BALLSTON SPA — In the Appalachian folk music tradition, any thing and any idea can be used to create a “Crankie Box.”
On Saturday Sarah Gowan, a member of the folk music group Coracree helped teach a folk music workshop titled “Cups and Crankies and Cup Crankies!”, one of numerous musical performances and workshops held at the Saratoga Fairgrounds during day two of the 50th edition of the three-day folk music festival known as the “GottaGetGon” festival.
Gowan and her partner Bill Quern, both from Philadelphia, showed about 30 folk music enthusiasts gathered inside the fairgrounds’ Lewis Building how the 18th century European storytelling tradition known as “moving panoramas” was adapted into the Appalachian folk music tradition into “Crankie shows” that utilize Crankie Boxes — essentially a scroll with pictures on it that is turned by a crank while folk music is played.
Gowan said the Crankie Box tradition was revived and popularized in the 1960s by Peter Schumann, cofounder of the “Bread and Puppet Theater.”
“You can have a crankie that is one big long scroll, but we’ve found you can make crankies out of just about anything,” she said, holding up a box of tissue paper with a spool through it.
Quern said that goes for the subject matter imbued in the scroll element as well as the objects the crank and box are made from.
“I made a crankie out of my mother’s cornbread recipe,” Gowan said. “So people do storytelling with them. Some people just do imagery, background music. The one thing about them is that they are analog, they are not a digital creation, and that’s what I love about them.”
Quern said Crankie Boxes can add layers of depth and meaning to folk music performances.
“You can be singing about one thing, and showing an image that implies something else,” Quern said. “She just sang a song about a dream, but at the end of the Crankie there was an image of cats laying on a bed, so is the song really about the cats?”
Bringing back GottaGetGon after a two-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic was a dream come true for some of its participants and performers. The festival is organized by the members of a Capital Region folk singer club called “Pickin’ & Singin’ Gatherin'” — known as PSG.
Rensselaer resident Brian Menyuk, president of PSG, said since 1970 the group has held the GottaGetGon festival on Memorial Day weekend, gathering folk music enthusiasts from around the region and throughout the U.S. He said normally PSG has a smaller annual event during Labor Day weekend, but this year they reversed their normal course.
“We decided to do something small for Memorial Day this year, making sure we didn’t get each other sick and it’s safe,” he said. “Next year it will be back to normal with the festival on Memorial Day weekend.”
Menyuk said PSG had actually pre-paid for the normal festival in the summer of 2020, but since it couldn’t happen due to the pandemic they were able to hold their reservations with the Saratoga County Fairgrounds until 2022. He said PSG operates using member dues and donations, as well as ticket sales collected for the festival.
Tim Kavanaugh, who currently lives in Washington County but grew up in Schenectady County, said he’s been to about four of five editions of the GottaGetGon festival. He said he got into Irish folk music when he was in high school when he had an English teacher named Vaughn Ward who organized what he believes was the first high school sponsored national folk music festival at Niskayuna High School the year he graduated in 1973. He said he’s been hooked on the genre ever since.
Kavanaugh said it can be a difficult dilemma for attendees of the GottaGetGon festival to decide between which folk music workshops to attend because each of them features different fascinating aspects of the art of folk music.
“It’s like trying to choose between steak and lobster, they’re all so good,” he said.
Attendees of the festival also had multiple musical acts to watch, including ballad singer Saro Lynch-Thomason, Country Blues singers Piedmont Bluz and traditional singer, accordionist, pianist and dance caller Alex Cumming.