For Ray Alden it was never enough to discover, learn, and analyze the music; organize, illustrate, preserve, package, and distribute the wealth; teach, experiment, and recreate -- or create his own. No, he had to pass right through to the human level, and become part of and blood of those families where the music came from, with friends made everywhere he went along the way.
Ray Alden died of cancer at his home in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, on September 19, 2009. He was 67 years old. A musician and polymath, he documented scores of players young and old over several decades, encouraged others to pursue their passions for old-time music and its many variants, and connected hundreds if not thousands of old-time music enthusiasts. He shared his sound recordings and visual images through a succession of iconic LP and CD albums. He was never a professional folklorist or musician. He was a high school mathematics teacher who retired at age 53 to pursue his many interests, including music. Yet his recordings are arguably some of the most important in old-time music from the late 1960s onward.
He became concerned that field recordings would be placed in inaccessible archives. Anxious to share the joy of his experiences with the musicians he’d met over the years, and wanting to help other documenters do the same, he founded the Field Recorders’ Collective. It releases field recordings to the general public. Ray hoped that sales of FRC albums would also financially benefit the artists who had been recorded, as well as their families. Ray Alden was a member of the board of directors of the Old-Time Music Group, which publishes the Old-Time Herald. Paul Brown offers this profile and remembrance.
The heat was unrelenting, the sunlight almost unbearably bright on a Piedmont North Carolina summer day back around 1979. Ray Alden’s gigantic, beat-up second-hand Olds 98 made the turn ahead of me onto NC Route 65 and slowly gathered speed, pushing its clumsy bulk towards the small community of Belews Creek. All the windows in the bedraggled car were wide open. Any pretensions to elegance intended by its maker were either long gone or now a bad joke. Ray wore a ball cap, as did his riding companion, Jim Miller, whose arm was carelessly slung over the top of the bench seat. They were talking idly about who knows what. You couldn’t have seen two guys happier, farther from the cares of work or school.
Our two-car motorcade turned left onto Fulp Road and rattled along to a mobile home where longtime friends of Ray lived. We ambled up onto the narrow porch. Dozens of coffee cans did duty as pots for someone who clearly loved nurturing flowers. Ray gave a little shout and a peck on the door, there was a call back from inside, and we walked into the dimness to find a large man in overalls, an elderly woman, and an older man who was trying his best to look through thick glasses but did not seem to see all that much.
I took a little breath and felt a brief tremor of weakness through my arms. We were in the presence of Fred Cockerham, one of the greatest old-time fiddle and banjo players ever.
As soon as he knew who’d stepped in, Fred called out to Ray in a foggy baritone, and a smile spread steadily across his slightly puffy face.
His health uncertain, Fred had moved with his wife Eva and son Odell to Belews Creek from their cabin in Lowgap, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. They were now living next door to Fred’s devoted daughter and son-in-law, Juanita and Wade Tysor.
Ray, Fred, and Eva chatted about music and friends. The Cockerhams’ son, Odell, who’d been disabled after being hit in the head in a fight years before, sat in his overalls in a lounge chair, smiling and hand-rolling one cigarette after another. He steadily piled them on a tray table like timber at a miniature sawmill.
Eventually, Ray suggested Fred get out his fiddle and we play some. Fred said he wasn’t sure he could do much. Ray gently encouraged him. The fiddle appeared. We tuned up. Fred started in on his trademark version of “Susan Anna Gal,” a joyful dance tune from the Round Peak tradition and one of many variants on the “Shady Grove” theme. The clear tone, the slip-slide phrasing, the startling, unexpected turns of bowing heard on Camp Creek Boys touchstone recordings from County and Mountain Records, were all there, even if the volume wasn’t. It was pure Fred Cockerham.
When he wound up the tune, he shook his head slightly. “Pretty weak,” he sighed in a review of the job he’d just done. Ray said it sounded great. We agreed. It did. It just wasn’t loud. Fred played a few more, including the droning “Fall on My Knees.” Eva called across the room and said Fred would sometimes play that one all afternoon, and she loved it.
Against our protests, Eva fixed a comforting meal. She laid out green beans, pinto beans, fried chicken, and potatoes.
