A Production of The Folk Life ( Inc. 1976)
John McLaughlin and Jamie Downs, Editors


Philadelphia Folk Festival Photo Collage
An Interview with Peter Taney
by John McLaughlin

Reprinted from The Folk Life, Vol. 2, No. 6
June, 1978

k Life Vol.. II #6, June 1978

Peter at N.E. Folk Alliance, 2000

[One of the central images of Peter Taney that stays with you is of Peter and the rest of the Juggernaut String Band -- Janet Bregman Taney and Carl Baron grouped in front of a wall-full of abstract paintings in the Painted Bride Art Centre in Philadelphia's Society Hill, bopping lightly through the old Paul Whiteman standard, "Whisp'ring."

Another image is of Peter squatting on the ground in Rose Tree Park -- isn't that a great name for a park? -- with Bill Dooley and John Krumm, leading a group of happy three-year-olds in the chorus of "Bringing Home a Baby Bumblebee."

And another is of him with his feet up on a wicker chair in his West Philadelphia apartment at two in the morning, philosophizing about jug band music, the Sixties and the folk process.

You can pick up on any one of them. They are all Peter Taney, and among the good reasons why we asked him to sit down with us over some coffee and a tape recorder, and talk to us about how he sees all of that fitting together and making its own kind of sense in his own version of "the folk life"]

John: Have you always lived in Philadelphia?

Peter: No, as a matter of fact I grew up in New York and Connecticut before I came here to go to school at Penn. So I'm some of the fall-out on the surrounding community from Penn. High rise apartments and destroyed neighborhoods. Though I would like to think that we've been a bit more constructive than some of the other things they've done to the area.

John: I'm told there's quite a music scene around this area.

Peter: Oh yes, that's one of the reasons why we moved over here. Jack McGann lives half a block from here -- many of the people involved in The Cherry Tree Folk Cooperative -- Ann Mintz -- a lot of other folks have sort of gravitated to this area.

John: Winnie Winston lives not too far away.

Peter: Right. Winnie -- and other lesser known musicians I'm familiar with. And it isn't just folk musicians -- jazz and blues people are here too. And Greek music. John Russos, a really fine Greek musician, lives around the corner. And my brother lives here too - he's blues, rock. Different musical disciplines. And also some I don't have as much direct contact with. There's a lot of hot gospel singing, every Sunday morning. There are three of four of the gospel churches around here, where you can hear them shaking the tambourines and singing in a million-part harmonizing. Regular people who live in the neighborhood and go to church and just, you know, sing for glory. The folk community has its own parallel in that too, of course, in the Sacred Harp, which meets in this area as well as in Germantown, trading off in various people's homes to do white gospel -- well, church music of the 1700's. And you also have places like The Cherry Tree, and then International House, with that whole series of "folklife" festivals that Mick Moloney has been running all year, and with its Tuesday night square dances and the clogging teams too. It's hard to say which came first, the meeting places or the musicians, but I think a lot more people have come as a result of what's going on. And then we also have the things going on in Clark Park, every Spring -- and Summer and Fall too -- every year for a long time now, and still just neighborhood people out there in the park, singing and playing any time they decide to have a "fair" or whatever.

John: Why do you think it has happened in this section of the city?

Peter: Part of it has to do with Penn, with the quasi-artistic community around the university. Part of it has to do with low rents. We're on the edge of much lower rent right here, so we're in the middle, sort of. It's close to a lot of the things that professional musicians need access to. A lot of different things coming together. People are attracted to "the scene."

John: I was really impressed at the Folk Fair put on at the Civic Centre by the Folk Song Society and the Nationalities Service Centre, at how many different ethnic groups from the neighborhoods were out in force.

Peter: It's amazing. I'm only beginning to see just what strong "folk" roots still exist in some of these ethnic communities. It took going down to the Wolf Trap Festival in D.C. to realize that there's still a strong Ukrainian community in Philadelphia -- because Cheremosh comes from North Philadelphia. A fantastic dance troupe, old musicians with these drooping mustachios, far and away one of the best dance troupes I've ever seen -- and they're all from North Philly. And these things keep popping up all the time.

John: They're all around if you start looking aren't they? What got you into Appalachian old-timey music, anyway?

Peter: Well, that came about through the folk music trickle-back from Bob Dylan, which we were getting out on Long Island Sound. And then along came the Holy Modal Rounders... As a matter of fact, they were the first really down-home music -- it's all really a relative thing, after all -- that I ever heard. Such as it was.

John: Musical relativity?

