In this time of Thanksgiving we speak of the strengths community finds in itself. Despite destruction of conversation throughout cyber-civilization, Robert Frost’s declaration still rings true: “Earth’s the right place for love.” The whole world ’round we find actors performing in benefits for endangered theaters, painters raffling off their work for a fellow artist struck low, and fisherfolk hosting pricey fish dinners to help the families of the ill, injured or drowned.
In my home town of Woodstock, a different tradition dominates a scene long dominated by music and those who make it. Here — for more than 50 years now — a core group of players have come to the aid of those in need. These artists do not merely “take care of their own.” Instead, Woodstock musicians continue to help the embattled and often nondescript citizens of an older town which, beneath the glitter of incoming wealth, appears to have vanished. But old Woodstock hasn’t vanished, as we learn every time tragedy strikes, and the town once again pulls together to make and move to the music of hope.
The first musical benefit I remember attending in Woodstock (circa ’71) was hosted by Ron Merians, the controversial owner of the town’s most fantabulous late-night music club, The Joyous Lake. That event was intended to prop back up an in-house dishwasher risen to cook known by the name of “Mugsy the Mope.” Through undisclosed circumstance, Mugsy’s rental had burned to the ground, burning with it everything he owned. Mugsy looked and smelled even worse than usual.
To the good — everyone in the club was smiling hard, partying harder, and dancing harder still to the all-star band stuffed onto that famously tiny stage. At night’s conclusion The Mope himself strapped on the guitar he’d just received from Ron and “all of us here at The Lake” to sing with impeccable timing his own composition consisting entirely of the unforgettable lines: “I’m horny as a brand band./ I wish I had a sun tan./ I’ve been sitting in your bed all night/ Just thinkin’ about it.”
The fact that Mugsy soon split town in possession of a vast array of borrowed items (as well as a fair stash of cash) calls forth our first shine of underbelly concerning Woodstock and its musical benefits, namely: “Beware of who and exactly how you help.”
We can be relatively sure that the custom of a benefit hosted by musicians around and about Woodstock goes back at least as far as the initial mission of Pete Seeger. Pete remains a pretty safe guess as the godfather of our modern phenomenon even on the national level, having inherited this mantle from Woody Guthrie. Woody perceived need. He created events everywhere he went to help the impoverished and ignored. Seeger carried that message even longer and farther “from California to the New York Island.”
By fortunate coincidence Seeger received tremendous assistance (after they were transplanted to Woodstock from Greenwich Village in the mid-1960s) from Happy and Artie Traum. The number of benefits these pinko, pseudo-Commies played over the years could easily have doubled for a lesser duo’s entire public career. The even more radical Beat-based Ed Sanders, after the dissolution of his seminally outrageous band The Fugs, also hosted an enormous number of causes in Woodstock, mainly in the arts and in politics, foremost evidenced by what essentially became his own “lefter” branch of the local Democratic Party. And Robbie Dupree also served as organizer of dozens and dozens of charitable events.
I can’t and won’t attempt to say who did the most to champion the tradition among the next generation of support. Certainly Marc Black deserves mention. Starting back in days when he and the late Betty MacDonald were united, the Marc Black Trio (completed by bassist Michael Esposito) was always stepping up to help. As he still does. Amy Fradon and Leslie Ritter, who first sang together backing Marc, proved a powerhouse for good all their own. The great local songwriter Tom Pachecho invariably gets called to (or hosts) the stage when tragedy or injustice strikes.
Likewise, the musical comedy team of Mikhail Horowitz and Gilles Malkine is often tapped for this cause and that. There are the ever-vigilant Michael Veitch, the wonderful Jules Shear, our dearly missed Rick Danko, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, Kate Pierson and other members of the B-52s. Fom the jazz world Jack DeJohnette, Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso (and their entire Creative Music Studio gang) have given generously of their time and talent. A huge presence in this forcefield, of course, remains the late and most luminous Levon Helm, whose contribution I’ll address separately.
