Black Crown Stringband at Bird and Beckett

By Murray Schneider

Last week world class strummers had laid down their fiddles on the Banjo Stage at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park. But you’d hardly know it from the foot stomping and side slapping that accompanied the Black Crown Stringband at Bird and Beckett Books and Records on Sunday, October 9th.

The neighborhood bookstore played host to the local four-piece old time music string band as part of its autumnal Sunday afternoon “Which Way West” concert series. In two 45-minutes sets, a standing-room only audience found itself transported to the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, transfixed by the twangy melodies of a folksy ensemble composed of a lively guitar, fiddle, banjo, bass fiddle.

The instrumental picking, more suitable for square dancing and clogging in an Appalachian hollow than on the downward slope of Chenery Street’s 600 block, nevertheless, had independent bookstore owner Eric Whittington’s shoulder-to shoulder Sunday throng tapping their toes like Mr. Bojangels hoofing “at country fairs and minstrel shows across the South.”

“This is a new venue for us,” said guitarist John McKelvy. “It’s a great acoustic room.”

“How about a Kentucky fiddle tune,” said fiddler Elise Engleberg, “’cause I’m from Kentucky. ”The band segued into “Train on the Island,” its third cut from its seven-track CD, which it hawked for ten bucks from a basket on the stage apron.

“Train on the Island,” said McKelvy, who performed the vocals, his nasal and reedy tones crackling like electricity hop scotching across TVA power lines. “A metaphor for getting nowhere.”

Matt Knoth thrummed his 5-string banjo’s taut strings, as bass player Karen Sonnenblick angled closer to the mic, sort of like The Soggy Bottom Boys, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson, do harmonizing “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” in the Coen brothers film “O Brother Where Art Thou?”

“We’re a band without borders,” Knoth said, who is also adept at plucking a rootsy flat-picking guitar.

Sonnenblick, whose day job is teaching math and science to Fairfax middle school students, fingered the microphone, as familiar to her as any eighth grade white board magic marker.

“All you kids in the room, so nice to have you here.” she smiled, gesturing to the several youngsters seated along side their parents. “Make sure you ask your teachers what sarcasm is.”

Sarcasm and Metaphor! School’s out so what’s going on here? Bird and Beckett serving as a surrogate classroom, surfacing English curriculum literary conventions that the kids, maybe even a future Gillian Welch among them, will eventually see on the California High School Exit Examination.

The boys and girls swung their legs in time with “Shady Grove,” as Sonnenblick took even greater latitude with her pedagogic detour. “Travel writing, kids,” said the Floridian, pointing her bowstring at bookshelves stuffed with travel books. “Don’t forget San Francisco and the West.” You can take the instructor out of the classroom, but never the classroom out of the instructor.

At the set break Sonnenblick, after performing some hootin’ and hollerin’ back up vocals, sipped from a cup of water, taking advantage of the teachable moment. “This music takes bluegrass back to its roots,” she said. “It’s like a teacher. She can’t talk about the multi-paragraph essay before she first teaches vocabulary, grammar and sentences building.”

Finding 18th century Tidewater colonial American land overrun with tobacco plantations, Scotch-Irish settlers moved into the Carolinian mountains. As earlier as 1714, they brought with them their fiddles and their fiddling traditions, carried along old English ballads such as “Barbara Allen,” adopted the African-American banjo and took root in the hills and valleys of Southern Appalachia where their mountaineering melodies accompanied barn raisings, wedding parties, and funeral dirges.

There they cut timber, mined coal, planted corn, let it ferment, and drank still-produced moonshine from it in what we’d like to imagine as some idealized arcadia of American rustic authenticity, but their lyrical musings often revealed hardscrabble poverty, addiction, heartbreak, even homicide.

Before Ralph Stanley evocative voice, before Doc Watson fingers flew over his flat-picking guitar and before Bill Monroe’s plaintive mandolin licks, even before Iris DeMent’s vocal precision and virtuosity, there was taproot old-timey music with its stronger beat and its focus on sparser instrumentation that didn’t rely upon solo-centric performances.

Uninterrupted by instrumental rifts and where breaks are rarely taken, old-timey mountain music, played exclusively with stringed instruments, is more suitable to dancing, say flatfoot dancing, than derivative bluegrass, a 1940s-late comer upon the traditional musical scene.

Elise Engelberg allowed her eyes to roam across the Glen Park audience, looking past Michael Rice, president of the Glen Park Association, whose son, a free-lance writer, lives in Tennessee. The last chords of “Sally Ann” lingered as she cradled her fiddle. “Lots of square dancing with this music,” said Engelberg, who began her career as a classical violinist.

“Right and we’re not sure what to do with people who just sit,” joked John McKelvy, “Probably look for lots of toe-tapping.”

“How you all doing out there?” said Karen Sonnenblick, leaning against her upright bass.

“Where are the horns?” asked bookseller Eric Whittington, from where he stood behind his counter.

“In the science fiction section,” quipped McKelvy, who, with his high and lonesome voice, has opened for the likes of Junior Brown, San Bush and Peter Rowan.

Whittington might possibly locate a trumpet or two moonlighting in a string band tucked away on his speculative fiction shelves, but he’d have no trouble finding or ordering from his wholesaler a wave of southern writers complementing the down home music people now enjoyed, including Ron Rash, Robert Morgan, Silas House, Charles Frazier, Tim Gautreaux, Jayne Anne Phillips, Barbara Kingsolver, even Vermonter, Howard Frank Mosher, whose recent “Walking to Gatlinburg” visualizes the sequestered Civil War ridges and valleys of Eastern Tennessee.

More than simply a bookstore that features music on Friday and Sunday, Bird and Beckett has endeared itself to Glen Park as a third place, a venue where people can listen to author talks and poetry recitations or simply just hang out.

“The’re terrific,” Whittington said of the acoustic musicians. “Word gets around the City, and our stage is one more place to be heard.”

“This is great music,” agreed Michael Rice, “and the bookstore contributes wonderfully to the neighborhood.”

As for the Back Crown Stringband, they’ve been most recently heard at Berkeley Old Time Music Convention and Portland’s Old Time Music Festival and will be featured on November 14th at the Swedish American Hall on Market Street.

“We’re in the tradition of The New Lost City Ramblers, said Matt Knoth, after his last rhythmic banjo roll before the set break.

The legendary Mike Seeger and Tracy Schwartz group, which did so much to kick-start the old-time music revival, appeared early on at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

Warren Hellman may not be able to re-schedule the 1960s band, but if he wants to book the Black Crown Stringband for a 40-minute set, say, on his Rooster or Porch Stages, he need look no further than an independent bookstore in Glen Park.

Bookseller Eric Whittington would be happy help the banjo-playing investment banker.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Black Crown Stringband at Bird and Beckett

  1. Joel Schipper

    Thanks for these write-ups – they really help us to see more of our ‘village’

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