Peter: Right. Jim Kweskin and his jug band too. It was the first time that banjo picking ever hit home to me, what Peter Stampfel was doing. He had something loose and funky, ragged-but-right, that I just loved. There was a loose, free idea or attitude about that band that wer'e still pursuing with Juggernaut. sort of the idea that it's a family activity - kitchen music. Not a plastic thing. At the time the only bluegrass I ever heard was coming out of the tube - from the Beverly Hillbillies. The medium through which Flatt and Scruggs were being filtered. There was a lot to keep me from getting into it. But then there was a fascination with the whole artsy approach to it -- the fringe, crazies approach as typified by Kweskin. So after that it was a matter of getting back to the country records, to the authentic sources.

John: Did you ever get to Union Grove?

Peter: No, I never did. As a matter of fact, even back then it was getting too crowded and the people I was listening to said I should go to Fiddler's Grove instead. I think I must have gone the first year it ran. And then getting down to the Smokies, meeting Jean and Lee Schilling.... It was more folksy, not so hard-driving.

John: Jean and Lee seem to be pleasant people, from what little contact we've had with them.

Peter: Oh, they are. I was sort of apprenticed to them for four months, and about six years ago. I wanted to be a dulcimer maker, but things were pretty tight back then. Plus I think I was eating them out of house and home on top of it! And I got chased out of my cabin one night by the moonshiner who lived up the holler from them. He came in my cabin one night waving this gigantic pistol, and that did it for me. He was out on bail for shooting someone over something really trivial too.

John: There's a good C& W song title for you -- "Out of bullets and out on bail..."

Peter: Okay! Well, anyway, I've never taken one approach to the music, is what I'm trying to say. Whatever I could get my hands on. And there was a lot going on in Philly too, and I was getting in touch with that. All kinds of Irish influence on the music around here, and I think it goes beyond the current fad for Irish music. Just about any old-timey band you'll hear around here will play Irish music. There are just a lot of Irish people in Philadelphia. John Kelly shows up for the Tuesday night square dances at International House, and he'll fiddle a few tunes, and I don't know how you'd get any more Irish than that! Or, for example, the Cherry Tree has its best nights when they're having Irish music. All these people come in from the suburbs, and you never see them except when there's an Irish concert. People remembering their roots in their own way.

John: Did you get started with a banjo or with the dulcimer, then?

Peter: I started with the bugle in a Boy Scout troop! But that has the same kind of open set-up in open tuning, you're really set up to play in a certain scale, mainly. So when I turned to the banjo, it was partly because everybody else was playing the guitar and I wanted to play something different. But as a result there was no-one to teach me anything, and I stumbled my way into the frailing banjo style -- all these books I couldn't read, picking up a bit from one person and another whenever I met someone who had a banjo. I'd ask them to show me something on it, so I've had thousands of mini-lessons that way, from people I've met along the way.

John: How did you get from banjo playing into square dance calling?

Peter: From a variety of sources. I got some from my ballroom dance classes when I was a kid -- white gloves, you know? And then at the Southern festivals, and then when I was living with Lee and Jean, Lee was calling a lot at the Sunset Gap Community Centre. And I got some of it from Stretch Pyott, at times when we'd be in the same room, calling.

John: Stretch has brought a lot of people together over the years, hasn't he? I think it was him who first brought Mick Moloney and Eugene O'Donnell together to play, as a matter of fact.

Peter: No kidding? Wow. Well it was Stretch who was calling for the square dances when my mother learnt, 20-30 years ago. I felt really good about bringing Stretch back to it in the Philly area, when I got into calling in this area. I got him to come over and then I took a trip one summer. When I got back, he'd brought so many of his own people over that we could split off and have two square dances at once! Now, they've really grown to something, with all kinds of people calling them. John Krumm calls and an old fellow called Bill Hunt, who's one of the real old-timey callers - he's been around for years. He says that he has to laugh when he hears people come into the thing every five to ten years and talk about the latest folk music "revival" -- as far as he's concerned, it's never been dead! But for me, there are clear signs it's regained its social function. Until we were up at one of the workshops at the Montco festival and Bob Carlin asked me where I got one of the tunes, though, that hadn't really hit home. But when I had to tell him I didn't know, I just picked it up at one of the local square dances from some other musician -- that's when it got to me.

John: That's like that nameless tune we printed in the May issue of The Folk Life.

Peter: Right. And that was just at one of those hotel room sessions. But then these tiny tape recorders have really helped on that process, especially when it's a party with friends.

John: Though of course, after Nixon, tape decks do make a lot of folks very nervous!

