Thursday, March 20, 2008

Highlander's Tale of Fox Hollow

[A while back I did an essay on the Upstate New York Folk scene in the early 1970s, featuring Café Lena and the Fox Hollow Folk Festival. A fellow calling himself Highlander posted a long comment, and I asked him if I could uplift it into the main posting here. He took a while to reply, but he's given me permission to do it, only requesting he be given the byline, which I'm happy to do. Here is a story from Doug MacKenzie, aka "Highlander", and I think it's wonderful.—JK]

I was very fortunate to be a child in Schenectady, New York, in the 1960s. The GE plant was still humming along, ALCO was still turning out locomotive engines, Union College was full of students, and the City of Lights was prosperous and content. I also happened to have an older brother, Guy, who was keenly interested in seeing to my musical education. Guy, who is 19 years older than me, was a young man in the ‘60s. Guy was a photographer, poet, and folksinger, back then. He found himself spending time with some of the greats of the era: Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Judy Collins, Len Chandler, Michael Cooney, Hedy West, Jean Redpath, and Reverend Gary Davis, to name a few. He was also close friends with the Beers Family, of folk music renown.

Guy took me with him on quite a number of his musical adventures, including many trips up to Saratoga Springs, to listen to performers at the Caffe Lena. Guy himself was a regular performer at Lena’s, and The San Remo Café in Schenectady. He also used to take me out to the Beers Family estate. They owned a 185-acre retreat, built in 1793 up in the Berkshire Mountains, near Petersburg, NY. It had also once been the hideout of noted gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond.

It was there that I started becoming self-aware. I began to truly note the people with whom we were keeping company. I started looking forward to our trips out to the Beers place. I used to catch frogs in the old heart shaped pond (an edifice reputedly ordered built for a woman Legs Diamond was romantically interested in.) I could run around to my heart’s content, really let go and be a free kid.

The evenings there were pure magic. Bob Beers, who headed up the family, played his huge plucked psaltery and sang, while Evelyne, his wife, would keep time with a homemade “limberjack”; a loose-limbed toy that would be bounced upon a paddle shaped board. Or, more rightly, the board was bounced while the Limberjack was held still, allowing his arms and legs to do a crazy dance. Their lovely daughter, Martha, whom my brother was dating, would play guitar, or sometimes banjo. Sometimes Bob would play fiddle, using an old bent hickory stick bow. Evelyne’s clear soprano was like pure silver, pure gold. Martha’s harmonies were from the angels. There were always others joining in. I remember Jean Redpath, Rosalie Sorrels, Theo Bikel, the Seegers, and many others. All would play well into the night. Eventually, I would tire and seek out the prettiest lap upon which I could lay my weary little head. I have probably never slept more soundly.

Then, in 1966, the Beers decided to hold a festival on their estate. It started out as a weekend-long party for their closest 3,000 friends. Guy played every year, from 1966 to 1972. Therefore, my family attended the festival during the same time-span. I remember that it usually rained, sometimes seeming almost biblical in its proportions. The festival was the most potent magic I have ever known. The main stage was at the bottom of a natural amphitheater in the woods, sculpted and shaped with logs. The performances were transcendental, for me, at least. I looked forward eagerly every year for festival time to roll around.

Tragically, Bob Beers died in an auto accident in 1972. The festival never really recovered. The festival was Bob’s baby, and without his spirit guiding the event, it lost its soul. The last festival was held on the grounds in 1980.

I had a small moment on the festival stage in 1977, just before I left for the west coast. I was at the festival and looking for Evelyne. Eventually, I was taken backstage. I started to introduce myself, when she interrupted me, hugging me and tearfully saying, “I know who you are!” I was stunned. Apparently, so was Evelyne. She found a spot for me and I played a short, 15-minute set. That occasion turned out to be the last I would see of that magical place for 30 years.

Five years ago, or so, I started having a recurring dream. I am not normally given to such things. I do not see ghosts. I have never had any encounter in life for which I could not find a rational explanation. Given that, it makes what happened next extraordinarily hard for me to understand. In fact, I do not understand it. I only know it happened.

