eliza berkon is a features writer and musician based in washington d.c. 

A Long-Lost Piece Of D.C.'s Folk History Comes To Life At Alice Gerrard's Concert

When Alice Gerrard waded into the back of a closet in her Durham, North Carolina, house, she discovered a box of long-forgotten items. That box led her to her latest album, and her show this Saturday in D.C.

“I pulled it out and there were these 7-inch, reel-to-reel tapes, and I decided to give them a listen,” says Gerrard, once half of a folk duo with West Virginia-bred Hazel Dickens. “As I went through, I realized it was all stuff that we had never [released].”

Some 50 years later, that music is seeing the light of day with Sing Me Back Home: The DC Tapes, 1965-1969 set to be released on Friday. On Saturday night, Gerrard will perform selections from the album as well as other material at All Souls Church’s Pierce Hall—the very spot she and Dickens recorded their first album, 1965's Who’s That Knocking?

Gerrard, who can count Emmylou Harris and The Judds among her devotees, says much of the music on Sing Me Back Home was recorded in the living room of her house in Northwest D.C. In the mid-1960s, after her first husband, Jeremy Foster, died in a car accident, it fell on Gerrard to raise their four young children, some of whom she says were running about while she and Dickens, then working at a Mexican imports store in Georgetown, made many of these recordings.

The 19-track album is a mix of traditional music that spans blues, gospel, folk, bluegrass, and touch of rockabilly with a spirited version of “Bye Bye Love.” At times, Gerrard and Dickens, who died in 2011, are heard laughing, stopping and starting, or engaging in some intense throat-clearing. The sonic landscape is spare, with the vocals often accompanied only by a solitary guitar. And though most of the songs are in major keys, much of their lyrical content is far from chipper.

When death shall close these eyelids, and this world shall cease to be, and they lay me down to rest in some flowery boundary tree, will you miss me when I’m gone? sings Gerrard on folk favorite “Will You Miss Me?,” popularized by the likes of the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie. Themes of sadness and loss color much of the music Dickens and Gerrard made in the late 1960s and early ’70s, with songs like “Tomorrow I’ll Be Gone” and “Pretty Bird.”

When listening to such intimate, acoustic versions of music born in small Southern towns and the hills of Appalachia, it’s a bit jarring to learn that the duo was in the middle of a bustling metropolitan city when they recorded it.

“We met in this D.C. area, which at the time we met was a huge meeting ground and [mixed]-up cauldron of young, college-educated, middle-class kids like myself and my husband and people … who were becoming interested in traditional, old-time and bluegrass music,” Gerrard says. “So it was a mix of those people and all the people who had migrated up from the South and brought their music with them.”

At the time, Gerrard says folk was played at “every little corner bar in Baltimore,” in D.C. haunts or out in rural Virginia. An American folk revival, heavily intertwined with social justice, that had begun a couple decades prior with artists such as Guthrie and Pete Seeger was still underway and would ultimately influence the careers of Bob Dylan; Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary; Simon and Garfunkel, and countless others.

Gerrard's own path to the folk scene began in the mid-1950s in Washington D.C., where she had moved with Foster after briefly attending Antioch College in Ohio. She met her future performing partner, Dickens, through Foster.

“The thing I remember him saying to me is, ‘There’s this little girl with a great big voice, and you should meet her,’” Gerrard recalls of that fateful conversation with Foster.

When the two women began making music together in her living room, they weren’t giving much thought to their long-term careers.

“We were kind of unconscious about all that stuff—we were just doing something we loved to do,” Gerrard says. The two picked up gigs at local restaurants such as the Fairfax Bar and Grill. And in the late 1960s, they joined a tour of traditional music—later called the Southern Folk Cultural Revival Project—that performed throughout the South each year.

Though Gerrard and Dickens broke up in 1977, they remained friends and continued to celebrate holidays together. Gerrard launched her solo career, which would produce four solo albums, including 2014’s Grammy-nominated Follow the Music. She has also collaborated with several folk artists over the years, releasing a 1980 album with her second husband, Mike Seeger, before their divorce. And from 1987 to 2003, she ran a publication she founded to spotlight traditional music, The Old-Time Herald, which is still operational today.

In her refusal to retire, (“Does anybody ever really retire?” she asks) the 84-year-old musician says she still has music to share. And though the songs she performs tend to favor the somber, she agrees with the common premise in the blues world that performing mournful music can be cathartic.

“It was either Dewey Balfa or D.L. Menard who said this: ‘The sadder the song, the happier I feel.’ It’s the same,” Gerrard says. “And I think it’s really true.”

Alice Gerrard will perform with Joseph Dejarnette, Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, Kay Justice, and others at All Souls Church, Unitarian at 7 p.m. on Saturday. Tickets $10-$18.

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