Back in the day John Hall, aside from organizing MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) on the national level, assisted in cleaning up toxic dumps alongside such great special guests as Debbie Lan, the much-missed Rob Leon, Anne Lang and Tommy Nicholson, Pete O’Brien, and numerous others who all “stood up” to help.
The first great irony surrounding “the musical benefit” is that these old soldiers of the cause are often in need of a benefit themselves. The avoidable tragedy found in the awful end of the vastly under-recognized John Herald — who towards that end played mostly benefits — makes this point all too loud and too clear. Indeed, such soldiers (like any army) become exhausted and even damaged by battle. More punishing still, their personal commercial viability often found itself undercut. In today’s world, a performer not making vast piles of money is soon viewed as little more than a eunuch guarding the whorehouse of commerce. A performer must take care not to hurt himself or herself in helping others.
In the recent era, Baird Hersey and Prana have consistently come to the aid of those in need. The multi-talent Robert Burke Warren consistently steps up, and Joey Eppard, that gifted member of our present musical tribe, is always giving of his remarkable talent. Pete Levin invariably finds himself called to service. Tim Moore graces the stage. So does Robin “The Hammer” Ludwig. So did the departed Gizmo, both serving and served by benefits, and so do the many who recently assisted the intensely missed Father John of Woodstock’s remarkable if tiny Church on The Mount. All have contributed most honorably.
Many — maybe even most — local musical benefits aren’t intended to heal or right wrongs, but simply to assist existing agencies which themselves prevent harm (like the fire department, and search-and-rescue units) or to provide funding to organizations which nourish the soul through the arts (like the Woodstock Guild, Woodstock Library, Woodstock’s “Bookfest,” the Woodstock Artist Association & Museum, Woodstock Performing Arts, The Voice Theater, and Opus 40, to name some.
Woodstock’s best-known musical benefit remains the annual Winter Solstice (first started up by Happy and Artie in 1999) for the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild which, while sadly lacking Artie and John Herald, remains gloriously led by Happy Traum. Over the years the event’s been assisted by Larry and Teresa Campbell, Amy Helm, Eric Weissberg, Amy and Leslie, Josh Colow, Scott Petito, along with the resident and ever-humble John Sebastian.
Here’s another hazard of musical benefits. Even “the pull” of so legendary a talent as John Sebastian is strained through over-use. For this reason, I’m told, John limits the number of benefits he performs each year so that when he actually does step onto stage, the applause is what it should be — overwhelming. And the coffers of whatever cause he assists are — as they should be — overflowing. (As was the obvious case in his benefit for the Woodstock Fire Department two years ago.)
Who have I left out? Though I wrack my brain, that list is doubtless long!
No Thanksgiving story on this subject is complete without fuller mention of the man who gave so much to Woodstock, though he’d already earned the love of the town, and American music itself, by his accomplishments.
Prior to the invention of Levon Helm’s “Midnight Rambles” (originally a rent-party benefit to pay taxes), the backstage environment of any star-studded rock concert in America tended — by dint of who was more famous than whom — to be prickly, even hostile. Reaching back to traditions of the Grand Ole Opry and gospel, Levon learned how to employ a sense of welcome and warmth — indeed a sense of family — to virtually every performer who stepped upon his stage. Always assisted by his adoring and remarkably talented daughter, Amy, by the justifiably highly acclaimed Larry and Teresa Campbell, and by other stalwart crew (including the one and only Donald Fagen), Levon actually melted at least part of the hidden cold heart of American popular music. Along the way he assisted farmers near and far, siphoned concert-supplied funds into such disparate causes as Woodstock’s Little League and Family, and gave a boost to the Woodstock Volunteers Day that runs each August.
Whether you head off to Woodstock’s big community center Thanksgiving or go to friends’ and/or family’s private tables, be sure to raise a glass to Levon and the other fallen heroes. Be sure to invite those still living. And don’t forget the chestnuts!