50 years on, Eighth Step shines bright

Organization moved from home to home, but music, spirit never wavered
The “Rise Again Songbook Release & Community Sing” in autumn 2015 at the Eighth Step at Proctors’ GE Theatre.
The “Rise Again Songbook Release & Community Sing” in autumn 2015 at the Eighth Step at Proctors’ GE Theatre.

It started innocently enough.

The first Christine Lavin show (of many) I saw at the Eighth Step in its second (of many) homes in the First Presbyterian Church at the edge of Albany’s Washington Park felt like a regular folk show. She played guitar and sang songs whose wit and musical acumen were anything but ordinary. Then, she had the house lights lowered, grabbed two cheerleader’s batons, lit their ends aflame and spun fire-rings before an awed audience. AND, she kept singing.

Fifty years after first forming in the basement below that church, the Eighth Step shines brighter than ever in the GE Theater at Proctors — where stalwarts Holly Near and Brother Sun celebrate its anniversary on Saturday — and in nearby Proctors Underground, another basement.

RELATED: 50th Eighth Step season as strong as ever

The Step has migrated from home to home after leaving the church, surfing past changing show-biz trends by holding fast to its folk roots while welcoming fresh talent. It shines brightest perhaps as a beacon of pro-labor, pro-peace, pro-social justice, pro-Native Peoples progressive action.

It has endured through the leadership of its quietly hyperactive, doggedly persistent director, Margaret “Margie” Rosenkranz. Granddaughter of amateur musicians (the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra, SPEBSQSA, the Capitol Hill Choral Society), she’s a graduate of Notre Dame (now Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons) High School and a trained singer. “I studied Italian operetta at an Illinois college for a year,” she said, but quit when her vocal coach said she couldn’t also sing Joan Baez songs. “Then it was rock and folk.”

Originally the Step’s publicist, Rosenkranz took over when Kim Gifford died in 1987. Our leading folk impresarios have all been women: the late Lena Spencer, then Barbara Harris, now Sarah Craig, at Caffe Lena; Andy Spence at Old Songs; Melinda Perrin, now Lara Turney, at A Place for Folk; the late Jackie Alper on WRPI; and Wanda Fischer on WAMC.

Rosenkranz added Toshi Seeger (Pete’s widow and Rosenkranz’s ally in Clearwater projects) to that leaders’ list, then noted the low pay and terrible hours of folk community leadership. “The main job requirements,” she said, are “an odd assortment of skills, the tenacity of a mountain goat and excessive love of music.”

She’s displayed these and a gracious, easy manner since the first time I walked down eight steps (thus the name) into the basement below the First Presbyterian Church, the Step’s first home, in the ’80s. The atmosphere felt so strong, so welcoming, I can’t recall who played that night. (Maybe it was Don Henry, who returned this year with Tom Paxton and Jon Vezner.) I’ve seen many Eighth Step shows down there and upstairs, also in Chancellor’s Hall in the state Department of Education building (my first Greg Brown show), in the Cohoes Music Hall between dormancy and C-R Productions’ takeover, 440 State (Oddfellows Hall, now demolished; I saw Amanda Shaw and Guy Davis there), Proctors’ GE Theater and Proctors Underground.

Reaching past 1960s vintage folk-revivalists, “We introduced a whole string of singer-songwriters throughout the 1980s, 1990s and beyond,” said Rosenkranz. “They came to us repeatedly when they passed through: Richie Havens, Janis Ian, Ronnie Gilbert, Dar Williams, Greg Brown, Ani DiFranco, Laurie Lewis, Peter Ostroushko” — the list is way longer; many of these artists I’ve only ever seen at the Step. “Teenaged John Pizzarelli used to play guitar with his dad Bucky at the old coffeehouse; then they stayed at our house,” Rosenkranz said. She proudly noted Step discoveries “John Gorka and Patty Larkin are always sellout shows”; Gorka unleashing a wicked, self-deprecating wit and matchless voice; Larkin unwrapping her whole awesome talent package: writing, singing, playing.

The Eighth Step is loyal to artists, and vice versa. “In the original coffeehouse, Ani DiFranco first played to 40 people,” Rosenkranz said. “The next was a sellout upstairs; then we took her to The Palace.” Backstage at the RPI field house, I once heard a large promoter complain about failing to book DiFranco. “We offered her stupid money [an extra-large fee] to play here, but she wouldn’t take it.” She kept playing the Eighth Step.

“From what I understand it’s the longest-running organization of its kind, which is pretty astounding,” said Holly Near, who headlines the Step’s 50th anniversary show Saturday. “It’s very hard to keep live music happening,” she added. “I really appreciate Margie and all the people around who take those risks.”

Near said playing the Step “takes me back to my childhood.” She explained, “I came from a farm town and that’s exactly how it would work if I sang for the grange. I would walk in and there were people setting up chairs. … A place like Eighth Step, it’s how I grew up. You walk in and people are setting up chairs and getting ready for the community.”

Like her grandparents, amateur musicians with day jobs, “I supported the Step work with other work,” said Rosenkranz, once a senior writer for Skidmore College, The Egg’s first marketing director, editor of a book on Agent Orange and a book/video on how to handle AIDS in the workplace. She’s worked for L’Ensemble and the League of Women Voters; she taught music, did publicity for Clearwater’s Pumpkin Sail, then Revival, then Spring Splash. She said, “The Step was always a work in progress, a growing musical entity. When I managed to get paid, it was as a consultant.”

Meanwhile she and her team (40 active volunteers; artists sometimes volunteer/donate their performances) energized her community, working with Old Songs, Caffe Lena, Clearwater, the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, the Kanatsiohareke Mohawk Community and others. Special Step events include the Phil Ochs Song Night tribute hosted by Ochs’ sister, Sonny, the Martin Luther King Day Celebration and the premiere of (former Weavers singer) Ronnie Gilbert’s musical play “Mother Jones.” She said, “We also introduced contra dancing to the area; Bill Spence (of Old Songs), working with the Step, is the culprit!”

The Step exerts an influence far beyond itself; it’s also a family affair across the folk community. Rosenkranz said, “My eldest, Elizabeth, did improvisational theatre and music with Lena [Spencer, Caffe Lena founder and impresario]. My son Josh did sound for us while in high school, then for the Clearwater Revival and Falcon Ridge. … My daughter Rebecca and friends ran a teen series called Student Underground, presenting among others, a young John Brodeur and band. … Later, she started an Indie Eighth Step series at Proctors, beginning with Lost in the Trees,” a Top 10 Year End pick in The Gazette that year.

Rosenkranz still enjoys singing; she loved joining the Clearwater Sloop Singers alongside Pete Seeger. Whether singing or using her odd assortment of skills, the tenacity of a mountain goat and excessive love of music, Rosenkranz said, “It’s been a rich, rich experience doing this.”

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