wanda transcends that, weaving the two schools together and showing the commonality rather than any divisions there might be.”
“I don’t see or hear a split at all,” agreed Dan Berggren, another Adirondack troubadour, but one who’s identified with tradition. “They’re all songs and tunes, whether a musician takes one approach or another in performing and sharing with others,” he observed. “A Warren Zevon story-song can be sung a cappella just as well as an old drinking song can be sung with electric guitar, bass and drums. Folk music has many sub-categories, and Wanda plays them all.”
Berggren pointed out, “The fact that you can hear old and new, traditional and singer-songwriter, American, British, Canadian, Israeli, African and more in a typical hour of ‘Hudson River Sampler’ demonstrates Wanda’s eclectic offerings and diversity of taste.” From his first listen, “I loved the eclectic mix of folk music.”
Fischer sees the onstage folk scene as similarly welcoming and wide. “Caffe Lena has expanded into new genres, including jazz and introducing unknown artists,” said Fischer. “The Eighth Step at Proctors is more presenting known names. Old Songs is focusing more on traditional performers.” Of the busy summer festival scene, she said, “The Old Songs Festival is by far the most diversified festival around. The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival…focuses on singer/songwriters. The Linda at WAMC is also bringing in some amazing folk acts,” she said, naming Tony Trischka, Della Mae, and Slaid Cleaves among recent offerings. “There’s room for everyone now.”
For Shaw, Berggren, and multitudes of fellow folk musicians, “Hudson River Sampler” gave them room to shape their sounds and find their audiences.
“In addition to being a regular listener, I’m a performer in the region and have greatly benefited not only from Wanda playing my songs on her show but telling listeners when I’m playing in local venues like Caffe Lena,” Berggren said. “We’ve even sung together a few times.”
After Berggren released his first album in 1985, “One night while driving on the Northway, I tuned in to Wanda’s show and heard one of my songs. That was a first!”
“I first heard Wanda on the radio when I first came back to this area after living in New York City and the Syracuse area right after college,” said Shaw. “I was thrilled to hear folk music on the radio here.”
Shaw gratefully said, “Wanda was the driving force behind (musical and life partner) Bridget (Ball) and my show ‘Great Acoustics,’ a live performance show that ran on WAMC and finally went up on the satellite for distribution around the country, and abroad.”
Shaw said, “I’ve served on the board at Lena’s with her, and even traveled to Ireland with Wanda and her pun-loving husband, Bill.” Shaw emphasized, “That’s ‘P-U-N,’ although he’s a fun-loving guy too.”
Time brought changes to radio, folk music, and show-biz, and “Hudson River Sampler” has rolled with them.
As WAMC expanded its on-air and online reach, distant listeners could tune in to hear it. For Dave Gott of Greenfield, Mass., “It was love at first listen.” He said, “She played my kind of music and she took requests (including his); I resonated with her personal style as a DJ.”
Her inclusive ability to span the topical and the tuneful also appealed to him. “The themes for her groupings of songs can be really timely,” he said. “They may highlight what is happening in our world at the time; in nature, in human communities, and in the arts.”
Berggren, another longtime loyal listener, noted a change in the sheer volume of music made now. “Wanda has much, much more music to choose from,” he said. “Every week she receives more recordings in the mail from folk musicians who want to reach the ears of her listeners.” Geography has ceased to limit her reach. “Because WAMC is available online, folks all over the country, all over the world, can hear the program.” While broadening its reach, the depth of “Hudson River Sampler” remains constant, spanning tradition and innovation. “Wanda maintains a blend of old and new, instrumentals and vocals, folk familiar and foreign to the ear,” said Berggren.
“Wanda keeps us all connected,” Berggren explained. “The folk scene is the music and the folks who make it. Not only do you hear about a performer coming to town, and hear their music on ‘Hudson River Sampler,’ you also see Wanda at some of those concerts – as long as they’re not on Saturday night!”
Of his several appearances on “Hudson River Sampler,” Berggren recalled, “One of my favorite times was when John Kirk and I were both on and we sang ‘Peace Begins in My Own Heart’ (a Berggren composition), which Wanda had requested, and she sang right along with us on the chorus.”
Shaw has also appeared many times on the “Hudson River Sampler,” and he helped produce her “Singing Along with the Radio” album. (She calls them “CDs” on the air, but I prefer “album,” while John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey [playing The Egg in Albany Feb. 4] prefer “records” in their “Radio Deluxe” program that airs on WAMC on Saturday afternoons. But I digress.)
Of her own CD, sung with top troubadour talent, she said, “I had always wanted to make a recording, mostly for my dad, but he was gone.” She noted with satisfaction that, of the favorite singers she invited into this personal project, “I got pretty much all of those who were available into the studio.” An accomplished prose writer, “I’m not a great songwriter myself, and only one song is original,” she acknowledged, “the one that tells…how I met my husband; ‘Kansas City Prime.’”
The respect of folk fans and music makers compensated around the edges of a small salary.
“When our kids were small, I often had to get a babysitter to take care of them while I went to the radio station,” said Fischer. “My husband was busy being a physician. Sometimes I even had to bring them with me.” Fischer sat them in front of a small black and white TV and warned them not to enter the studio when its “On Air” light glowed red. “I may not have had the cleanest house in the neighborhood,” said Fischer, “but I just did what I had to do to work during the week and do the show on Saturday night.”