The chatter was easy, the body language amongst Ray and the Cockerhams relaxed. Before we left, Ray suggested to Jim and me that we pool some money for the food Eva had provided. It wasn’t a usual thing to do in the South, where hospitality is ingrained and a host might take offense. But these were unusual times. Ray knew – and had mentioned quietly out of their earshot – how skimpy Eva’s and Fred’s resources were. Eva objected at first, but Ray quietly, warmly insisted. His smile overwhelmed, though it was in no way overbearing. Eva let her protest slip away. Ray gave her a big hug. We said our goodbyes and made our way out.
Talk to people who knew him, and you’ll find this was classic Ray Alden. His friends and acquaintances say he seemed to create a zone of trust and comfort nearly anywhere he touched down. Here was a New York Italian kid, Renato Giacomelli Alden–Ray said his father, a minister, had added the last name “Alden” when he encountered discrimination after emigrating to the US–who had grown up to connect young and old, urban and rural. He was crossing cultures, putting others at ease, sharing his enthusiasms as broadly as he could, encouraging other people to do the same. Received in the Cockerham home practically as an adopted son the hot summer day we were there, he had also invited Jim and me to come with him and share the relationship and its benefits. We were only two of many people who’d received this sort of invitation from him. The stories people tell show that in the old-time music world, there was nearly always a string back to Ray. No matter where you went, you found someone who knew him.
People who did know him say his way of conducting himself had the effect of expanding the old-time music community. If he didn’t start an epidemic, as Malcolm Gladwell describes “connectors” helping to do in his book The Tipping Point, perhaps that’s just because our society is fairly well inoculated against the major spread of something that can sound as raw as old-time music, and that provides so little in the way of material riches.
People who met and knew Ray also say his presence tended to create a sense of trust or safety–and a gentle gravitational pull.
Ambrose Verdibello worked as a volunteer at the Great Hudson River Revival (Clearwater) festival in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Ray was also there, coordinating music at the old-time stage in the 1980s and ‘90s. Verdibello recalls, “When I was done doing whatever I was doing at the front gate, checking people in, I’d go over to this old-time stage and more often than not Ray would be in the center of some jam session, and I sort of made note of this guy who always seemed to be in the middle of people playing tunes and such.” Verdibello later became fast friends with Ray, playing with him in the Southern Schoolhouse Rascals and collaborating in the Field Recorders’ Collective.
Fiddler Jay Ungar, who founded the Fiddle and Dance Camps at Ashokan in New York state and wrote the popular tune “Ashokan Farewell,” featured in Ken Burns’ TV documentary The Civil War, also worked at the Revival. He coordinated the dance stage, and recalls interacting with Ray there and observing him in settings from parties to festivals at least as far back as the early 1970s. “He had an ambience about him that was very host-like,” Ungar says, “and yet without being the obvious center of attention. So he was kind of a center, in a very generous way, that invited other people in.”
For much younger musicians, it was possible to take Ray’s place in the scene for granted, as though it had always been that way. But an astute observer would come to understand otherwise. Thirty-three-year-old fiddler Emily Schaad of Rhinebeck, New York, met Ray around the year 2000. She had attended Ungar’s camp for the first time two years before, as she branched out from the classical tradition which had been her musical base from childhood. She decided to travel south to seek out and learn from old-timers. She recalls that when she shared her idea with Ray, he responded quickly, “Oh, I’ll help you meet some of these people!” He put her in touch with Kentucky fiddler Clyde Davenport and introduced her to guitarist and singer Mac Snow of Mount Airy, North Carolina, among others. She says at the beginning, Ray seemed “kind of a figure who had always been a part of the landscape. But I noticed later how he had set himself where he did. I noticed that it wasn’t something that he just did and was good at, but that it was deeply, deeply important to him, that he appreciated people who really cared about the music.”
A look back on Ray’s life reveals that he set himself where he did, as Schaad puts it, over and over again, because he’d had to. He’d grown up in the Bronx, Manhattan, and a succession of other places including upstate New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsyvlania as his father took ministerial positions at Baptist and Presbyterian churches. Conversations with his friends reveal he always seemed to consider the Bronx his real childhood home–and not always a hospitable one. His father died of cancer in his forties in 1951. Ray was nine years old.
From there on out, Ray often had to fend for himself. He had to protect himself, and create his own path.
After his father died, Ray and his mother lived in Italy with his father’s family for about a year. Then they lived for a time with his maternal grandfather in the Bronx. His widow, Diane Alden, says Ray recalled feeling alone and vulnerable, an outsider, during this time.
