“Festival Moments” by folklorist Millie Rahn

Carl Close Jr. at Hammersmith Studio. Photo: Maggie Holtzberg

Recently my colleague Maggie Holtzberg and I were interviewing ornamental blacksmith Carl Close, Jr., in West Newton as part of fieldwork for the 2018 Lowell Folk Festival. I met Carl in 2001, when arranging for him to demonstrate his smith work at that year’s event, where the theme was The Arts of Preservation and Conservation.

Another artisan, Jim Ialeggio of Shirley, was a window restorer for historic houses and buildings. When Carl’s wife Susan, co-manager of their Hammersmith Studios, looked at a lock on one of Jim’s windows, she said, “This looks like Carl’s work.” Indeed it was. Carl and Jim met, the two artisans began doing business directly, and cut out the middle broker. It’s festival moments like this—when artists meet, admire each other’s work, and forge bonds—that we folklorists live for.

The 20th festival in 2006 featured crafts traditions from across New England. Abenaki basketmaker Jesse Larocque, from Vermont, was pounding black ash to make the splints for his baskets. He started out Saturday pounding a large log and by Sunday afternoon it was merely the size of a walking stick. I happened to go past as two women were commenting, “Now I know why baskets are so expensive,” seeing the amount of physical work, as well as artistry, that goes into them. Another festival moment for me, a visual teachable moment.

Jesse Larocque pounding black ash at Lowell Folk Festival

The 2003 festival showcased regional textile traditions. Quilter Sally Palmer Field, of Chelmsford, was a native Lowellian whose father brought her scraps from the mills during the Depression to make her dolls’ clothing. Later, she collected and incorporated mill scraps into her quilts and other fabric art works.

Sally Palmer Field at the entrance to her home. Photo: Maggie Holtzberg

Her wall hanging, “Mile of Mills,” sewn with Meyer’s thread, drew many comments of recognition from women who’d worked in the mills and at the Ideal Dress Factory, in particular. Not only did Sally’s work incorporate her Lowell roots, but it was a collective commemoration of the city’s textile past, including pieces of nylon woven for parachutes during the Second World War. For those women, Sally’s work wasn’t just art or history; it was the stories of their lives. If only I’d had my tape-recorder running.

 

 

Of Saddles and Horse Fly Blankets

Festival season is upon us once again. We have a wonderful line-up of craft artists who will be demonstrating at this summer’s Lowell Folk Festival. This year’s folklife area features individuals whose work has tangible ties to land or sea, for example, market baskets woven from homegrown willow, Native wampum forged from locally harvested quahog shells, and yarn spun from the fleece of grazing sheep. Craft traditions evolve from the human response to utilitarian needs and the quest for beauty. A hand-crafted wooden ship’s wheel with its polished brass hub looks beautiful and feels good in the hand.

In this post, we introduce you to three crafts people whose work is related in some way to horse fittings. Did you ever wonder how leather is formed into lasting saddles that benefit both rider and horse? Do you know how a western saddle differs from an English saddle? And what about keeping flies off of horses?

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Horseback riders in eastern Massachusetts predominantly ride English style, while those in the western part of the state favor western saddles. Lucky for them, they can rely on the craftsmanship of Keith LaRiviere of Orange, Massachusetts, who may be the only western saddle and tack maker in New England. LaRiviere is a parachute rigger by training with 37 years’ experience as a skydiving jump instructor, parachute rigger, and jump pilot. So why saddles? Blame his wife Jane’s need for repair of her horse tack, says Keith. His familiarity with repairing parachuting harnesses led to his slowly accumulating the tools and skills to work on leather horse tack. “I started out small, basically doing repairs and making headstalls and bridles, chaps and chinks.”

Inspired, Keith went on to study saddle making with Colorado saddler Jesse Smith and apprentice with New Hampshire harness maker Russ Bigelow. The apprenticeship was a chance to build a show harness for a draft horse and a replica of an 1859 saddle, the one used by US Cavalry during the Civil War. In addition to the two to three saddles he builds a year, Keith repairs old ones with tender loving care. Beyond saddles, Keith has made or fitted several pieces for Civil War reenactors, created harmonica cases, tool cases, and holsters for modern cowboy mounted shooters.

