Musical Petting Zoo lets people try instruments at Old Songs

Something like Todd Crowley’s Musical Petting Zoo makes sense within the lineup of Old Songs activit

The Old Songs Festival has never been just about seeing a live show.

Over the course of three decades, the three-day folk and roots music festival has grown to include 120 daytime workshops, a children’s activity area and various jam sessions.

So something like Todd Crowley’s Musical Petting Zoo makes sense within the lineup of Old Songs activities and performers. Crowley first brought his interactive exhibit, featuring more than 100 different instruments from American, European and African music traditions, to last year’s Old Songs. He will be returning to this year’s festival, the 31st annual event, which takes place this weekend, beginning Friday and running through Sunday.

“Last year, I was invited to participate about six weeks before the festival — it was one of those festivals I was always looking forward to trying to participate in,” Crowley said recently on the road to Denver, between festivals (the Musical Petting Zoo is very much a festival-oriented exhibit).

Todd Crowley’s Musical Petting Zoo

at Old Songs Festival

When: 3:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday

Where: Altamont Fairgrounds, 129 Grand St., Altamont

How Much: Full festival with camping: $120, $110 (seniors and students), $55 (ages 13-18) (without camping); $105, $95 (seniors and students), $55 (ages 13-18)

More Info: 765-2815,,

“So when I came last year, it was kind of unknown; I don’t think they had time to publicize it. But it became a popular spot for people to come out and try different instruments. It’s like a little festival within a festival where people can get their hands on instruments and play together.”

Last year, Crowley set up his assortment of acoustic guitars, mandolins, banjos, African drums, woodwind instruments such as the Australian didgeridoo, and autoharps (his instrument of expertise) under a large tent next to the children’s activities pavilion at Altamont Fairgrounds, where the festival is held each year. The setup will most likely be similar this year.

He generally runs the zoo from 10 a.m. until about 6 p.m., so as not to compete with evening concerts. This year, the festival features performances and workshops by blues guitarist Scott Ainslie, Canadian musical satirists Arrogant Worms, country blues artist Andy Cohen and Delta blues singer Eleanor Ellis, among others. (For a complete schedule, visit Crowley will also lead a workshop himself titled “Singing With Autoharp,” on Saturday at 10 a.m.

Seeking an instrument

“I’m primarily a folk singer, and I’ve been a folk singer since I was a kid, but I didn’t have an instrument to play,” Crowley said. “I picked up [autoharp] about 30 years ago — I was introduced to it by Bryan Bowers. Since then I’ve learned how to play other things, but I like to sing more than anything else. It’s funny, I have the instruments in the petting zoo, and often it’s a joyful cacophony of what’s going on there, but there’s not a lot of singing that goes on there. But that’s what I like to do the most.”

Crowley, originally from Maryland but now living in Erie, Pa., taught high-school English for 34 years. When he retired in 2005, he began using extra income from a part-time job to collect instruments — first autoharps, then mountain dulcimers, and then nearly everything else.

“I got so many eventually that I didn’t know what to do with them,” he said. “And then I dreamed up this idea.”

In 2007 and 2008, he set up the first Musical Petting Zoos in Westminster, Md., at the Common Ground on the Hill Festival. He was inspired initially by his mother, who was on the women’s committee of the National Symphony Orchestra.

“They always did a symphonic, orchestral instrument petting zoo, but it was always more formal — you’d have to wait in line to blow on the French horn or hold a violin,” he said. “I always thought that a folk music festival should have a folk instrument petting zoo that was more hands-on, where you would not have to worry about things getting hurt or broken. I have friends that help keep things in repair.”

In 2009, he decided to take his zoo on the road, touring to festivals as far west as West Winnipeg and the Vancouver Folk Festival. He moved to Erie to be closer to Ontario and the upstate New York folk festival circuits.

Over the past few years, festivals have shown great interest in his collection. He prefers to do a festival two or three years in a row, so that it becomes something of a regular attraction that draws people in almost as much as the main acts.

“It became a sharing place,” he said. “Musicians of all ages will hang out. The younger musicians learn by watching the older musicians play, and the older musicians kind of take the younger ones under their wing.”

Exotic attractions

Many of the instruments in the zoo can be seen on Crowley’s website, Although all of them are popular, many of the exotic instruments receive the most interest. The woodwinds are also popular with festival crowds.

“The shofar [a traditional Jewish horn] is a difficult instrument to play — you have to blow into it a certain way,” Crowley said. “With the didgeridoo it’s the same type of thing. People will blow on it and not get a sound, then go home and get directions off the Internet, and then come back and are proud of themselves the next day when they can play it.

“It’s usually the rarer things people are interested in,” he continued. “The autoharps get a lot of questions, and I have some really good-quality, custom-built autoharps. The guitars, banjos, fiddles, the regular stuff — people know those instruments pretty well, and we show kids how to play them. A lot of the drums get a lot of play; the steel drum is constantly being banged on.”

Sometimes, artists at festivals will use the instruments for their performances. However, nothing in the zoo is for sale.

“People always ask me if it’s a music store,” Crowley said. “I say, no, nothing’s for sale, you gotta buy the whole Musical Petting Zoo if you want to. When they ask, how much does this cost, I tell them a gazillion dollars, and they look at me like I’m crazy. But that’s part of the fun — you get a little crazy doing it.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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