“When he was in Italy, he was the American,” she writes. “When he lived in the Bronx, his contemporaries in his Italian neighborhood did not quite know what to make of him, with the name Alden: was he a bona fide Italian? His grandfather in whose home he lived had no use for him and was quite unkind, to put it mildly. He and his mother had a difficult life for many years. They were very, very poor. His mother worked more than one job for very low pay; she worked as a switchboard operator. They lived by the elevated train . . . One room in the grandfather’s apartment was by a curve, so the noise must have been earsplitting. His mother would walk long distances to pay bills rather than buy a stamp. How she managed to put him through New York University is beyond me.”
Venetia Alden and her son Ray eventually moved to a new housing project in the Chelsea district on Manhattan’s Lower West Side. It was built by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. There, Ray met Bill Chaleff, a few years his junior, who’d moved in at the same time with his family, when the project opened. They remained deep friends for life.
Chaleff’s recollections mirror the stories of the somewhat lonely, self-protective boy related by Diane Alden. The gregarious Ray Alden the old-time music community knew had not yet emerged.
“He was much more modest then,” Chaleff says. “I wouldn’t say socially backward. But in a room with twenty people or so, he was on the lower end of being likely to initiate or start talking or something of that nature. He was always perfectly mannered and would respond civilly and normally. He was not recalcitrant, but somewhat reserved.
“He spoke about growing up in the Bronx on Arthur Avenue in a pretty tough neighborhood, and he had to scout around different ways to walk to school because the kids would take his lunch money or other things from him. So he was street-wise and savvy at an early age, and maybe that made him a little more cautious.”
How did this reserved, street-wise city kid find old-time music? And how did he come to be seen as a central figure by so many people in the old-time music community? When he was asked, Ray could provide answers to the first question. He could seem almost puzzled if asked the second one. Family and friends may provide the best answers there.
Mountain music, as Ray wrote in Banjo Newsletter in 2003, “was not exactly the rage with the southern Italians in my Bronx neighborhood.” In the same interview, he wrote that he’d discovered Appalachian music and the banjo when he heard a Weavers album in 1959 at a summer camp where he was working: “Hearing that high banjo intro to “Darling Corey” played by Pete Seeger excited me as nothing else had.”
It began. He started learning banjo, and wrote that he became interested in old-time music listening to Chaleff and friends practicing at Chaleff’s apartment. He also listened to bluegrass and urban folk music. But he wrote that New York City bluegrass seemed mostly about competition, and urban folk “didn’t seem concerned with real folk music.”
Then the catalytic event occurred. “What set me on fire,” he told Banjo Newlsetter, “was going to 78 rpm collector Loy Beaver’s New Jersey home for a small concert. Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, and Oscar Jenkins stopped over on their way back (to North Carolina) from Newport (the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island) in 1967. The entire evening they sat in the living room playing and singing, much as they would at home. I was just a few feet away the whole night. Even though I had previously heard Fred, Earnest East, and Kyle Creed at a Friends of Old-Time Music concert (in New York City), hearing it up close in a home atmosphere made a tremendous impact.”
Ray told Banjo Newsletter that the night at Beaver’s home changed his life musically. He desperately wanted to learn the style he’d heard. But he didn’t have much concentrated time available: he was pursuing a second master’s degree while teaching math full-time at Stuyvesant High School in New York.
So he started making trips south to hear music. He took in the Union Grove Fiddlers’ Convention in North Carolina with his future wife Diane in 1968 over Easter break. That summer he visited Fred and Eva Cockerham at their Lowgap cabin. And he told Banjo Newsletter and others that he started recording his visits so he could play along with the tapes at home and learn. From the outset, he used good equipment–an indication he understood the recordings might be of lasting value to others later.
Learning to play was anything but easy for him. Chaleff, who was classically trained on piano and recorder and enjoyed playing bluegrass, remembers some of the tribulations.
He had a lot of difficulty in the beginning. Roger Sprung (the bluegrass banjo player and teacher) tried to teach Ray theory, and Ray resisted. And I tried to teach Ray theory and dissect some of these really simple tunes like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Because as you know, Ray was a mathematician and I thought this would be easy. It took him years to integrate this until it became unconscious and fluid as with other musicians.
Chaleff says because of that, some musicians whom Ray tried to join at places such as Washington Square Park in Manhattan, where pickers often jammed outdoors, turned him away.
