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Desert Dancer Obit: Jerry Epstein (1941-2015) (28) RE: Obit: Jerry Epstein (30 Dec 1941 - 25 Sep 2015) 09 Oct 15

I'm sorry to hear this. I overlapped with Jerry at CDSS's Folk Music Week at Pinewoods camp some 15+ years ago. He was a strong character and helpful to me as a newbie there, and we corresponded some afterward. My sincere sympathies go to his family and friends.

~ Becky in Long Beach

Here is Sing Out's tribute.

Jerry Epstein, 1941-2015

Ron Olesko
Oct. 6, 2015

On September 23, the folk music community lost one of its guiding lights with the passing of Jerry Epstein. To sum up all the contributions and inspiration this man provided is an impossible task. Labels of folklorist, singer, arranger, conductor, concertina player, pianist, dancer, caller, writer, teacher and organizer are just some of the roles he embraced during his 40 plus year involvement with folk music. His infectious passion for traditional music certainly was a spark that gave inspiration to many people over the decades, including this writer. Jerry made it his responsibility to impart what he knew about the songs and the styles in which they were sung. Some people have remarked that Jerry was not bashful about sharing his opinions and they mean it as a compliment. His encyclopedic knowledge of the subject gave credence to his views and he was always approachable and willing to share. He could be blunt, but he was honest. He was also very kind and unassuming about his own talents. Sprinkle in a great sense of humor and a gift of exceptional musicianship, and you have Jerry Epstein.

Jerry was born in New York City on December 30, 1941. He earned a doctorate in Physics and spent many years teaching in the field. He was also a talented classical musician who developed a passion for traditional music. He became immersed in the history behind the music and his scholarly approach for discovery blended with his love for the traditional styles. Over the years, Jerry advanced from being a student to becoming a teacher, and he often led workshops for singers in both voice and traditional styles.

As a folksinger, Jerry was known for his powerful voice and encyclopedic knowledge of the older musical traditions. While he knew songs from many different traditions, Jerry may have been best known for his ballad singing and love for the folk traditions of the northeastern United States. His grasp of the history and context of these songs came across to all who listened.

One of the strongest influences on Jerry was folklorist Frank Warner. Frank and his wife Anne traveled the eastern United States and Canada collecting folk songs, many which were previously unpublished. In 1938 they met Appalachian dulcimer maker Nathan Hicks and his son-in-law Frank Proffitt, who shared with them a song called "Tom Dooley." The Warners also collected and recorded such songs as "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands", "The Days of Forty-Nine" and a many others. Jerry's friendship with the Warners would lead to his editing the collection Traditional American Folk Songs from the Anne & Frank Warner Collection, published in 1984.

Another important influence, and great friend, was Jack Langstaff. Langstaff, who passed away in 2005 at the age of 84, was the founder and artistic director of Revels, a group that continue to put together annual stage productions celebrating Christmas and the Winter Solstice and plays to audiences throughout the United States. The Revels are pageants that incorporate traditional folk songs, early music, dance and story in the annual productions that focus on different traditions from across the globe. Over the years Revels have expanded to include productions for Spring, Summer and other events. Revels began as a concert in NYC in 1957 as a way of reviving the atmosphere of Christmas parties that Jack remembered from his childhood. In 1966, the idea became the basis for a special on NBC television. Jack's daughter persuaded him to pursue additional concerts, and in 1971 Revels as we now know it was produced in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Revels would grow, adding other productions in addition to the Christmas program, and also spreading to other cities across the nation.

Like Jerry, Jack Langstaff started from a classical background, studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia as well as the Julliard School in New York. Jack became involved after attending a concert sponsored by the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Jack developed a deep appreciation for traditional music as well as the rituals and histories of traditional cultures that he would celebrate with Revels.

Jerry worked closely with Jack as an arranger for the Christmas and also the Spring Revel. Jerry would become the music director for the New York Revels. Jerry also performed with Revels in a number of productions and you can hear his voice on a many of the Revels recordings that have been released over the years. Jerry would also publish arrangements of traditional and early music for Revels.

Besides lending his singing talents to Revels, Jerry often danced in the productions. Jerry was an accomplished dancer and teacher of English Morris and Long Sword dancing. Jerry was also known to be a caller for New England contra dances!

In addition to his work as editor for the Warner collection and the Revels arrangements, Jerry would write for a number of scholarly publications including the Folk Music Journal, a publication of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Jerry also was the arranger for two large volumes of Jewish sacred music.

With all his knowledge and talent, Jerry did not record his own album of songs until he was 50. He would later remark that he waited until he was sure that his singing "felt right." He had such a deep respect for the songs and the styles that he waited until he knew that he had mastered the style without becoming an imitation. The songs became part of him and he sang them in an honest and natural voice that was respectful of the tradition.

What a voice it was! When the legendary Irish sean-nos singer Joe Heaney heard Jerry sing he remarked "When I first heard you, I thought you were one of the old guys." Jerry mastered the old styles of singing which allowed new audiences to experience and understand these honored traditions. He understood the song's social and historical settings and was able to convey that spirit to his audiences.