She admitted, “Sometimes it seemed as if it was too much, but I never thought of giving up either. I was also playing tennis at the time, and I think playing tennis helped get the tension out of my life.”
When Fischer retired from the last of her day-jobs, she stayed busy by writing fiction, volunteering with the Reading is Fun program in the Schenectady City schools, playing tennis (now only with those her own age) and serving on boards of directors. “I was on the Caffe Lena board for six years until last December,” she said. “I joined the Old Songs board last year. I was on the Eighth Step board for about six years.”
Her baseball-centered first novel “Empty Seats,” she said, “has received excellent to so-so reviews.” She noted. “It won a couple of awards for self-published novels, one from the Independent Publishers Association, one from the New Apple Awards.” Two short stories are available as eBooks on Amazon: “Handprints” and “The Genius and the KGB.” Fischer said, “I just decided to do these because I wanted to do something different with my writing skills. I have another novel being edited, and another one in the works.” Ever the perfectionist, she said, “I don’t love the third one yet; it needs work.”
Hosting “Hudson River Sampler” at WAMC, Fischer said, “The show is totally off the cuff.” And it’s collaborative. “I take requests from listeners and will often change the direction of my show to fit in listener requests.” She only pre-records the show when she expects to be away, and she loves to welcome musician guests.
“Perhaps the best live in-studio show I ever did was when Eileen McGann from Canada was on the show,” she said. Other favorites include Steve Key and Michael Smith, writer of “The Dutchman” and other songs Fischer loves. “He said he was in town; could he stop by? ‘Sure,’ I said. “My biggest regret is that I don’t have a recording of that show… I also enjoyed any time (the late, great bassist) Tony Markelis and (troubadour) Bob Warren visited.”
At the other end of the in-studio guest spectrum, Fischer recalled “A local person who shall remain nameless brought an amplifier into the studio and I asked him not to use it.” She said, “He used it anyway and I had to cut him off early” – a culture-clash echo of Pete Seeger’s famous umbrage when Bob Dylan plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival.
All this – the good, the bad, and the too-loud – must have flashed through Fischer’s mind in her WAMC tribute-anniversary celebration at The Linda.
“The highlights had to be the performers,” said Fischer, “as well as the videos that so many giants in the folk world sent in to support me” including Tom Chapin, Tom Rush, John McCutcheon, and Judy Collins. “John McCutcheon and Tom Paxton wrote a song for me!” Fischer marveled. “They rhymed ‘Hudson River Sampler’ with the word ‘ampler!’” Her entire family, including husband Bill, both their children, their spouses and all six grandchildren were at the show.
“I got to be in her ‘backup band’ at her tribute concert at the Linda with my buddy John Kirk,” said Chris Shaw, “and was reminded of what a great voice she has!” Shaw said, “All those legendary performers, and that great audience…what a night!” Fischer said, “I sang Ian Tyson’s song ‘Friends of Mine,’ which is on my CD, ‘Singing Along with the Radio.’”
That night, she was singing along ON the radio.
Husband Bill had this to say, on Facebook, “The music she makes from her folkie heart is as wondrous as the music she finds in her folkie friends.”
WAMC’s “The Linda” will rebroadcast its tribute/anniversary celebration of Fischer’s 40 years hosting “Hudson River Sampler” on October 19 and 23 in its “Live at the Linda” series.
Oh, yeah, the Red Sox Fenway thing. Here’s Fischer’s own account.
In 2012, the Red Sox public address announcer Carl Beane died in a car accident. The Red Sox decided to have what they deemed “guest in the chair” PA announcers. When I heard that they were doing that, I contacted them and told them I wanted to be considered for that. They said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, don’t call us, we’ll call you.” I said, “No, you don’t understand, I have 30 years of broadcasting experience and have been a Red Sox fan since I was eight years old.” Apparently, they Googled me and discovered that I was telling the truth. They called me back (when I was at a doctor’s appointment). I told my doctor I needed to take the call. They offered me a day I couldn’t accept because it was the Tuesday before my daughter was getting married! So they told me to pick a date.
I already had tickets for August 5, 2012. (I was working for the Cuomo administration at the time and couldn’t take any free tickets for my family–I already had tickets for that day.) I proposed that day. They said, “It’s yours.”
I announced the game between the Red Sox and Minnesota Twins. The Red Sox were terrible that year (worse than this year), but they won the game I announced. It was a lot more work than I thought it would be! The game before that I had announced was a Babe Ruth game on Golf Road in Schenectady!
When I was taking the elevator up to the third floor at Fenway, I was thinking, “What have you done??? What if you completely blow this gig?” But I only made one error and had to repeat something.
I met an incredible young man, Jack Lanzillotti, who produced the thing. Unfortunately, Jack and his fiancee were killed a couple of years later by an unlicensed driver in Copley Square. He’s one of the people I dedicated “Empty Seats” to.
Oh, and I got an amazing congratulatory letter from (Red Sox Manager) Alex Cora for my 40th anniversary!
Brilliant!!! She’s a force of nature,…true that, every word.
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