His feelings would be hurt and he would try to understand what’s going on. And I would say, ‘Ray, you’ve got to listen and when people change from one part to another part, you have to stay in time.’ . . . Some of the groups, when they could hear his stumbling, were as gracious as they could be when they would ask if he could stand out for a song and then come back in. But others were pretty brutal about it.
Eventually, Chaleff says, through tremendous concentration and practice, Ray became “a truly extraordinary musician.” Diane Alden says he would sit for hours at a time, tapes of the masters rolling, headphones on, determinedly practicing on the banjo.
Chaleff carries one deep regret when he thinks about all of this. “At the very first, Ray said, ‘I’m going to go down south and learn from some of these guys. Would you go with me?’ And I never went with him on any of those trips, and to the very end of my life, I will kick myself. But I was afraid that the troubles he had with timing would make it more difficult for him to get what he wanted.”
Chaleff says Ray did get what he wanted, and he got something he may not have known he was looking for, at least down south: a level of acceptance he had never felt in the Bronx, in Italy, or at jam sessions in Washington Square.
“Every time he came back from a trip, he had grown musically and as a person,” Chaleff recalls. “He was easier to be with, more fun to be with . . . He had recordings and would play them for me and show me the photographs . . .
“It was very clear from the get-go, his first trip down to see Tommy and Fred, that they had received him with open arms, even though many of the stories hinged on there being a language barrier, that he could only understand seventy percent of what they were saying, and I assume vice-versa.” This was because of tremendous regional differences in American English dialects, colloquial expressions, and accents.
“So in spite of that language barrier,” Chaleff continues, “they made it clear to him that he was welcome. And that was a wonderful thing for him, because he really needed that . . . It sounded to me like the acceptance was unconditional. Most people know when you’re in a healthy environment that it’s good for you. He was on his mission, no doubt about it . . . but he was getting so much out of it too.”
Chaleff says that in a fashion that was becoming characteristic of him, Ray allowed each success with the old-timers to help him unlock talents and potential. He believes that, as he was doing with music, Ray set himself to developing a remarkable level of social skill.
I think he knew when he was recording people, he had to put them at ease. I think he was conscious that, coming into their world as a Martian from another world, that he had to be comfortable with them, and they with him. And I think he taught himself how to do that, and that became ingrained in him.
So it continued, Chaleff says, ever expanding. “Ray remained the connecting hub, bringing people together, keeping phone numbers, inviting people along, showing them recording. When he learned something, he was just incredible about engaging everyone else.”
Dave Spilkia would agree. He was a student at Stuyvesant who met Ray through the school’s folk music club around 1968. Ray was the faculty advisor. Spilkia recalls, “One day he mentioned to the people at the club that the Reverend Gary Davis would be playing at the Folklore Center. And I was the only person who showed up . . . and I guess he saw I was interested . . . I was kind of shy, and he was very nurturing. And I’d get together with him and we’d play music at his mom’s apartment.”
Soon, Ray moved to his own apartment–and started having music parties there, always inviting Spilkia.
Then, Spilkia says, “He said he was going to go down to Fred Cockerham’s house and take banjo lessons. And he invited me to go with him. And I was excited. I think it was 1970.
“We went down there and would stay during the day. We took some photographs. We recorded some. We took Fred and his banjo up to Kyle Creed’s.” Creed had made the banjo. “We stopped at Tommy Jarrell’s house, just showed up. We did some recording . . . He always liked to play along with the tapes,” Spilkia recalls, echoing the stories of Chaleff and Diane Alden. “That’s sort of why he did the initial taping, and it expanded from there.
“Sometimes you read a story where this person is a major influence on my life,” Spilkia adds. “Really for me, it was Ray. My life took a major turn because he took me on these trips. I wanted to go very, very badly.”
And, says Spilkia, as Ray had found and reveled in the acceptance of the old-timers, he helped Spilkia find self-acceptance.
I had this eating problem back then. I was a very picky eater, and I was inhibited by it. In fact the first time Ray invited me to go down south, I turned him down, because I was a bad eater. I felt I’d be embarrassed.
The second time, I told him I had this problem. He didn’t care. Big deal, was his attitude. He was always that way.
On the other hand, Ray’s drive and focus could be tough for Spilkia to handle at times.
How I viewed him changed over the years. Part of me later on chafed a little bit, because I might want to do things a little differently. Ray loved to swim. He would always find these opportunities to swim. I wanted to go hit the next musician, tape the next guy, and he would want to get in his swimming.