Tony Cooper of Royalston, Massachusetts has been making, fitting, and repairing saddles since 1984. A native of Dublin, Ireland, he received his training in leatherwork at Cordwainers College, London, where he focused on rural saddlery. Tony completed his saddlery training, was elected to the Guild of Master Craftsmen, and returned to New England and started knocking on barn doors.

A proper saddle gives support to the rider, while distributing the rider’s weight on the horse. If the horse is comfortable under the saddle, it moves more freely, enabling horse and rider to perform optimally as a single unit. “I contour the bottom of the English saddle to fit the horse’s shape.”

In addition to making a saddle from scratch, much of Tony’s time is spent refurbishing, replacing, or rebuilding all parts of a saddle. This can involve re-stuffing panels and converting felt and foam panels to wool; replacing worn seats, skirts, knee rolls, billets and flaps; enlarging panels by adding gussets; and adjusting and repairing trees, the wooden framework of the saddle. Tony likes that there are certain parts of saddle making that must be done by hand. Like sewing – using an awl to punch holes, he sews 12 stitches to the inch, just like a skilled quilter.

Barbara Merry of Wakefield, Rhode Island excels in the maritime tradition of knot tying, fashioning rope into nautical fenders, beckets (decorative rope handles), and other useful marine lines. She recently revived the art of making Victorian-style horse fly blankets, which were once used solely for the purpose of keeping biting flies off horses.

Today, some kind of blanket remains in demand, particularly among discriminating horse owners who choose not to use petroleum-based fly repellent on their animals. Called “swish” blankets and made of nylon, these blankets are woven in two sizes (draft horse and buggy horse). Back in the early 1800s, the material of choice was strips of leather stitched together. In time, the blankets “morphed” into ornate objects, beautifully knotted in natural fiber cordage.

Women excelled at this type of work. It was usually done by wives, sweethearts, and daughters after finishing or repairing nets for their fisherman. It was only natural that these women would turn this skill to the manufacture of horse fly blankets for customers in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston — big cities where there were a lot of flies!

All three craft artists will be demonstrating in the Folklife area of the Lowell Folk Festival this July 29 and 30, 2017.

Maggie Holtzberg manages the Folk Arts & Heritage Program at Mass Cultural Council.

Scenes from a Festival: Textile Traditions

Signage in Folk Craft & Foodways area

Entrance to folk craft area in Lucy Larcom Park

Kudos to all the textile artists who made the Folk Craft area of this year’s Lowell Folk Festival so vibrant! Here are some images from the two-day event.

Kathy Blake-Parker (far right) of the Cranberry Rug Hookers Guild
Kathy Blake-Parker (far right) of the Cranberry Rug Hookers Guild
Fatima Vejzovic of Hartford demonstrating Bosnian rug weaving
Fatima Vejzovic of Hartford demonstrating Bosnian rug weaving
Jonas Stundzia holding a frame with Lithuanian pick-up weaving
Jonas Stundzia holding a frame with Lithuanian pick-up weaving
Jonas Stundzia (right) with friend Irene Malasaukas, who demonstrated Lithuanian pickle making in the Foodways tent
Jonas Stundzia (right) with friend Irene Malasaukas, who demonstrated Lithuanian pickle making in the Foodways tent
Entrance to Foodways demonstration tent
Entrance to Foodways demonstration tent
David Blackburn serving pickes at the foodways demonstration tent
David Blackburn serving pickles at the foodways demonstration tent
Samples of torchon bobbin lace by Linda Lane
Samples of torchon bobbin lace by Linda Lane
Sisters 'n Stitches quilting guild members
Sisters ‘n Stitches quilting guild members enjoying the crowd
Melissa Dawson of Chelmsford Quilters' Guild
Melissa Dawson of Chelmsford Quilters’ Guild
Elizabeth James Perry discussing Wampanoag weaving traditions
Elizabeth James Perry discussing Wampanoag weaving traditions
LFF2015_Patrisiya Kayobera with festival goer
Patrisiya Kayobera holding one of her Rwandan coiled baskets
Rwandan coiled basket by Patrisiya Kayobera
Rwandan coiled basket by Patrisiya Kayobera
Qamaria Amatal-Wadud with examples of her Islamic hijab and abaya
Qamaria Amatal-Wadud with examples of her Islamic hijab and abaya
Rosaline Accam Awadjie (on right) with two festival goers that she has dressed in African headwraps and dress
Rosaline Accam Awadjie (on left, standing) with two festival goers that she has dressed in African headwraps and dress
Jaya Aiyer and Lakshmi Narayan displaying South Asian saris
Jaya Aiyer and Lakshmi Narayan displaying South Asian saris
LFF2015_attendance at unstitched garment tent copy
Visitors checking out the “unstitched garments” in the folk craft area

