“There are basically two schools of thought on how to present traditional music,” says Liza DiSavino, who will perform “Songs of the Catskill Mountains” with husband and musical partner A. J. Bodnar in Saugerties’ Dutch Arms Chapel on Sunday, July 27 at 3 p.m. “One is that you try to replicate exactly the way people performed this music 150 to 200 years ago… But what we do is take old songs and give them new musical homes.”
At their concert in Saugerties, part of the Heritage Folk Music series, the couple will perform their new take on old tunes, along with original material that the two composed in the spirit of old Catskills music.
Bodnar plays piano, organ, synthesizer, piano-accordion and percussion instruments. DiSavino plays guitar, pennywhistle, piano, banjo, dulcimer, banjolin, zither, cornet and French horn, among other instruments, and both are vocalists and composers. The couple have recorded five duo albums, and each has solo albums as well. They’ve been playing music together since virtually the moment they met, says Bodnar, when he went to a songwriters’ circle that was held in Liza’s living room nearly two decades ago.
The two currently live in Kentucky, where DiSavino is an assistant professor at Berea College, directing the folk roots ensemble and teaching music education, piano and French horn. Their interest in the traditional music of the Catskills goes back to when they lived in this region, where they still summer and spend time in December.
“We lived in the Catskills for ten years and fell in love with this area,” says DiSavino. “We first became interested in researching the history of Catskills music when we came across a book called Folk Songs of the Catskills by Herbert Haufrecht. This book was a collection of songs that had been collected by campers of the ’40s to the ’60s at Camp Woodland in Phoenicia.”
Camp Woodland was a progressive summer camp that evolved out of New Deal programs, with the collection and preservation of traditional folk music its primary purpose. Under the direction of Norman Studer and under musicologists Herbert Haufrecht and Norman Cazden, young campers learned about the disappearing traditions of the region and played an active role in collecting and documenting the music of the Catskills.
“One of the things that Norman Studer was trying to do was break down barriers between people,” says DiSavino, “black and white, Christian and Jewish, and also urban and rural. So here were these urban school kids going out to these 80-year-old guys, having them sing songs for them. They wound up collecting these songs after Studer’s death, and put them in this big volume, Folk Songs of the Catskills. Once we moved to the Catskills, we got really interested in the music of the area and our interest was piqued by that book.”
The couple began learning some songs from the book, which inspired them to do some research of their own. “We started talking to people and interviewing them, we found old hymnals in church basements and we spent a lot of time at the archives in Cooperstown at the New York State Historical Society. We came up with way more material than we could record on a single album. But we did put together an album of ten of those pieces called A Home in the Catskills.”
Out of such rich resource material, how did the two choose which songs to record? “Some of the songs, you could say, were probably what modern audiences would think are a bit dated,” DiSavino says, “but we looked for songs on large topics that still had resonance: songs that were just beautiful songs. Some of the songs we found are just drop-dead gorgeous.”
After leaving the Catskills for Kentucky, the couple was awarded a fellowship grant their first year there from the Hutchins Library Sound Archives to conduct a study comparing music of the Catskills with that of Southern Appalachia. “That allowed us to delve even more deeply into the guts of the music, and what is it that makes a Catskill piece a Catskill piece as opposed to a Southern Appalachian piece.”
It turned out that, while there were a lot of similarities between the music that came out of the two regions – children’s ballads that came over at the same time to both places and radio’s common influence across the country on people’s conceptions of what folk music was – there were major differences as well. “One of the most profound differences that we found,” says DiSavino, “was that the Southern music had the distinct influence of African-American music, whereas the Northern music did not. Even though black people were free in the North, there was not much intermingling. But in the South, white people would hear the music down in the slave quarters and learn how to play the banjo and play these tunes.” After all, she notes, “Musicians go where the good tunes are.”
DiSavino points out the influence of African-American music on Southern music in the backbeat, the blues notes (especially in bluegrass) and the bending of the notes, “which you have way more of in Southern singing than you do in Northern music. That’s also an African tradition; whereas in the Northern music, you really don’t have that; you have the strong influence of Irish music, of sea chanteys and of British ballads, but you don’t really have that same crossover.”
For more information about the Saugerties Heritage Folk Music Series, contact Pat Lamanna at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find “Liza & A. J.” on Facebook for samples of their music.
Songs of the Catskill Mountains, Sunday, July 27, 3 p.m., $10 includes refreshments, Dutch Arms Chapel, 16 John Street, Saugerties; (845) 452-4013, (845) 943-6720.