He had his quirks. He had a lot of interests, music being a passion. He loved these Kung-Fu movies. I remember one day we were in North Carolina . . . And there was a Bruce Lee movie at the drive-in movie theater. But he didn’t want to pay for the ticket. So he took the car and drove in through the exit, turned the lights off, if you can imagine a stealth vehicle. I was a little nervous that we would get caught. Because we hadn’t paid, we didn’t have sound. But Ray didn’t care. I was watching the movie. I didn’t have a particular interest in it. The decisions weren’t always as democratic as I would have liked them to be.
At still other times, Spilkia felt he just couldn’t quite keep up. But then, he said, Ray might do something that would create a peak experience.
One summer, he recalls, he and Ray stayed in a house in Meadows of Dan, Virginia, for two months. Spilkia says the only time he was unhappy was at the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention.
Somebody invited Ray to be in their band. I was by myself. I felt kind of alone. The second day, I didn’t even go back. I stayed at the house.
That night he brought back the Hotmud Family. He got Tommy Jarrell to come over, he got Taylor Kimble to come over. We had an unbelievable jam session at the house that night. Ray had arranged the whole thing.
Spilkia said Ray’s social abilities left him more and more in awe. “It seemed like he was the central person, that everybody knew Ray some way or another. I would never meet anyone myself, it was always through Ray. When we had a group, the Chucklebusters, Ben Steele and his Bare Hands (1970s bands in New York), these groups were organized by him.”
And the bands were fun, according to those who were in them–including this writer, who briefly played with Ben Steele. The band names themselves were intended to make people laugh. Bill Chaleff, who was in the Chucklebusters with Ray, Spilkia, and fiddler Bill Garbus, says Ray was ever more into a good laugh as he spent more time down south. The Chucklebusters told jokes and performed skits. “Sometimes,” Chaleff recalls, “we were laughing so hard we couldn’t get the lines out.”
As Ray’s contacts widened and his successes in meeting people compounded, his desire to record and promote music extended across styles, geographic distance, culture, and background. He had produced acclaimed albums of North Carolina and Virginia musicians including Music From Round Peak and Eight Miles Apart, the latter documenting the Kimble and Shelor families of Southwest Virginia. But he’d not just been recording old-timers. His tape machines had captured many younger musicians from more urban roots who’d been drawn to old-time music as he had–through hearing the old traditional players in person or on recordings, and finding themselves driven to participate because they found the music sincere.
He came up with a two-volume LP set titled Visits, a selection of his recordings of older and younger players. He released a volume focusing on younger, primarily urban musicians, calling it The Young Fogies. Toshi Seeger says she approached him to coordinate an old-time music stage at the Great Hudson River Revival festival. He did that. And along the way, says Diane Alden, “he became very interested in local people . . . who played, representing different ethnic traditions . . . And so just as he loved the old-time music, he really, really was interested in music from all over the world . . . and had become fairly knowledgeable about it.”
Ray began to bring these people into the festival. “He took his job at the Clearwater very seriously,” says Diane Alden. “He would spend days and days and days going to the Bronx and Brooklyn trying to find people . . . And at the same time he got a grant from the Westchester Arts Council to produce The World in our Backyard,” a CD of ethnic music from the Aldens’ local area.
But Diane says Ray didn’t just set out with his gear and show up. When he went to record people, she says, “he had some background knowledge about them and their music. He was prepared. Same thing with the old-time music. He would prepare.”
He also recorded ethnic music far beyond the New York metropolitan area. In 1994 he made a two-month cross-country trek with Bill Dillof on which the two documented a huge variety of styles. From those recordings he released the second volume of The Young Fogies, and two albums of ethnic music entitled The American Fogies. In the notes to American Fogies, he wrote that the collection represented a spherical rather than flat Euclidian view of the American musical landscape. He also revealed that his careful preparation and networking skills had much to do with the success of the expedition.
Prior to my two-month cross country trip I spent a year networking by telephone. It became evident that more diverse types of traditional music were accessible in America. Each part of the country is attuned to the surrounding musical cultures. Speaking to a musician in Austin, Texas, I was referred to someone in Houston familiar with Texas Polish, Czech, and Tejano music. When I called Albuquerque, New Mexico, I was informed of the availability of both Native American and Spanish music. Friends in Louisiana connected me with sources for both Cajun and Creole music. When I left in early October 1994 I knew that I would be recording more than just traditional Southern music.
