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Remembering Music on Lightning Ridge

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Helen and Ricky Schneyer. Courtesy photo

Thanks to both Will Lindner and then Danny Coane, two articles in The Bridge have brought back the richness of the local music scene of the 1960s and 1970s. I’d like to fill in another part of this musical portrait — one that brought musicians from outside Vermont, and sometimes outside the United States, to Montpelier. That was Lightning Ridge Concerts, which had a lively existence from 1974 until 1980. 

These concerts had their origin in two concerts at the Plainfield Coop (or Plainfield Grange Hall, as some longtime residents still describe it). Sid Blum and I had been playing together as part of the Jack Hill Contra Band, and one day got to talking about how many talented (and non-professional) musicians lived in the area. We presented two evenings at the Coop featuring some of these performers. There was shape-note singing, some Balkan music, a few English ballads from Jack Hill caller (and Goddard instructor) Charles Woodard, and future Vermont Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Skoglund channeling Tammy Wynette in a rendition of “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”

Those two evenings might have been all there were if not for a call from a friend that fall. His Berkeley, California-based band, the Arkansas Sheiks, was looking for dates in New England, and did I know of any venues? So the Sheiks, with their infectious old-time sound, filled the basement of the Unitarian Church one fall evening in 1974. With the assistance of the Vermont Arts Council, many other concerts soon followed.

An old friend from teenage years, Eric Schoenberg, had become a masterful ragtime guitarist, and he was a natural candidate for an invitation. Eric returned several times, and in one instance recommended that we book a young friend of his, a phenomenal guitarist making his first trip to the United States. So it was that Montpelier was the site of Pierre Bensusan’s second American engagement. 

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Mark Greenberg, musician and host of the WNCS radio show “On and On,” remembers: “Lightning Ridge concerts were key to expanding the cultural life of Central Vermont in the 1970s, by presenting significant folk musicians from a variety of genres. For me, a few stand out, perhaps first and foremost Pierre Bensusan, one of the most extraordinary guitarists — musicians, for that matter — that I’ve ever seen. Pierre was just 19 when he came to Montpelier. … The music just knocked me out — for Pierre’s virtuosity, originality, musicality, and mature emotionalism.”

Another old friend, multi-instrumentalist and singer Jody Stecher, awed an audience in Plainfield. R.D. Eno, who covered these concerts for the Plainfield-based “Country Journal,” still vividly recalls Jody frailing banjo-style on the ukulele, singing the bluegrass standard, “Got No Use for that Red Rocking Chair.” Jody returned several times with his musical partner at the time, Krishna Bhatt, playing a unique amalgam of Appalachian and classical Indian music. 

Musicians who came to North Ferrisburgh to record for Philo Records were always eager to play live on a free night. Philo owners Bill Schubart and Michael Couture were helpful in making these dates happen, as was my brother Winnie Winston, who had become Philo’s resident pedal-steel guitarist. I remember the sweet-harmony duo of Jim Ringer and Mary McCaslin, the phenomenal swing guitarist Lew London, and the mandolin virtuoso Kenny Hall.

The appearance of one Philo artist was especially memorable: the Scottish singer Jean Redpath, who was recording a multi-volume set of songs by Robert Burns. Sound person Marshall Freedland was waiting in the Unitarian Church sanctuary when Jean arrived for her sound check. She looked at the room, stood at the back of the stage, sent a single note upward, then waited — and waited — for it to die out. “Please,” she said, “no microphones tonight!” 

The Unitarian Church was also the site of a concert by Bruce “Utah” Phillips, who came to a pre-concert WNCS interview with no idea of the concert venue. When informed by host Mark Greenberg, Phillips let loose with a string of good-natured Unitarian jokes (he claimed to have compiled a Unitarian folk song book with such standards as “Goin’ Down That Road Feelin’ Perturbed”). And when Dave Van Ronk stopped by the radio station for a similar interview with Mark, he confounded the entire staff by lighting up a particularly ill-smelling cigar during the program. The odor quickly permeated the entire station, but no one wanted to risk upsetting Dave in mid-interview. 

During this time, I had my own folk music radio show on WDEV, “Diamonds in the Rough,” which came with no pay but free promo LPs. There were many musicians I discovered through small labels such as Flying Fish, Shanachie, Arhoolie, and Green Linnet whom I then invited to Montpelier. Joe and Antoinette McKenna, playing Irish pipes and harp, came from Ireland to Montpelier this way, as did the Berkeley-based Klezmorim, who inspired the formation of our home-grown Night Geferlach Klezmer Band. 

It was especially exciting — and sometimes nerve-wracking — to promote performers who were legends in the folk music world. But invariably, these musicians, such as New Lost City Ramblers founding member Tom Paley, British guitarist Martin Carthy, and fiddler Allan Block, were open and friendly, responding with enthusiasm to the informality of Central Vermont venues. Robin Williamson, whose Incredible String Band approached cult status in the 1960s, was as unpretentious as a “star” could be. 

One concert that took place in neither Plainfield nor Montpelier was that of the Scottish husband-and-wife duo Cilla Fisher and Artie Tresize. I thought — mistakenly, as it turned out — that Barre and its Presbyterian Church would be an ideal place for the duo, but the response was very polite and disappointingly tepid for such an energetic duo. “You should have consulted us,” said Cilla afterward, explaining that in Scotland the Presbyterians were an infamously dour audience. After the concert, we went across the street to the Country Cuzzin’ lounge, where a different kind of audience listened in amazement as Cilla belted out Loretta Lynn songs along with the jukebox. 

In the summertime of 1978 and 1979, the concert series became the Lightning Ridge Folk Festival for a weekend, with daytime workshops at Goddard College and evening concerts at the Unitarian Church. Helen Schneyer, who had recently moved from Washington D.C. to Plainfield, performed spellbinding gospel songs and long-forgotten “parlor songs.” There was world-class Irish music from Mick Maloney and Eugene O’Donnell and thrilling instrumental and vocal harmonies from The Fiction Brothers (Howie Tarnower and Alan Senauke). Boston-based Rick and Lorraine Lee played their haunting blend of banjo and dulcimer; and local musicians such as Dennis Murphy, Neal Converse, Louis Beaudoin, and the Arm and Hammer String Band filled out the bill. 

By 1980, the opportunity arose for me to establish the Savoy Theater, and the end of Lightning Ridge Concerts was in sight. I quickly realized that I didn’t have the time or energy to continue the concert series — but soon the Onion River Arts Council, under the leadership of Mark Greenberg, kept folk music a vital part of Central Vermont’s arts scene. 

Lightning Ridge Concerts had a short but lively life. This month, I am donating my collection of concert flyers and press coverage to the Vermont Historical Society. You can learn about the many other performances not listed here, and if you were among those in attendance during those evenings in the 1970s, you’ll perhaps recall more indelible musical moments.