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A History of the Folk Society

The Founding Years

The Lehigh Valley Folk Music Society (LVFMS) was formed in 1994 by several local folk musicians living in the Allentown area of the Lehigh Valley who wanted to provide a means of bringing together other folk musicians in the area. The originator, Mr. Lamont Schaffer, was previously a member of the Full-Circle Folk Society in Reading, and saw the opportunity to form a similar folk music society in Allentown, where none existed. Mr. Schaffer obtained permission from Mr. Rick Daugherty, the Executive Director of the Lehigh County Senior Citizen's Center, to use the facility on the evening of the third Wednesday of each month for the group of musicians to get together and share their musical interests. Deanne Saab, Bob Miller, Edie Kuhns, Ruth Annibale, and several others attended Lamont's first meeting at the Center. These early get togethers were enjoyable jamming sessions with the participants sharing their musical interests. The sessions grew rapidly in number over the next several years as word got out to other folk music lovers in the area, and it was at that time that Kristin Benjamin, who played an autoharp and Carol Lighthiser who played guitar joined the Society. Both Kristin and Carol became key members of the Society and the Society's performing group for many years.

Many other folks joined the Society during those founding years and there are some who continue to support the Society jams and who haved served as volunteers at the many Society-sponsored functions. Special mention goes to Albert (Bert) Coffman from the Bucks County Folk Society, Alice and Ralph Guille, Curtis (Smitty) Smith, Earl Roth, Carl Mauer (deceased), Diane and Ed Lozosky, Dan Cressman, Gary Bast, Ken Levin, Edith (Kuhns) Englert, Charlie Englert, Len Christman and Karen Dunstan who have continuously supported the jam sessions in our early years and for many years thereafter.

Around 1996, several members of the Society decided to form a play-out band that would go into the community and perform folk music for others. The members consisted of Deanne Saab, Bob Miller, Edie Kuhns, Kristin Benjamin, Carol Lighthiser, Bob Paradise, a lady from Alton Park and Lamont Schaffer. The group initially focused on playing for residents in senior rest homes and assisted-care facilities around the area. The first live performance of the LVFMS-sponsored band was delivered at a rest home on Main St. in Catasauqua (which we referred to as Caty North). Our Society members hobbled down the narrow stairway with bulky instruments and gear in hand leading into the lower level of the facility where a handful of residents had gathered to hear us play. We were terribly nervous and unpolished musically but played acoustically for the residents for an hour. Afterwards, one of our performers apologized to the folks that we were just a bunch of amateurs, but who enjoyed playing for them. I still recall one gentleman who got up from his seat and said to us, "you are professionals!"

Well, we were far from professionals that day, but such positive feedback inspired us to go forward and continue to play for other senior groups. It was always so rewarding to hear one resident after another tell us how our music brought back memories of their late spouses or families in their younger years. In addition to hosting the monthly jam sessions, the members of the Society who wanted to play in the performing group began to rehearse weekly to develop a broader repertoire and perfect the music.

Following these early events, the Society participants formalized the Society and registered the organization as a not-for-profit entity with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania under the name " Lehigh Valley Folk Music Society, Inc." and Kristin Benjamin from Allentown was elected President. Kristin led the Society and the performing group for nearly 18 years until she resigned in November 2013 due to failing health.

Around 1997, the performing group began scheduling performances for venues that were open to the public, such as public libraries, historical events and coffee houses in the area, and through these performances attracted new members to the Society as well as for the band. At a new coffee house in South Whitehall Twp., formerly known as Ebeneazers, Karen Dunstan approached the Society in 1998 and asked to join. Len Christman, her husband, joined the band and Society when he took over as the bass player after Mark Locher (1999-2000 bass player) left. Both Karen and Len remain with the band and the Society today. Also that same evening at Ebeneazers, we were introduced to Jerry Gallagher from Allentown who was a local singer/songwriter who had been playing with a local group called the Earth Riders. Jerry loved folk music, and he too eventually joined both the Society and the performing group.

The Major Local Arts Festivals

In the spring of 1998, the Society auditioned for Mayfair, the local Allentown spring festival. We chose a Carter tune, "Hold Fast to the Right" for the audition, and practiced the song endlessly. The morning of the audition, coincidentally, we were all mesmerized by the words in the local newspaper's daily horoscope, which read something like this: "hold fast to what you have". Inspired by the article, we played flawlessly, and were accepted into Mayfair that year. The band played at the festival each year through 2006 on stages for both children and general audiences. Between 2002-2005, the LVFMS became an Art Partner for Mayfair and sponsored its own Artist in Action tent during the full five days of the fair featuring theme days to encompass bluegrass, folk, country and gospel music. The Society sponsored jams, Contra dancing and general music entertainment provided by our performing group, and invited local folk groups such as Kate and CJ, Wendy Schettig, Soup to Sails, Sons of the Perkiomen, Arlon Bennett, Simple Gifts and Kindred Spirits, to name a few. Society members volunteered their time and effort to direct and manage the program. We also added programming of two evening main-stage events at Mayfair 2005, hosting a singer-songwriter showcase including our performing group, Mountain Heritage (bluegrass) and Simple Gifts (traditional and world music).