As the trip progressed, he continued networking and involving other musicians. Fiddler Suzy Thompson of Berkeley, California, is one of several people who recall Ray asking her for suggestions of people to record. He also asked if he could use her house as a recording site. She and her husband Eric happily offered it.
In the mid-1990s, as the Great Hudson River Revival turned more and more to big-name acts, Ray parted ways with the festival and started the Field Recorders’ Collective. With his vast web of social and musical contacts at hand, he and a small group of collectors and enthusiasts began to compile field recordings and release discs to the public. Tim Brown of 5-String Productions was Ray’s original business partner in FRC, but later withdrew. Dozens of FRC CDs are now available.
Ambrose Verdibello, who is now Executive Director of FRC, says Ray did most of the work himself–and bankrolled most of it too. A board of directors including Verdibello, Susie Goehring, John Schwab, Diane Alden, Kilby Spencer, Jim Garber, and Lynn Frederick, with some advisors, intends to keep the enterprise going under nonprofit status.
As he recorded and documented music, Ray allowed other interests to flourish. He saw some home-built speakers at Bobby Patterson’s Heritage Records studio near Galax, Virginia, and felt compelled to develop expertise in speaker physics and design. He was approached to write two books on speaker design, which he did, and he started a speaker-building class at Stuyvesant. It’s now under the wing of his former faculty colleague Mike D’Alleva, who calls Ray a mentor in numbers of ways.
Beyond all this, Ray painted pictures, sometimes with mathematical themes. He designed banjo necks, studied inlay designs and carving, and continued to make photographs. And he wrote repeatedly–in Sing Out magazine, and in the liner notes to albums–about how much the spirit of community and the generosity he’d found in the rural South had impressed him and affected his life.
Younger musicians who’d been playing old-time styles clearly recall Ray’s visits to their homes and communities. They say he never acted like a collector, but rather was a music-loving, fun-loving friend who especially enjoyed whipping together a great Italian meal. They report he recorded them, accepted them, and encouraged them to think about what they were doing in new ways.
Guitarist and fiddler Susie Goehring of Kent, Ohio, says, “I guess the big thing for me was that he was doing this with the young people, taking a snapshot of people.” Goehring’s late husband Jeff had done large amounts of field recording, so as Susie Goehring puts it, she was already familiar with the idea and the process. But she says when Ray came to visit,
it was more poignant and obvious because it was our younger generation, rather than just recording the older guys, who seemed historic already. It seemed like he had a good vision . . . He helped us all take ourselves a lot more seriously as being a legitimate part of the tradition. We may have been born at a different, time, a different place, a different place in history. But he made us understand that we were the people who would make it continue. He legitimized our part in the history of the music.
Guitarist Jeff Claus of Ithaca, New York, says,
I always had the sense in my interactions that he just wasn’t judgmental. And it turned out in the old-time music community that there was a stripe of judgmentalism, people deciding what was and wasn’t appropriate. He didn’t have that. He seemed to have an appetite for what was and what is. You can think of geographical regions, but he seemed to think also of space in time as regions.
Claus says the band in which he plays, the Horseflies, including fiddler Judy Hyman (his wife) and others, “recorded some pretty out-there stuff; some people might have thought it abusive of the tradition, but we didn’t think that way.” And he says he and Hyman always felt Ray was one of their big supporters.
“Ray did not seem to be interested in people preserving the tradition rather than messing with it,” Claus says. “We’ve been called ‘creating from the tradition.’ He was always really excited about that, in the same way he was excited about meeting an old person with an interesting repertoire . . . And I actually think he loved both the tradition and the creating from tradition.”
Hyman agrees that Ray was interested in all facets of what was going on with the music. She says, “When he did a last round of documenting young people in their late fifties and early sixties, he saw this as a branch of what had happened in old-time music that fit into his understanding of what he was trying to capture.”
Banjoist and fiddler John Hoffmann, also of Ithaca, says Ray’s final illness had the somewhat unexpected effect of nudging him to refocus a little more on his own music, and not just the music of others. Hoffman says within his final year, Ray knew he was playing better, developing finger-picking styles and achieving better timing than he ever had.
He knew he was focused. He said that. It was exciting . . . It was obvious that this was a thing that was keeping him going. And once again, he was showing us. He was doing his thing, but he was showing us, and telling us to do it.