We are just weeks away from the 2015 Lowell Folk Festival

banner of folk craft artists' work

The Lowell Folk Festival is coming right up on July 24-26th. In addition to checking out music and dance performances and sampling some of the best ethnic food served at a festival, consider spending some time in the Folk Craft area located in Lucy Larcom Park. This year we are featuring 13 different textile traditions. From noon until 5:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, artisans will demonstrate traditional techniques used in the making of textiles: twining, coiling, weaving, quilting, hooking, and lace making. Others will explore how textiles are used in what is called the “unstitched garment,” i.e., wrapping Indian saris, African headwraps, and Islamic headscarves.

You will discover how the pattern of a textile’s weave, its thread count, and the way it is worn can convey religious belief, marital status, wealth, or social standing. Come compare quilting traditions from African American and Anglo American quilting guilds. Watch how embellishments such as bobbin lace are created. See how you look in an African head wrap. Try your hand at hooking a rug . . .

Rug hooking detail. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

If you get hungry and tired and want to sit down, the Foodways demonstration area is close by. My colleague and friend Millie Rahn has put together a tasty program on pickling traditions.

Pickles. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

“Pickling is a method of preserving food that is found in many cultures and usually involves brine, vinegar, spices, and fermentation. Vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, and nuts are often pickled alone or mixed together in various ways to keep food for out-of-season eating. Traditionally, pickling was a way of ensuring food sources for those working far from the comforts of home on land and sea, no matter the climate. Today, many home cooks in the region use the bounty of their gardens and local markets to pass on favorite recipes and preserve their foodways throughout the year.”

The schedule is below.  As in past years, you will have a chance to ask questions and to taste samples once each demonstration is over.

12pm: Refrigerator Pickles Mill City Grows/UTEC; Lydia Sisson
1pm: Jamaican Pickled Pepper Sauce, Nicola Williams
2pm: Northern Indian Cholay, Yogesh Kumar
3pm: Lithuanian Pickles, Irena Malasaukas
4pm: New England Bread Butter Pickles, Jackie Oak with Tricia & Gerard Marchese

 

 

Hand Crafting Textiles in the 21st Century

folk craft banner

It’s that time of year when we are busy selecting craft demonstrators for the Lowell Folk Festival. Our theme is textile traditions and for the past several months I’ve been traveling to meet with people who are passionate about hand crafting textiles out of wool, cotton, and linen.

In Colonial New England, prior to the availability of manufactured goods, women were primarily responsible for the production of household textiles. Cloth was woven out of homespun cotton, wool, and flax; quilts were pieced together from worn out clothing and feed sacks. Women sewed the family’s clothing, hooked rugs, and knitted sweaters and mittens.

Mile of Mills by Sally Palmer Field

Of course, the late 19th century Industrial Revolution changed all this. As pictured above in Sally Palmer Field’s Mile of Mills wall hanging, Lowell is the birthplace of the American textile industry. Once fabrics were manufactured locally, they became more affordable. Today, the majority of textiles we use are commercially manufactured halfway round the world. Buying hand-crafted textiles has become something of a luxury. What began as basic survival skills — weaving, knitting, quilting,  and rug making — has evolved largely into expressions of creative artistry. The craft artisan’s purpose/market has changed too – from domestic necessity to supplying craft fairs and galleries, and engaging tourists at living history museums.

Linda Lane working on bobbin lace

This is especially true when it comes to the time-consuming, exacting production of bobbin lace. As Linda Lane, a master lace maker points out, “It can’t really be done on a commercial basis because one square inch of lace takes approximately an hour. Due to its complexity and the fineness of the lace, that can be days. So immediately, you price yourself out of a demand market.”