Peter: Yeah! I think it's really important, for someone coming into a community for fieldwork let's say, to come on very slowly. In areas like North Carolina, I'm still surprised that the people have got to know the older people as quickly as they have. Though of course the fiddle conventions have helped. Everybody is kind of getting high together -- you know, "name your poison? -- and then going off to fiddle together. That's a great way to meet people. Music is a fine thing for that. I bet if someone came around one of the Mummers with a four-string banjo and really knew how to play it, he'd get accepted a lot quicker. The Mummers and other white ethnic groups do still suffer from those old Polish jokes and all that kind of bigotry.

John: Didn't you tell me at one time that you were getting lessons from a Mummer?

Peter: Yes -- Edgar Stanistreet -- a real Philadelphian. If you ever wanted to get the old stuff about Philly, just turn on a tape-recorder and let Edgar go! One of the great things about the lessons, in fact, is the stories he tells. He goes back a long way. Some of his traveling stories, of course, not everyone necessarily believes.

John: Well, that's folklore for you. As John Hartford told us last December, it doesn't really matter, on some levels, if its true -- as long as you can make a song out of it.

Peter: Sure. This guy studied with Fred Van Epps back in the early 20's. Van Epps told them that classical fingerpicking banjo was on its way out, and said they'd all better learn to use a flatpick. And of course he was right.

John: That's an interesting question, the rise and fall of flatpicking versus fingerpicking. In Sam Charter's new book, about the Memphis blues and bluesmen, Sweet as the Showers of Rain, he traces the influences of banjo picking styles on the country blues guitar.

Peter: If he's talking about the Doc Boggs style, that's an interesting idea. Paul Cadwell, that kind of thing, is like a really classical guitar style transferred to the banjo.

John: It's an interesting interplay, white and black, banjo and guitar.

Peter: True. Then of course minstrel shows really brought a lot of older material along. It's funny, racist as they were, how the minstrel show still reflected, in a funny, distorted way, a certain placing of value on the African elements in the Black culture. I think in the next ten to fifteen years that period of Black history is due for a revival of interest. among upwardly mobile American Blacks, who'll be into their American roots by then. But it will have to be far enough away that they fear losing it entirely -- like a lot of other ethnic groups. I've seen a lot of change in attitude towards it since I was a kid. Even ten years ago, it was all the old stereotype of the happy darky- watermelon that was associated with the banjo. Now, it's all Roy Clark and Hee Haw. When I went into the Philadelphia schools for the "Odyssey" program for the Philadelphia Folk Song Society last year, I was surprised at how few kids could even tell me which continent the banjo came from. That kind of thing tells met the connection is close to being erased -- far away enough that people might start picking up on it to preserve it for their own grandchildren. Though it might be an African version of the instrument that they get into at first.

John: What do you see of the place of the banjo in old-timey and jug band music?

Peter: It all depends who you look at. "The Dixieland Jug Blowers: are a jug band in name only - they've got banjos in every possible place -- lead, harmony, fills, rhythm, melody. But there's others -- like the "Five Harmaniacs," an old white jug band, with a pure classical flat-picking lead on it. So the banjo is one of the few instruments that you can use like that.

John: What do you see as it's place in the Juggernaut String Band?

Peter: I want it to be a voice. I don't want it to be defined as an instrument, really. We have had trouble, on radio shows being mixed in the right way for us, because people are so used to the standard bluegrass mix, where they're all way back, then one steps up for a lead, and then back out again. But I've finally decided to ask people to mix us as if we've got six voices, rather than three people and three instruments.

John: Hearing you in The Painted Bride, without any mikes, you sounded as if you had achieved that balance.

Peter: Part of it is that room. People love to play that room because it's got those great acoustics qualities. No matter where you sit, where they're playing across the middle of the room like that, you get the same good balance, just because of the acoustics of the room.

John: It's always sort of amused me, that so-called "purists" folkies are so freaked out by electric guitars -- which the old bluesmen had to use to be heard on stage in the crossroads juke joints -- but they don't mind using a whole battery of microphones for vocal amplification. At folk festivals, you can hardly see the old ballad singers for the forest of mike-stands.

Peter: You do have a dilemma, don't you? On the one hand folk music is by definition home made music. Yet when you go out to play at a club or festival, you do also have to deal with the large-scale performance situation. The same paradox when you go to make a record, we're now finding out the hard way. You may fall flat if you do that "home-made" attitude in front of mikes, which might not pick it up. Unless you know what you're doing with t hem. You have to pay some attention to the medium you're working in. And in our case, we're trying to get a choral sound, with only three people. I do think that we get that, when it works.

John: An ensemble sound, with different voices.

Peter: Different voices -- right. And have the voices change, too. Our rapport with one another is developing more and more as we go along too.