And so it appears that, starting from privation and loneliness, Ray Alden built himself into a creator and a connector, using the tools of focus, will, smarts, heart, and sheer effort. Ambrose Verdibello sees that first component as crucial: “He had this ability to create this laser focus and follow it, and not really pay attention to anything else. And that is really unusual. And I think one of the elements of genius is having that odd capability to focus on things to the exclusion of all others.”
Verdibello says the capability could be both frustrating and rewarding to the people around Ray: “He could be very focused, very distracted, you had to rap your knuckles on his head to get his attention, but when he was focused on you, you knew you had one hundred percent of his attention.”
And Diane Alden says Ray was so focused on music and musicians when they traveled south in the early days that eventually she stopped going on those long trips. She accompanied him on shorter trips and would sometimes fly to meet him on the longer ones. She says even if she didn’t travel everywhere with him, she fully supported his interests and could not imagine having stopped him from reaching for experiences that were profoundly important to him. She says she helped with copy editing, suggestions, organization, and making guests feel welcome at their home. The two of them also took to traveling to Italy every other year, both celebrating Ray’s Italian heritage.
“I just watched him over the years and he was always growing, he just changed and grew and grew and grew,” she says.
As for heart, Verdibello says, “Ray had a way of making you feel, but not in a false way, that your ideas had value, that you were good at what you did. He always was very, very diligent about making sure to compliment people on their accomplishments or ability or personality. He was very socially adept in that way, just a true friend. You could just depend on him.”
As his cancer progressed, Ray continued to visit with friends, plan for the future of FRC, and travel to as many music events as he could. He attended the Mount Airy Bluegrass and Old-Time Fiddlers Convention in North Carolina, and the Appalachian String Band Music Festival at Clifftop, West Virginia, in 2009.
That amazed Mac Snow, who says, “How he drove all the way down here and back I don’t know. I thought he wanted to come down to the Mount Airy fiddlers’ convention awful bad. ‘Cause I know if it’d been me, I wouldn’t have tried it.”
Emily Schaad says what she calls Ray’s “making it possible for himself” to attend those conventions was one of the things that helped her understand how deeply he felt about the music and his friends. “He clearly set his heart on it and made it happen through some amazing amount of determination. He wanted to see people again and be around it all.”
I was gathered with my wife, Terri McMurray, and some friends in a tent late on an extremely dark, misty night at Clifftop 2009. We were playing “Sally in the Turnip Patch,” an original tune by fiddler Benton Flippen. I had first recorded Benton playing it for a retrospective CD of his music. Ray was the person who had really opened my eyes and ears to Benton, inviting me back in 1975 to come hear him up close, rather than just listen to recordings. Ray’s documenting music and producing albums had set an example that helped move me to do the same. As we wrapped up the tune, we heard an unmistakable voice ask through an equally unmistakable Bronx Italian accent, “Is that ‘Sally in the Turnip Patch?’” A large shadowy figure had appeared at the tent doorway, with another figure nearby. Ray and Ambrose Verdibello had found us, by ear, following up on a discussion earlier in the day about getting together to play.
Ray told us how much he loved the tune. He said he’d been telling everyone he knew to play it, and that another of his friends, fiddler Palmer Loux, had recorded it. I realized he was connecting people to a tune just as he connected us to one another. He said he was sorry he’d just missed out on playing it. “Heck no, you haven’t missed it!” I replied. “If it was good the first time, it’ll be better the second time!” Ray let out his characteristic belly laugh.
They stepped in from the cold damp. Ray tuned up his banjo, Ambrose his fiddle. We all played the fire out of the tune. Then Ray smiled and said softly, “I’m going to treasure this.” A couple of us said we would too. We took a little musical tour of Ray’s beloved Surry County, North Carolina, playing “Old Molly Hare” after the style of Earnest East, and a couple of Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham tunes. We sang “Walking in My Sleep.” We played something inspired by Robert Sykes, I can’t remember what. This was the last music I would play with Ray.
After awhile, Ray’s back started hurting him too much for him to continue. He and Ambrose rose and took their leave. We all thanked one another. I had never met Ambrose before that afternoon. Here was one more connection, thanks to Ray.
Paul Brown is a musician and music producer. He is a newscaster, reporter and audio producer at NPR in Washington. He and Ray Alden first met in the early 1970s.
The author wishes to thank Diane Alden for her invaluable help providing factual information about Ray Alden, the timeline of his life, and his family.