John McCutcheon was last in Fresno on September 2nd for the memorial service for the “Deportees” at HolyCrossCemetery with the Archbishop Armando X. Ochoa presiding. These victims of the 1948 airplane crash are no longer nameless and John was in the Central Valley to perform the classic Woody Guthrie song, “Deportee.” At his annual UU Church concert last January John performed the song and invited audience members read the names of the deportees out loud between verses. We are expecting many more of these electrifying moments and wonderful new songs from one of the greatest American folk musicians of all.
According the Folkmusic.com, “His songs sing of the nation’s heritage. His words channel the conscience of our people into streams of poetry and melody. He writes about subjects small and great, from a child’s haircut to freedom and human dignity—issues equally eternal and enduring. Think of McCutcheon as an incarnation of Pete Seeger and Mr. Rogers, Will Rogers and Bruce Springsteen, and above all Everyman, righteously passionate and impishly playful, blessed with gifts as a songwriter, historian, musician and storyteller that have won him praise throughout the world.”
About the Fresno Folklore Society
In a formal sense the Fresno Folklore Society was founded in 1977. But according to this quote from the musickfalls.org page owned by our friends the Sierra Music and Arts Institute (SMAI) the FFS is much older.
“I had a children’s camp from about 1951 to 1954 and the Fresno Folk Music Club had camp-outs there for about four or five years,” Virgil Byxbe recollected. “When the folk club folded I continued and gradually began enlarging so there was more than just oldtimey. That’s when I started using the name Sweet’s Mill because I wanted a distinction from the previous camps. We went to the Berkeley Folk Festivals and the San Diego Folk Festivals. They were going on during the same years we started (early 60s). Then we organized the Fresno Folklore Society.”
The annual celebration known as Sweet’s Mill is central to the story of the Fresno Folklore Society. These folk music and dance gatherings were hosted by Virgil and Edith Byxbe at a 240 acre logging camp known as Sweet’s Mill near Auberry. It had operated as a saw mill owned by the Sweet family until 1921. The Byxbes bought it in 1951.
For more than 35 years the Fresno Folklore Society has been bringing folk music artists to Fresno/Clovis for concerts and workshops. They have presented concerts in living rooms and back yards (like the Wolk Garden), at nightclubs such as the Wild Blue Yonder in the Tower District, and at concert halls such as the Bonner Auditorium at the Fresno Art Museum, the Unitarian Universalist Church, the Veterans Memorial Auditorium and Frank’s Place at the Warnors Center for the Performing Arts.
In 2008 Steve Ono became the Concert Master and has brought in John McCutcheon (three times), Bua, Hannah & Talbot, Dusty Brough and Eva Scow, Cerro Negro, Pearl Django, Karen Marguth, Michael Chapdelaine, Peggy Seeger, Dan Navarro, the Larry Stephenson Band, Accordion Babes Revue, Maia Sharp, Lou and Peter Berryman, The Rock Bottom Boys, Chris Proctor, Paddy Keenan, Sourdough Slim and the Saddle Pals, Jamie Laval, Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands, Evie Ladin Band, Red Molly, Lyquid Amber, Fishtank Ensemble, Kina Mendez Cantadora de Flamenco de Jerez de la Frontera, The Carolina Chocolate Drops with Lance Canales & the Flood.
Before Steve Ono took over the job, Pat Wolk was the Concert Mistress and brought in Bill Tapia, Marley’s Ghost, Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas, The Stairwell Sisters, Utah Phillips, Robin & Linda Williams and Their Fine Group, Joe Craven & Bryan Bowers and, of course, John McCutcheon (many times) along with many more.
According to Jordan Russell of the FCC Rampage, “The variety of music represented in FFS-sponsored concerts is just astounding. Past concerts have featured a flamenco ensemble, an Irish piper, and an old-time banjoist. The current fall series includes a Peruvian guitarist, a master storyteller, a fiddler/singer/songwriter from Canada’s OttawaValley.”