Linda pointing out a join

Linda Lane

An accomplished weaver and spinner, Linda Lane learned to make lace by watching another lace maker for a number of years. Then, with the aid of a few formal lessons and some very good instructional books, she taught herself. Decades later, Linda is a treasure trove of lace making history, patterns, and techniques. A retired nurse, Linda is currently the resident lace maker at the Hooper-Hathaway House in Salem, Massachusetts and a member of the New England Lace Group.

Hooper Hathaway House, Salem, MA

Linda working on bobbin lace

Linda weaves using 20 to 40 English bobbins, plaiting and working the lace-making fibers, which can go from 36 twos to 200 twos.  (Two is the ply – the higher the first figure, the finer the thread.) To make bobbin lace, one must have tremendous patience and keen eyesight. Just look at this example of lace in the making — its pattern comes from the edging found around a handkerchief once belonging to Christian the 4th, King of Denmark, circa 1644.

lace in the making

Notice the size of the metal pins in comparison to the lace to get a sense of scale. The pattern is called a pricking. “This is my sheet music . . . it tells me where to go, but not how to get there. The “how” to get there is up here,” Linda says, pointing to her head.  “In lace, there is a whole world of technique in just getting around a corner.”

Detail of a lace corner

Although lace, being woven, is technically a textile, it is more truly an embellishment. Indeed, lacere, the Latin root of the word lace, is to entice or delight. Bobbin lace, the type that Linda Lane excels at, dates back to the 1450s. “Throughout history,” Linda explains, “lace follows the dictates of  fashion very closely. It goes up and down. Only the well-to-do could afford it – royalty, the aristocracy, and the church.”

And what of lace, today, I ask. Linda responds,“It’s only purpose to exist is to be pure decadence, as it [was] in years past. It’s a socio-economic statement.”

Linda Lane will be demonstrating bobbin lace making at this summer’s Lowell Folk Festival, July 25-26, 2015.

 

Recycling festival T-shirts to make paper!

  Drew Matott with portable Hollander Beater  

Drew Matott had an “aha” moment when he first realized paper could be made from old clothes. He and Margaret Mahan have gone on to bring the transformative experience of hand paper making to people all over the world. In order to pulverize rag into pulp, they use a machine designed and built by papermaking engineer Lee McDonald of Boston. Not only is it portable, it is bicycle powered. Pulling sheets of paper is a fun and messy business. To form a piece of paper, a screen is dipped and submerged in a vat of pulp and pulled through the fibrous water. A thick wet sheet of paper forms as the water drains away. Sheets are stacked, pressed, and hung up to dry.  

In addition to hand paper making and bookbinding, Drew and Margaret founded the Peace Paper Project in 2011. Through paper making workshops, survivors of war and terrorism have been guided to pulp the clothing they associate with their traumatic experience, including military uniforms. The clothing is cut up, beat, and formed into sheets of paper. Working with certified art therapists, participants use the paper to begin the process of adjusting and recovering from their experiences.

At a recent Lowell Folk Festival planning meeting, Millie Rahn and I brought up Drew and Margaret’s request for textiles that could be recycled for making paper at the festival. We talked about approaching a local textile mill but Pat Bowe (of The Lowell Festival Foundation) had the brilliant idea to recycle surplus festival T-shirts from festivals past. Last week, Pat mailed them bundles of brightly colored cotton T-shirts.

Margie Mahan pulping T shirts

Drew wrote to us saying, “We received the t-shirts! We love all the colors! I think it is the perfect amount- Margie and I cut them all up and started processing them into pulp. Over the next three days we will make 12lbs of it into paper to hand out to participants. We will pulp the remainder for use with the bike operated beater and sheet forming during the festival.”

Drew Matott working with beater

Come by to meet paper makers Drew Matott and Margaret Mahan this weekend at the Lowell Folk Festival. You’ll never look at old clothing the same way again.

“Wall paper hanging is like upholstering a room”

Heidi L. Johnson. Photo by Tom Adams
Heidi L. Johnson. Photo by Tom Adams

There are 6 weeks left until the Lowell Folk Festival. Between now and then, we are posting examples of folk crafts that will be demonstrated in Lucy Larcom Park. Our theme is paper traditions, and that includes the occupational craft  of paper hanging.