John: What is Janet's background in old-timey?

Peter: Her mother taught violin, and she totally squelched her when she was trying to practice. Being a frustrated violinist, and coming to me for lessons about six years ago -- I used to play a lot more old-time fiddle than I do now -- and then, finishing with whatever I could teach her, and going on to Edgar, and then to Joe Sgro, who used to be with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. He's an impeccable studio musician. so we wound up in the Larchmont String Band, with Jeff Klaus, Len Wax -- we got our version of "Johnson Boys: from him -- Judy Hineman -- our level of local, neighborhood underground folkies.

John: What's Carl Baron's background?

Peter: He grew up in Brooklyn, where his father was into that whole New York City folk music scene - Pete Seeger, the Weavers, that kind of music. And Carl was into the Holy Modal Rounders -- he's been in jug bands a lot. He has a whole lot of different kinds of music in his background. The East Side Klezmorin? His father grew up in that -- he hates that album, says it's just a bunch of California kids trying to play this "new exotic" music from the Lower East Side! (Laughter)

John: Purists! They're everywhere! Nowhere is safe. Distance does create the exotic, is that it?

Peter: I guess we'll be doing something of that when we go to Wales this summer for the Eisteddfoddau. There are an awful lot of the American string bands going over to Europe this summer -- The Red Clay Ramblers, Hot Mud Family, Highwoods String Band and Plank Road. We're hoping to get a list of places, and just go around and let them know who we are too.

John: I know there's a lot of interest in this in the British Isles now. Like Japan -- I hear they're getting over bluegrass and buying up old-timey banjos now...

Peter: That's good to hear for us, of course. I tend to agree with the idea Tommy Thompson talked about it your interview with him in The Folk Life -- about "middle-time," not big time and not nowhere either. If we could get a tour around junior high school assembles - there are an awful lot of junior high schools out there ! And we're trying to work it out to do one thing one season and the next season another -- high schools in the fall, Europe in the early summer -- we're in our hot season for local gigs right now.

John: When did you get involved with the Painted Bride Art Centre?

Peter: About the same time I started performing in public. It used to be a poetry and dance place, a theatre, and we all decided we were going to be dancers and poets -- this was back when people would just get up if they felt inspired -- no need to be technically proficient. But it got a bit more respectable, and we got a bit too flaky for them, and so they said to me, "Look," we don't want you to come back as a dance group any more - but please do come back and play your banjo, because we do really like your banjo playing."

John: It's very interesting to me, that they can accept this kind of crossover from the traditional folk arts and the innovative fine arts.

Peter: It's odd to me too. As long as I've known them, I still can't figure them out! We've had our differences over the past eight years -- I didn't go down for a long time after they said that to me! But then they got me down there to perform, and now they have me running their folk series on Thursday nights. Every time I'm about to quit they do something that really pleases me. They just grow and grow.

John: I've always liked their quality.

Peter: Well, what I'm trying to do with the folk series is to develop a showcase for local folk artists. People do have certain categories in their heads -- "If they're playing at The Painted Bride, I'm sure...." But that's not our idea. We're not trying to be one of the folk clubs in the area. It's more of a local music workshop and showcase. We're trying to create a concept that people come to, rather than a line-up. Of course, if Jack McGann plays there he'll draw people. If we could ever persuade Mick Moloney to play, he'd fill the place. But I'm trying to keep it 50-50, to balance it out, local developing musicians -- one of your neighbors who has never performed in public but who's an excellent musician. It's a developing concept., and I've seen a lot of interest in it among the musicians, who just love to play in that room because of its acoustics. It's worth doing, as a help to the musicians alone. And we like doing it.

[And he has kept on doing so, in the intervening years since this 1978 interview. Peter and Janet moved out of the city, to the Poconos, to work in A Family of Artists -- Janet teaching writing, developing her career as a journalist-- ahe'anow editor of "Dignity," the Pocono Record's special supplement for seniors, Peter teaching music via computers, for special education classes -- as he began to build a career around, among other things, all those jujnior high school assemblies he mentioned in this interview, and an extensive list of artist-in-residence engagements. He has a growing international reputation in the field of music therapy, using technology to assist both children and adults with, for example, cerebral palsy, to access musical instruments; he has experimented extensively with the African and Afro-American roots of jug band music -- see the Juggernaut String Band CD Appalachian Ju-Ju (available through Peter's email, ), and the Juggernaut String Band appeared on the main stage at The Philadelphia Folk Festival last year. Stay tuned - their daughter, Joy, is now a member of the band, playing bass and a hot trombone.]

Peter and Janet at The Philadelphia Folk Festival, 2000