I saw my first Fresno Folklore Society concert in 1969. I saw Kenny Hall and Frank Hicks playing an emergency hot line benefit at the First Christian Church in downtown Fresno. A while later I went to the “Egg and I” a bar at Butler and Orange in south Fresno. I was fifteen years old but I had a pretty full mustache so they let me in. I sat near the front and ordered a coke. A few years later I played with Frank Hicks and Bob Saddler in a band called Old River Road blending bluegrass and western swing with country rock.
The Fresno Folklore Society also sponsors bimonthly group dances. On the first Saturday of the month a free evening of English Country Dance is held at the Auberry Library from 7 to 9 PM. On the second Saturday of the month a Contra Dance (like square dance) is held at the CaliforniaArtsAcademy on Blackstone near Shaw and on the third Saturday an English Country Dance is held. Both dances ask attendees for a $6 donation, run from 6:30 to 9:30 PM and are hosted and called by long time member Evo Bluestein.
There are Jam sessions too. On the first Sunday of each month is Kelly’s Corner Jam at the Pizza Factory in Madera Rancos from 2 to 5 pm. On the second Sunday there’s an Irish Jam at La Boulangerie in FigGardenVillage from 2:30 to 4:30 pm.
The main jam session is the Wednesday Kenny Hall’s Friends Jam at the Santa Fe Basque on Maroa Ave. just south of Shields.
Participating as a musician or listener in acoustic jams is an integral part of the Fresno Folklore Society. Many small jams are organized in private homes as well as at business venues, such as the Santa Fe Basque Restaurant, Frank’s Place and the former Revue (now Mia Cuppa Cafe.) Acoustic jams are an opportunity for people to socialize, celebrate birthdays, sing, eat, drink and be merry.
One of the longest running acoustic jams is still happening every Wednesday evening from 5:30-7:30 pm., on the patio of the Santa Fe Basque Restaurant, 3110 N. Maroa, in Fresno. This is a free event for all ages; however, purchasing food and drink is encouraged.
Kenny Hall was the focal point of the Santa Fe Basque patio jams until he recently passed away in October. Kenny influenced many traditional musicians to learn his repertoire and play the music in the old time style of the turn of the century. This traditional music embraces the early international tunes that migrated with our ancestors to America.
Sometimes, over a dozen musicians gather to play an assortment of autoharps, banjos, fiddles, guitars, harmonicas, mandolins, spoons, washboards and upright bass.
These acoustic jams support all musicians of all abilities who want to develop their skills and mastery of playing their instrument in a public setting. The jams discourage the use of sheet music at the gathering in an effort to promote learning tunes by ear/heart. Playing music by ear/heart means hearing and learning the tune, then, playing the music with one’s emotion.
According to longtime FFS member Linda Guerrero, “Most of the musicians have day jobs or are retired. They play for the pure enjoyment and delight of playing well with others.”
As a long time professional musician, I prize the old time music of the Fresno Folklore Society Jam sessions. They play versions of these traditional songs that are unique to the community of the Central Valley and even to Fresno. And I continue to go to keep in touch with the roots of my own music.
The Fresno Folklore Society exists to preserve the rich cultural heritage of the Central Valley and to bring the world’s folk music to town. A great and authentic artist can inspire people to pick up a banjo or a guitar and get into it themselves. Everybody has got some kind of musical heritage and we want to encourage people, particularly young people, to claim that heritage for themselves.
FFS’s main mission is the preservation and presentation of traditional folk music in a global sense, but in reality this mission can only be accomplished locally because all folk music is local. If you love old time, bluegrass and traditional music, you should become a member and help move the Fresno Folklore Society into the future.
Steve Ono is a longtime Fresno folk and jazz musician and Concert Master of the Fresno Folklore Society.Contact Steve Ono at firstname.lastname@example.org or (559) 307-3610.