Heidi L. Johnson is pretty sure her passion for paperhanging started in her grandmother’s guestroom where the walls were papered with a faux bois of white and beige with lavender roses.   As a five year old, she’d stare at the walls. “I was figuring out pattern repeat. I knew a machine had printed that and I could tell that it had to be engineered around the room.”

The tools of the paperhangers’ trade may be simple (straight edge razor blades, levels, electronic lasers, bristle sweeps, and pasting machines), but their use requires great skill. In fact, wallpaper hanging is considered a higher trade in the building trades. It demands planning, engineering skills, visualizing patterns, knowing materials, prepping walls, and applying the product swiftly and accurately.  “It looks easier than it is,” Heidi says, adding that wallpaper hanging is like upholstering a room. “The sign of a good craftsman is to hide the skill.”

Rolling out a sample of wallpaperHeidi’s background in textile design and her experience in designing and manufacturing wallpaper, make her especially well-suited to papering interiors. She has been a member of the National Guild of Professional Paperhangers since 1994, an occupational group she describes as “the paper geeks of the industry.”

Heidi will be demonstrating her craft at the 2014 Lowell Folk Festival in the Folk Craft area along Lucy Larcom Park.

Samples from the Norwood-Day Collection

Pitch perfect color

Marbled paper by Regina St. John. Photo by Maggie HoltzbergGenie and Dan St. John run Chena River Marblers in the Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley, a region known for book arts. Working out of a home studio, they produce stunning marbled patterns on paper and silk.  The marbled paper is used by book binders and paper artists, the silk in the making of scarves and ties. 

The process of marbling is almost magical.  (fitting then, that Regina goes by the nickname “Genie”). A bath of water and a thickening agent, such as carrageenan (dried seaweed) is prepared, onto which droplets of paint are applied. Genie explains that it is the thickened liquid that allows the paint to float on the surface.

Regina St. John. Photo by New England Guild of Book Workers  Dan holding sheet of marbled paper

“You put all these colors on your bath and you manipulate them. Comb them this way and that, and the colors don’t get mixed up. The pink stays pink, the white stays white, and you end up with these beautiful patterns right on the surface of your bath.” Next, the image is carefully transferred to an absorbent surface, such as paper or silk.

Genie works mostly using acrylic paints for her silk and paper marbling. Dan points out one of Genie’s enviable talents, saying, “Genie has got a perfect pitch for colors.” Complimenting this is Dan’s background as a physics and chemistry teacher which gives him a grounding in the chemical makeup of materials and processes. Teachers at heart, they suggest that by using the marbling process, a whole curriculum could be created to explore basic chemical properties, such as viscosity, density, acidity, and surface tension. “Just take the different properties of fiber. Take the chemistry of ligans, which make one organic thing stick to another. That’s why colors stick to a fabric. . .” Genie adds, “Once they’ve learned all of that, they can use their papers to make books and write it all down.”

books for sale made with marbled paper

Dan builds much of the equipment, including the many different styles of combs, which when pulled through the bath, create unique patterns.

Two combs made by Dan

Because no paint company manufactures colors specifically for marbling, Chena River Marblers create their own paints (grinding up pigments, adding binders, mulling them together), which allows them more control in how the paint will spread on the liquid surface. Dan favors the old style marbling; using watercolors, he creates what are called “tiger eyes.”  Below are some examples which look like images from the natural world.

Dan's tiger eyes seen in asymetric pattern

Tiger eye with coral background

Another technique is called edge marbling, which was more commonly used in the production of 18th and 19th century books. With marbled edges and end sheets, a book would end up looking like a piece of marble.

Dan holding a edge marbled book. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg  Dan St. John edge marbling. Photo courtesy of New England Guild of Book Workers

Together, Genie and Dan St. John convey a passion for the marbling craft, a facility for teaching, and a dedication to passing on the tradition. It’s our good fortune that they will be demonstrating marbling at the 2014 Lowell Folk Festival, where the theme of the craft area will be paper traditions.

Old style marbling with lace effect by Dan St. John. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

More tiger eyes by Dan. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

 

Carnival, Dominican style

For several years now, we’ve been trying to track down the Dominican carnival comparsa rumored to be based in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Having seen photos of these fantasic costumed masqueraders, we thought they would be a perfect fit for leading the parade opening the Lowell Folk Festival. Finally, success! We recently visited with Stelvyn Mirabal, founder of the Asociación Carnavalesca de Massachusetts, in his home in Lawrence.