The dream was simple enough: It is early morning. I am standing on Route 2, in Troy, NY, looking east. The road winds up and away to the left, into the trees. I sigh and start walking up the road. The dream would dissolve for a moment and then reappear, with me standing across the road from the old Beers house. I look both ways on the road for traffic, and then start to cross the road to go to the house. At that point, the dream ends.

The first time it happened, it was quite pleasant. I had not thought of those times from my youth in years. Indeed, it had been thirty years since I last went out Route 2 to Petersburg. Almost a year later, I had the dream again. It was the same as the first time. Then, it came to me again about another year later. This pattern continued for four years. Then, in 2007, I started having the dream nearly every month. By this time, it was becoming rather disconcerting. I could not imagine why I kept having the same dream, repeatedly, and with increasing frequency. As I live in North Carolina, it would not be a quick jaunt to try to find out what this might all be about.

However, I did find a week I could manage to make the journey. So, last week, I loaded the van, brought my nine year old son, Ian, along with me, and off we set.

The Capital District of New York is some 750 miles away. I am currently recovering from dual carpal tunnel surgery that didn’t turn out as planned, so I was rather anxious about the trip. While the trip was long and arduous, all went as smoothly as could be anticipated.

I have not been in the Capital District in over twenty-five years. I lived in Albany in 1977, then again in 1980-82, until I joined the Air Force, where I spent the next ten years. Returning there was almost dreamlike in itself. There were so many places that looked familiar, but in a long lost sort of way. It seemed as though I were swimming through another dream.

Prior to the journey, I had arranged to meet Guy at an old Schenectady eatery, Morrette’s King Steakhouse, on Erie Boulevard. After a satisfying lunch, we toured the area, stopping by the three houses I called home as a child. When we’d finished, Guy looked at me and said, “Ready to go find the Beers place?” I did not know the way at all and said so. Guy said that I should follow my nose, since it had served me well, thus far. I agreed. So, we headed to Troy on Route 7.

After finding Troy with no trouble, I eventually found Route 2. As we started heading out of town, my hackles raised as we approached the area where the dream always started. Dry throated, I managed to say something along the lines of, “This is it.” I felt foolish for feeling antsy about this. Then, a feeling of calm descended over me and I knew we were on the right road and that I would find out at last why this dream had been pestering me for so long.

We traveled out Route 2, up into The Berkshire Mountains. The day was glorious. Bright sun and small cumulus clouds. It was warm, but the humidity was comfortably low. The kind of weather I remember from my childhood. I asked Guy if he knew where the old Beers place was. He replied that it had been nearly forty years since he had been there, so he wasn’t sure either. I mentioned that it had to be on the left, as I always cross the road in the dream. Guy responded that it was, indeed, on the left. He mentioned that it might be gone, a victim of development. That comment raised a knot in my stomach. I had a moment of doubt, but just knew that could not be. We continued through Grafton, and were about five or six miles from Petersburg, when we both saw it at the same time.

There it was, on the left side of the road. Just like in the dream. An ancient farmstead, built of local stone and white painted clapboard. I slowed the van down and said, “Well, I guess I’d better see what this is about.” I pulled into the driveway and stopped the van. I sat for a moment, just looking at the scene around us.

There was a man, standing on a ladder, painting an old trellis. There were signs of a lot of reconstruction activity all around. New lumber, stacked stone, wheelbarrows, paint cans. The fellow looked at us for a moment, and then went back to his painting.

I took a deep breath and got out of the van. I walked over toward him. He stopped painting and eyed me through his paint-spattered glasses. “Are you my painting relief?” he asked.

“Sorry, bad hands”, I said. “But I do have a couple of helpers in the van.”

He smiled and said, “Well, tell ‘em to grab a paintbrush. There’s plenty of work for all.” I laughed, took a breath, and introduced myself. He told me his name was Ed. I then related the story I’ve just told here. When I finished, he eyed me intensely for a moment, put down his paintbrush, and said, “Come with me. I have something for you.” We walked to an old, single car garage that was full of all manner of tools, stacked lumber, old tires, and many boxes. On the floor, near the back, was a box full of old vinyl records. Ed bent down and started riffling through them. He came up with one, and then two, old vinyl record albums with the tattered shrink-wrap still on them.