In the early 1980s, Jerry co-founded the group Bermuda Quadrangle with Jeff Davis, David Jones and Jeff Warner (son of Frank Warner). Like Jerry, each of these artists had a tremendous respect for the traditional folk music. Each were known for their intriguing collection of songs from various traditions. Together, Bermuda Quadrangle offered a "mini folk fest" with each performance. In 1991 they were invited to Dublin, Ireland to be part of a celebration that was held in the city for being the "culture capital of Europe" for the year. The group disbanded as each artist pursued their own adventure in folk music, but they would re-unite from time to time, always giving audiences a treat.

In addition to his singing and interpreting songs, he played a number of instruments, most notably the piano and the English concertina as well as the guitar. Jerry was regarded as one of the masters of the English concertina. Jerry performed at folk clubs and festivals across the Eastern U.S. and Canada, he has did numerous tours in England, Scotland and Ireland, and Australia. He became an ambassador for traditional American music and showed audiences the connections with their own cultures.
Here in the New Jersey/NYC area, Jerry will be long remembered for his work with the Folk Music Society of New York, formerly known as NY Pinewoods Folk Music Club. Back in 1965, Jerry and a group of friends who had been attending the Country Dance and Song Society's long running Pinewoods Folk Week, decided to form their own organization in NYC and called it NY Pinewoods Folk Music Club. Inspired by the work of legendary collector Cecil Sharp, the Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS) was formed in 1915 to help perpetuate the traditional arts. Each summer CDSS runs "camps" for adults to enable participants to experience these musical traditions. Jerry and the others decided to extend the spirit and philosophy of CDSS with their own organization centered in New York City. For many years it was part of the Country Dance and Song Society, who had their headquarters in NYC. When CDSS moved out of NYC, the local Dance Committee and the NY Pinewoods Folk Music Club formed two separate groups, and Pinewoods became the Folk Music Society of New York.

Since the mid-60s, the Folk Music Society of New York / Pinewoods Folk Music Club has been the epicenter for traditional music happenings in the NYC metro area. The club runs concerts, weekends, workshops, singing parties and other kinds of get-togethers and built a strong community around traditional folk music. Jerry, who in addition to being a co-founder and former president, served on the board of directors of the organization was an integral force within the club. Through the variety of events the club has produced, generations of city dwellers (and suburbanites!) have been exposed to the various traditions that make up "folk music." It is interesting to note the organization was formed as the commercial folk boom of the 1960s was coming to an end, but through the work of Pinewoods/FMSNY, the interest has been kept alive and nurtured. The group continues to offer a variety of concerts, workshops and weekend gatherings to enthusiastic audiences.

During his final years, Jerry struggled with heart disease and a series of strokes. His health forced him to cancel some touring plans and although his abilities were diminished, his spirit remained. When he was able, Jerry and his wife Clarice Kjerulff would join their friends at a the Aubergine Café in Jackson Heights, Queens for a weekly gathering of the "Sunnyside Singers Club". On Wednesdays nights, a group of people interested in singing songs get together for an informal "pub-style" sing at a cozy local restaurant in Queens, New York.

One of the last conversations I had with Jerry was at an event run by the Folk Music Society of New York. Jerry brought together an outstanding collection of traditional artists for a weekend of music and workshops at a resort in the Catskills. While the music and weekend gathering provided some of the finest traditional music and artists in the country, the attendance was less than anticipated. While there were a number of factors that effected attendance, it bothered me. I questioned whether or not traditional music had lost its audience. Jerry looked at me and said "Of course not, more people are singing these songs than ever before." He pointed out the number of clubs that are still in existence and all the community sings that were taking place, not to mention the music people were making in their homes.

Back in 2000, Jerry wrote a letter that appeared in Living Tradition magazine. He was addressing concerns that "source singers" were dying out and some folks were worried that we were in danger of losing our links to the traditions. Jerry pointed out that the same concerns were raised in the 1930s and even earlier when people first began to worry about the perpetuation of the folk traditions. Jerry wrote "This phenomenon repeats itself every few years with a new generation of "the last source singers". And the older generation of source singers is rapidly becoming — us! So let's take that responsibility seriously. But I have no doubt that the tradition is doing very well, thank you very much, and it will do so pretty much no matter what the outcome of all this discussion is. So here's a health to the older generation of source singers of the year 3000!!"

Once again, Jerry was right. What IS occurring today can be compared to the efforts that took place in the early days of the folk revival when people were finding these treasured folk songs and making their own music. Today, thanks to the efforts of people like Jerry Epstein and others like him, people are once again singing in their homes, at community gatherings, and discovering the roots of our musical heritage. Folk music was never meant to be a commercial enterprise (witness what became of the 60s folk revival). Folk music is not meant to be merely exhibited, it is meant to be experienced on a personal level and in community gatherings. It is about making music, exploring our past, and seeing something of our future.

Jerry, thank you for all the gifts you shared with us. You are no longer around to help guide us, but the efforts that you and many others in groups like FMSNY have put forth have shown us the path and now we are left to lead others. Jerry's spirit will always be with us to provide guidance to that next generation. I can't think of a greater testament to a life well lived.

[Please share your memories of Jerry by leaving a comment below.]
My thoughts and reminisces about Jerry only covered a portion of what this man was all about.
I hope others will remind us of how Jerry touched their lives.

Here's a video Jerry, Jeff Davis, and Jeff Warner as Bermuda Triangle performing "
Assassination of Lincoln" on YouTube.

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