In the Dominican Republic, Carnival is celebrated during the whole month of February, where groups of elaboratively costumed people parading through the streets.  Some of the most famous of all the masked participants are the Diablos Cojuelos (limping devils). As the story is told, a demon was once banished to Earth because of his clownish pranks and was injured in his fall, hence the limp.  Diablos cojuelos are multi-horned, sharp toothed beings. Many regions of the Dominican Republic have varying versions of this frightening devil.

The Asociación Carnavalesca de Massachusetts brings a bit of Dominican Carnival to the United States. Twelve years ago, Stelyn Mirabal saw the need to preserve Dominican folkloric traditions in Lawrence, where there was (and is) a sizable Dominican population. He formed a comparsa (meaning a group of costumed people who  participate in the carnival parade) to take part in Lawrence’s 2nd Dominican Parade. In 2006, he decided to go bigger and brought back 16 masks at the same time. Currently, there are 75 people in his comparsa.

Stelvyn’s home city of Santiago Los Caballeros is known for its style of masks, which are called lechones (meaning pig). They are considered tradicional costumes and are relatively simple; the masks represent pigs or ducks.  Suits from the city of La Vega are larger and more elaborate and are referred to as fantasía. The lechones play the role of vejigantes, those who protect the people in the carnival, who, at one time, were members of the royalty. Vejigantes carry and swing inflated cow bladders to keep the crowd away from the parading comparsas.  Here in the United States, the cow bladders have been replaced by colorful balloons.

It was Stelvyn’s uncle who taught him and his cousins the carnival traditions of mask making and parading. At age 42, carnival has become a family affair for Stelvyn, “In fact, my mother and my sister, they all dress up. . . My father, a tailor, he used to make the suits.”  Below is a photo of Stelvyn’s son Leonardo dressed in a fancy suit and wearing a lechone mask. Leonardo has also become an expert at cracking the whip.

 

The masks are made from a mold of clay and covered with a paste like papier-mâché. The masks are shined, painted, and decorated. Although Stelvyn knows how to make the molds and papier-mâché masks, he prefers to import them from the Dominican Republic. The more elaborate diablos cojuelos costumes are professionally made using real teeth, horns, and skins, mainly of cows. The Asociación has more diablos cojuelos than lechones because to be a lechone, one has to know how to crack the whip and dance.

One finds Spanish, African and Catholic influences in the tradition. Stelvyn points out a distinguishing feature of the Lechones,  “The way we dance is an African dance. So it’s passed generation to generation. We dance different from the guys from La Vega. They jump,” he says, referring to the Diablos Cojuelos. “. . .  When we move through the crowd, we try to be like the best horse there is, the Paso Fino.”

Carnival in the Dominican Republic has gotten more elaborate, competitive, and commercial. Stelvyn says there is a move to bring back some of its folkloric roots. “The dances and things have been forgotten a little. So some groups are going back to the traditional.”

Today, the Asociación Carnavalesca de Massachusetts is well known throughout New England for their participation in Dominican and Latino cultural festivals and parades as ambassadors of Dominican culture. You will have a chance to see this spectacular entourage by attending this year’s Lowell Folk Festival. The Asociación Carnavalesca de Massachusetts will be leading the parade on by Friday and Saturday evening of the festival.

 

Banjo music before bluegrass? Find out more

When Lowell’s textile mills were clacking, what parlor music was popular? Come join us for a musical journey back in time, to find out. This was a time when if you wanted to hear music, you had to play it yourself.  The  Lowell Folklife Series presents “Classic Style Banjo Concert: The Lost Art of America’s Instrument” on Saturday November 17th at 8:00 p.m. in the Visitor Center theater of Lowell National Historical Park.

Classic style banjo playing was popular in the 1830s and 40s, and became somewhat of a virtuosic tradition by the 1880s. Originally played on gut strings, this parlor music has a classical feel to it.

 

Seasoned musicians Peter LaBau (banjo) and Mitch Nelin (mandocello) will deliver an entertaining evening of music interpsersed with stories of a nearly vanished musical tradition.

The 8:00 p.m. concert is free and open to the public. For directions, click here.