I grew up in rural upstate New York. I was lucky enough to live in a university town, so that when music changed in the sixties, and folk and gospel entered the mainstream, I could go to concert halls or sports arenas on the university campus to hear Judy Collins, Peter, Paul and Mary and Odetta.
Fast-forward fifty years, and many are still singing – not just in the studio, but touring, with grace and energy, well into their 70s. In just the last couple of years I’ve attended concerts by Mavis Staples and Judy Collins in Bellows Falls and Arlo Guthrie in Brattleboro.
Brattleboro’s Latchis Theater and the Bellows Falls Opera House are community theaters in my part of the state, with good sound systems and comfortable seats – perfect venues to appreciate these amazing musicians who were at the core of the musical and cultural changes that swept the 60s – and who are still touring after 50 years or more.
Arlo Guthrie gave us songs from the album he made with Pete Seeger. Judy Collins told how, one morning in the 1960s, she crept down to a basement in Woodstock, New York, and heard Bob Dylan composing “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Mavis Staples was a civil-rights pioneer, whose family sang for Martin Luther King; they later wrote and performed “Marching Up Freedom’s Highway,” an anthem of the civil-rights movement.
These musicians, whose schedules would challenge someone half their age, weren’t just showing up to go through the motions, rehashing old favorites for aging fans. Mavis Staples, who was 75, brought a band and backup singers to the tiny Bellows Falls Opera House. Elegantly dressed all in black, she rocked the house – and brought out her older sister for one number. Judy Collins, also in her 70s, appeared with just a guitar and a piano player, and her otherworldly voice was as beautiful as ever.
Tickets to these concerts weren’t cheap. I could have bought at least a couple of CDs for the price – and I do still listen to CDs. But I’d rather go to a live performance in a small auditorium. I consider it an honor and think of it as a kind of reverse “paying it forward” – a way to pay back these icons of American music for their contributions to our musical and cultural history - and there are more to come.
Mavis Staples will be at Rutland’s Paramount this Friday, and in early March, Joan Baez comes to the Flynn in Burlington on her national 75th-birthday tour.