Teaching folk music history
Portsmouth's Warner honored with lifetime achievement award
Photos and article by Ralph Morang, March 20, 2016, seacoastonline.com
Jeff Warner stretches out in a Windsor chair at the Athenaeum in Portsmouth and talks about folk music, the Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival and being the 2016 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Country Dance and Song Society.
A resident of Portsmouth, Warner is a solo act, playing banjo, guitar and concertina, but performs occasionally with his partner, Barbara Benn, and with Bruce MacIntyre. Mostly, he performs in schools as a New Hampshire State Council on the Arts roster member, but can sometimes be found at Book and Bar in Portsmouth. His Arts Council programs include performances, lecture-demonstrations, workshops, master classes and school residencies.
He also makes about 30 appearances a year for New Hampshire Humanities with five “Humanities to Go” programs: on logging, seafaring, songs of old New Hampshire, “Banjos Bones and Ballads,” and a program for young people. Any organization can host a program, even if the organization is not non-profit. The events just have to be free and open to the public. One of his most memorable appearances was at the men’s prison in Berlin. “It was an amazing time. The guys are always grateful,” he said.
In 2000, Warner and Peter Contrastano co-founded the Portsmouth Maritime Folk Festival. They based it on festivals on the British Isles they had attended, where performances are held at venues throughout the town center, bringing music to where the people are. They determined that Portsmouth’s historic center was an ideal place for a festival. The festival's Web site says, “We have celebrated our local and national heritage of seafaring and maritime trades by taking nautical songs and music to the restaurants, pubs, cafés, churches and streets of Portsmouth ...” The festival is held on the last weekend in September, with free events both Saturday and Sunday. This year's 17th edition of the festival will be Sept. 24 and 25.
Warner jokes about The Maritime Folk Festival coinciding with the Portsmouth Fairy House Tour on the same weekend. “There are guys [and women] playing music all over town and children wearing wings.”
“I’m a Greenwich Village baby,” he said about growing up in New York City, immersed in the folk songs and stories his parents collected on trips in rural areas up and down the East Coast.
Growing up, folk music was the family avocation for Warner and his brother, Gerret. Their parents, Frank and Anne, became well-known collectors of folk songs, documenting traditional singers all along the Eastern seaboard. Frank and Anne, hunting for a dulcimer maker in the late 1930s, also found a treasury of forgotten songs. On their vacations from full-time jobs, from 1938 to 1966, they traveled the Adirondacks, the Appalachians, New England and eastern Canada, collecting folk material. Jeff and Gerret went with them on the later trips. Jeff is the editor of his mother’s book, "Traditional American Folk Songs: From the Anne and Frank Warner Collection" and is producer of the two-CD set, "Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still," the Warners’ recordings of rural singers, many of them born in Victorian times. Jeff and Gerret, a filmmaker, have created "From the Mountains to the Sea," a two-hour, multimedia and live presentation with the voices and photographs of the singers and their land as collected by their parents.
Asked if becoming a musician was inevitable, Warner said, as a kid, “I started on guitar, but I was awful.” He was in the glee club in junior high school. It was when he got inside the folk community, he said, that he found his passion.
After receiving a bachelor's degree in English at Duke University and completing a two-year tour in the Navy, Jeff was editor-in-training at Doubleday Bookclubs until a friend asked if he would help run the Guitar Workshop, a non-profit music school, on Long Island. He stayed with the workshop nine years.
He then traveled nationally for the Smithsonian Institution in an American traditional music program.
In 1997, he arrived in Portsmouth.
“I taught myself to be a temp,” Warner said, even working for the city Public Works Department. Soon he was on the New Hampshire Council on the Arts artist roster.
In the way that things go full-circle, from late April through early June, Warner will return to the United Kingdom.
“I’ll be all over the country. They still have folk clubs and 300 folk festivals,” he said. He’ll perform at three festivals, Upton upon Severn, Chippenham and Chester, and attend seminars in Glasgow.
And in the fall, Warner will go to Vancouver and visit libraries, schools and clubs.
The Country Dance and Song Society, the organization that recognized Warner with the lifetime achievement award, was founded by Englishman Cecil Sharp, who came to this country in 1915 to teach traditional English Folk Dances. Warner, a past president of the CDSS, said it runs a summer camp in Massachusetts, where anyone can come and learn how to dance and learn the music. The award announcement says, “Jeff is one of the nation's foremost performers and interpreters of traditional music and an advocate for bringing folk music to people of all ages, through his deep knowledge and love of American and English folk songs. His warmth and encouragement of singers, both experienced and new, young and old, has enriched many lives.”
Jeff Warner’s solo CDs are Long Time Travelling, WildGoose Records, 2011and Jolly Tinker, Gumstump Records, 2005.
With other musicians: Short Sharp Shanties, Volume I, WildGoose Records, 2011; Steady As She Goes, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2006; Old Time Songs for Kids, with Jeff Davis, 1987; Two Little Boys: More Old Time Songs for Kids, with Jeff Davis. 1994.