He stood up, handed them solemnly to me, and said, “These are the very last two. They’re for you.” I was nearly trembling, as I looked them over. Two volumes, apparently from a six-volume set, titled ““All Those People…” Fox Hollow 1968 Vol. III” and ““…And Not One Police” Fox Hollow 1969 Vol. IV”.

I looked on the back of the 1969 volume and there, on the back, I spied my brother’s name and a paragraph attached to it: “Guy MacKenzie (Lullabye) -Grandma Buckham and Guy were close friends. She died in 1969, only two months before the festival and I like to feel that Guy was singing this song to her. He had written the song several years before, but it had been one of her favorites. Guy is an amateur, who writes exquisite songs, and sings them movingly. I doubt there is a professional singer who comes to Fox Hollow, but who wishes he could achieve the intense, quiet rapport with an audience that Guy does so naturally.” I just stood there, in shock. I had never seen these before. I stammered to Ed that Guy, one of the singers on this album, was right in the car. I hailed Guy and Ian out of the car and introduced them to Ed. Ed was beaming at the whole scene. Guy looked at the albums. He said, in a rather far away voice, “I didn’t even know I was on this!”

Just at that moment, Ed’s partner, Alan, came huffing around from the side of the building, pushing a loaded wheelbarrow. We were all introduced and Ed excused himself to get back to his painting. I shook his hand and thanked him for the gift. He said, “Evidently, they were waiting for you.” I noted that he oddly emphasized the word, “you”. He smiled and turned back to his work. Alan took up where Ed left off, showing us around the grounds. It was all so very dreamlike. I knew these windows, the well, the benches. Alan even invited us inside to show us how they had restored the interior. We begged off, saying that it was clear they were working very hard and we didn’t want to take them from their work. We just asked to take some photos. Alan wandered around with us, showing us their projects, finished, current, and future. He said we were welcome to go down to the amphitheater, but the midges were really getting to Ian, so we declined their generous invitation. Alan said they get visitors from time to time, stopping in to take a peek, and they tell them they used to camp here, or perform, or come for the day to the festival. He really seemed pleased that folks would remember, and he said that they loved learning more about the place. It is no wonder that they do, I thought. This place was oozing magic back then.

Around the back of the house, Guy stopped and said, “Over there, on that bench, Bob sat me and Dawn (Guy’s bride) down and began to sing a song about making a whistle. While he was singing, he whittled away on a piece of wood. When he finished the song, he’d also finished whittling. He’d carved a whistle, and then played the tune of the song on the brand-new whistle.”

The pond, where I used to catch frogs was still there. Alan told us the story of “Legs” Diamond having it made to impress a woman with whom he had fallen in love. He said that it had silted in, over the years, but they were planning to restore it to its original heart shape.

We took a few more pictures, thanked them again and told them we’d best be off so they could return to their labor of love.

As we pulled away, I noticed Guy, casting a long last look at the venerable, old place. We drove back to Schenectady, mostly in silence, pretty well stunned by the whole affair.
Of course, the story is not finished, yet. I have yet to discover what is on those albums. Is there a song I need to know? A story? I am hoping there will be more to this mystery. I don’t know yet what it might be, but I am sure going to try to find out.

9 comments:

Sarah Dickinson Murray said...

That is a truly magnificent story. A dream recurs, you heed it, and you discover a treasure. Amazing, and beautiful. I used to go to the Fox Hollow Festival as a kid, since Bob Beers was my dad's first cousin and we were often invited. I have memories of the log amphitheater, running up and down the wide steps and letting the music get under my skin. And the rain... pitter patter, as the Beers would say. I think the last one I went to was in '74. That festival had a profound effect on me, as it brought out the music that was there in my soul. David Bromberg and John Hartford were strumming up a storm, just hanging out somewhere on the grounds, as I stood beside them in utter awe. I started playing my father's Stella guitar that same year and couldn't stop until he actually bought me my own guitar. I still play music today, but I dearly miss the sweet melodies that rang out from that stage up into the rows of be-tented and ponchoed captives of the Fox Hollow Folk Festival.

petrenkov said...

Pretty nice blog you've got here. Thanx for it. I like such topics and everything that is connected to them. I would like to read more soon.

Sincerely yours
Timm Clade

H. Stokes said...

Thank you for the story. Been nostalgic for Fox Hollow lately. I fell into that pond once at the festival trying to catch a frog. Fond memories.

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