A good hootenanny is right up Hogan's Alley

Every other Sunday, you can find ad hoc musicians jamming in South Baltimore.

A good hootenanny is right up Hogan's Alley

June 19, 2005|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

Long before television, video games, Jell-O wrestling, speed dating, the Internet, paintball and the vile scourge of karaoke, there existed a form of entertainment so pure, simple and selfless that - like most pure, simple and selfless things - it didn't last long.

People from different walks of life would gather at a common meeting place, break out their instruments and make music together - maybe not always beautiful music, but that wasn't the point.

This pastime went by various names - jam, sing-along, hoedown, group sing - but none more silly than the one used by those who gathered, once upon a time, to play folk music: "Hootenanny," they called it.

And, some still do.

In the back room at Hogan's Alley - a South Baltimore tavern formerly called Cox's - they meet every other Sunday: Dave brings his mandolin, Chris his guitar. Tom works his upright bass through the tavern door at an angle. Will unpacks his tambourine. And Kelly breaks out her egg shakers.

There, joined by a handful of others - generally outnumbering the audience - they play, sing and drink bottles of beer brought out by the bucketful, usually starting about 4 p.m.

They play mostly folk music, but they aren't purists about song selection - or anything else. Along with more traditional folk songs, some Beatles, Beach Boys and Elvis sneak in as they make music well into the night. Some of it is original, some new and some old, but all of it reminiscent of a day when music wasn't just something you listened to; it was something you made.

Keeping tradition alive

"We've become passive consumers of music," said Lou Linden, who has been bringing his guitar to the hootenanny for nearly a year. "Part of the reason is technology. With recorded music, with radio, people lacked the motivation to play. I like to think that, in some way, what we do here keeps alive that tradition of making music."

Linden, an attorney who switched to restoring ships for a living, said the spirit of the hootenanny is best summed up by a remark he heard from Pete Seeger, whom Linden's jug band once got the chance to open for. "Music," the folk legend told him, "is much too important to leave to the professionals."

While the core members of the biweekly gathering did recently perform, as the South Baltimore Sheiks, at a D.C. club in exchange for a case of beer, they don't consider themselves professionals - at least not professional musicians.

David Israel is a NASA engineer; Chris Beck is a Capitol Hill staffer; Kelly Lane is an artist; Will Priest is a special education teacher. There's Gil Moore, the water taxi captain, and "Fireman Mike" - not to be confused with "Banjo Mike." And many others have come and gone as the group continues to revolve and evolve.

How they all came together, Israel said, goes back to the blizzard of '03.

Israel works at the Goddard Space Flight Center and was in charge of an experiment on the Space Shuttle Columbia. When the experiment was successfully completed, he scheduled a party for Feb. 16, 2003, at his neighborhood bar, then called Cox's, to celebrate.

Two weeks before the party was to take place, the shuttle met with disaster, disintegrating over Texas during its re-entry into the earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1, and killing all seven crew members.

Israel considered canceling the party, at which he and Beck planned to perform, but co-workers urged him to go ahead with it.

When the day came, though, a blizzard hit, and none of their work mates could get there. So, Israel and Beck began encouraging friends in the neighborhood and any others who wandered into the bar during the snowstorm to go home and get their instruments.

Wendy King, the bartender at Cox's, began urging customers to do the same.

"People were just kind of popping into the bar because of the snow and wondering what was going on," recalled Beck. "They see us and they're like, `I have a banjo at home.' And we're, like, `Well, go get it.' "

"It went on for 12 hours," Israel said. "It got incredibly crowded. The room was just packed, and we just kept playing and everybody was singing along. It was a real magical day."

Israel thinks the combination of the snow and tensions about heightened terrorist alerts may have served to bring people together.

As the night progressed, participants were making up new words to old songs.

"She'll be coming around the mountain," became "We'll be duct taping our rooms when she comes." At the end of the night, Beck said, "we were all talking about how awesome it was and how we should get together and do it again. And everybody was saying, `Yeah, cool,' like you do when you're drunk and happy.

"But even after everyone was sober, it still sounded like a good idea."

It was Israel who decided to call the regular gathering a hootenanny, because, he said, "I just like the word."

A `thingamajig'

Hootenanny was originally another word for "thingamajig."

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