“The people want a sense of the normal,” said Kevin Johnson. “We know those guys are there Sunday afternoons, and it’s a semblance of normalcy.”
In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, a sense of routine has returned to the village green in Woodstock. Now in its 21st year, a drum circle continues every Sunday afternoon from 4 to 6 p.m. For Woodstock, that’s normal.
“We just put up a perimeter with safety tape, and only a certain number of people are in there,” said Kevin Johnson, who has led the drum circles since the beginning. “You only go in there if you’ve got a mask. Only a certain number of dancers can be in here. We swap out if we’ve got more people than we need to do it.”
Johnson spoke from his Timekeeper Drums weekend pop-up shop out of his box truck across from the nearby flea market. He belongs to a drum-circle facilitators’ guild and has put in place Covid 19 protocols based on their recommendations.
The first drum circle in town started about 40 or 50 years ago during full-moon gatherings at Magic Meadow, near the Overlook Mountain trailhead. The full-moon gatherings continue. The drumming on the green spun out of that.
“There was a guy that used to play a boom box out on the bench every week, and the Chamber of Commerce wanted him to go away,” explained Johnson. “So they were going to ban all noise out on the green. Anything and everything. I and a few others got wind of this.”
Eventually, negotiations resulted in the drum circle being given a time slot on Sunday afternoons. “When we started this, we had summer-long meetings with every type of official you could think of,” said Johnson. “We had the church, we had the supervisor, we had a mediator. There was never anything official. The [Reformed] church didn’t write anything up .… And that’s worked for 21 years.”
Even after the agreement, many business owners weren’t happy. They came around when they realized the drummers spent money after the weekly circles. “Everybody’s happy with us now. In fact they’re pissed at these (Freedom First) people for screwing around with us,” Johnson said.
Recently, when a branch of the Freedom First Party set up a tent, and a few people started distributing literature and refusing to wear masks on the village green during the drumming. The only police involvement in the past that Johnson can recall was when people tried to evade law enforcement by blending in with the crowd.
The town has provided as much help as it can. The police have tried to keep the peace.
Part of the village green belongs to the Dutch Reformed Church. Under a longstanding agreement with the church, the town maintenance department keeps the area clean and the police patrol it. The church decides which groups can use it, and the drum circle is authorized to do so.
“Last week, they sent somebody in with a camera,” Johnson said of the Freedom First group. That somebody was Paula Gloria Barton, who along with her husband, Joe Barton, have made drum-circle participants feel uncomfortable with their presence. “From my perspective, there’s supposed to be no politics on church property. So I escorted her out and they sent in one of their big, burly guys to get in my face about it,” Johnson said. “We shouldn’t have to be putting up with this kind of shit. The church has done whatever they can do. They’ve got that ironed out.”
The town can only do so much. Supervisor Bill McKenna has done what he can do. “He’s got them on the corner,” said Johnson. “And the police really can’t do anything else unless they actually slug me or something. So we’re kind of at a standstill for the time being.”
Johnson said he even recently announced the Freedom First Party’s presence and invited anyone to go talk to them if they wanted more information. “Of course, nobody went over there. And the idea is somebody can go over and visit them, but do not bring your politics into my drum circle, ok,” Johnson said. “Otherwise it’s going okay. The people who are coming are cooperating.”
Johnson said he has tried to avoid confrontation with the Bartons because of their reputation for being “very litigious people.”
In a recent Facebook post, Johnson said he was going to step back from his organizational duties amid concerns the situation could escalate. He returned after the Freedom First Party tent was moved to another corner with a bit more distance from the circle. Johnson said there’s still opportunity for an altercation.
Before the pandemic, Johnson used to bring “cartloads of drums” so anyone who wanted could join. That addition was a hit with tourists.
Things have changed. “Now the only people I got coming are the people who bring the own equipment, and those are usually the regulars, anyway,” he said. “The tourists still come and watch from outside the designated, taped-off area, but not as many as came before.’
As the cold weather approaches, Johnson hopes the circle can meet again in Maria’s Bazaar, a nearby store, as before, of course with social distancing.
“Personally, I’m just happy we’re able to do it at all,” Johnson said. “I cannot tell you how many people have come up to me and tell me I’m glad you guys are doing it.”