We’re on the outer edge of an era when everyone in the Catskills has known of Dean Gitter. But not as the folk singer making a return to the stage at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 27, at the Emerson Resort and Spa, as a fundraiser for the Belleayre Music Festival while premiering his first album in 57 years, “Old Folkies Never Die,”
Gitter turned a scenic relic known as the Riseley Barn into The Emerson. Only then, when he rebuilt it, the place was Catskill Corners, home to the world’s largest kaleidoscope (still there).
Earlier, he had founded WTZA (later morphed into RNN), Ulster County’s first television station that was embroiled for years in a fight over the broadcast tower and its light on top of Overlook Mountain. He also championed big dreams for the area that ranged from the moving of a Steamtown old train museum here to the creation of a massive multi-national ethnic theme park.
Most, though, tie Dean Gitter to his Belleayre Resort vision and the 15 years it’s struggled to get built as a destination resort on the same mountain where the state owns the Catskills longest-in-service ski area. They recall vociferous battles and barbed words, or the heightened negotiations that eventually saw the project championed by former Governor Eliot Spitzer, given go-aheads by New York City and a even some of the environmental organizations that had once fought it. In fact, it now seems closer to actually being built than at any point.
“It remains to be seen whether people will come to hear something musically valid or to look at a two headed calf,” Gitter says of his first area concert…ever. “I’m based outside of Baltimore now, although Lynn and I still keep our place in Big Indian. I have seven grandchildren, six of whom are within four miles of my house…and I started playing music on stage again about six months ago.”
How did such a major shift take place, allowing the 79-year-old to share a part of his life he had kept hidden away for half a century?
“Two things,” he answers. “I bought a guitar, a 1920 Galiano, and it was my first steel string guitar…I couldn’t keep my hands off it. Then I went to the hundredth celebration of Woody Guthrie’s birth at the Kennedy Center and among the people who performed was Rambling Jack Elliot, whom I hadn’t seen in decades. I did some math and figured he had to be 83. And then I figured if he can do this, why couldn’t I?”
About the same time, someone working at the Emerson, in which Gitter had sold his ownership, mentioned how his one album “Ghost Ballads,” released in 1957 with a cover illustration by Charles Addams, was being downloaded in droves. Maybe a new album could be recorded?
Gitter booked time in a Woodstock studio last autumn with producer/bass player Erik Buddenhagen. Then he started playing in the Folklore Society of Greater Washington and World Folk Music Association’s D.C. area venues.
“I played where folk music has become limited to,” he says with a robust laugh. “When I found that the other people on stage were playing James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan — all great musicians, mind you — I realized a lot of people hadn’t heard real folk music so I tailored my shows accordingly.”
Gitter notes how his mother was an accomplished performer and pianist and he learned piano at five. He remembers his father bringing home early 78 RPM recordings by Josh White, and the big hit that The Weavers had with “Goodnight, Irene” when he was in his early teens. He started playing along on a plastic ukulele.
“I loved it all,” Gitter says. “I moved on to a four string tenor guitar and when I was a senior in high school my father bought me a top-of-the-line Martin guitar, which was the greatest gift he ever gave me.”
While studying at Harvard a friend started a record label and engaged Gitter, who was already playing local clubs, to set up a folklore division.