The Society joined Bethlehem Musikfest as a folk music advisor in 2004 and was invited to perform for Musikfest at Liederplatz that August. The following year, the Society band performed again at Liederplatz and at the Kid's Stage on Sand Island where Society volunteers conducted a hands-on folk music instrument building workshop for kids. Each year after 2005, the Society has hosted stage time for Musikfest at Liederplatz on Saturday or Sunday afternoons featuring the Society's band and often featuring other local guest singer/songwriters,folk and bluegrass bands.


Special Events and Tributes

The Society has been active in producing and hosting its own special music events and/or workshops for the community, which were held between 2000 and 2006. In July of 2000, the Society teamed with Just Plain Folks, a national organization of songwriters, recording artists and music professionals to host a showcase of performing artists from the Lehigh Valley and surrounding areas. The event was held at the LV Senior Center in Allentown and included a day of continuous music by many different artists from the tri-state area. As many Society members were fond of the music of the original Carter Family, in November of 2001, a day-long musical tribute to the music of A.P., Sarah and Maybelle Carter was held at Egner Memorial Chapel on the Muhlenberg College campus in Allentown. This day featured 4 workshop sessions focusing on the guitar style of Maybelle Carter, clawhammer banjo playing, Carter Family repertoire, and Carter Family vocal harmony. We were able to invite some of the best interpreters of the Carter music - Ginny Hawker, Kay Justice, and John Johnson from West Virginia, to provide the workshops and headline the evening's tribute concert. Also, several local groups, including our own performing group, the Druckenmiller Family, Hobo Pie, Carter Family Echos, Kindred Spirits, the Golden Age Retrievers, Marti Rodgers and Bob Woodcock performed a few songs in a 3-hour tribute to the legacy of the Carter Family and their music. This was extremely well recieved and susccessful.

In 2002, we added several small concerts to our schedule, inviting a group from Philadelphia named "So's Your Mom" to give a concert of Celtic and Maritime traditional music. Ginny Hawker returned the following year to the Lehigh Valley together with her husband Tracy Schwartz, a renowned recording artist on Rounder Records and a Grammy nominee, and performed a very friendly interactive concert at the Senior Center in Allentown, which was very well received.

In 2004, the Society hosted its 2nd tribute event named "Ramblin' Round" which paid homage to one of the country's great songwriters of folk music, Mr. Woody Guthrie. This all-day event was held at the Bethlehem Ice House in Bethlehem, Pa. and included instructional workshops and a display of the art work of Woody Guthrie provided by his granddaughter Sarah who came from Manhattan as a representative of the Guthrie Foundation to join in the tribute. Following an opening performance by the Society band, the evening concert was headlined by Tom Flannery, Singer/Songwriter and Ramblin' Jack Elliott who captivated the audience with his music and his stories of the years he toured with Woody.

In 2006, the Society sponsored their 3rd tribute, this time to the original music of Jimmie Rodgers, who is regarded by many as the father of county music. An all day workshop at the Bethlehem Ice House featured interactive jamming to Rodgers music hosted by John Lilly, stories and history of Jimmie Rodgers, a yodelling presentation by Sandy Marola, and a presentation of Rogers significant influence on country music artists by Kristin Benjamin. During the day, the marketing director for Martin Guitars, Dick Boke, surprised everyone when he arrived with Jimmie Rodgers prototype Martin from the Nazareth museum and left it for the day for all to play. The highlight of the event was the evening concert performance of Robin and Linda Williams who specialized in the old-time country music and who traveled from southern Virginia to join us.

In the Spring of 2004, the Society was approached by Ron Heneghan from Northampton Community College (NCC) who was directing a play, "The Grapes of Wrath" and who needed background folk music that would fit the play. The Society band worked with Ron to develop an integral music score, consisting of snippets of old-time music and Woody Guthrie dust bowl songs and participated in the play on stage during each of the three performances held at the Lipkin Theatre on campus.

The Society band's repertoire was filled with lots of the old-time folk music and the band was often asked to perform at historical events and commemorations, like the Walnutport Canal Festival, the Kriedersville Bridge Festival, Quiet Valley Historical Farm, the America on Wheels Museum Opening, River Fusion at Burnside Plantation, the Boyertown Heritage Day, the Christiana Historical Society's Festival and and most recently at the LV Heritage Museum in Allentown.


School Children Outreach

As a member of the Lehigh Valley Arts Council, Society members participated in an educational outreach program for elementary school children. The program was tailored to fit the grade and consisted of a musical interactive program including explanation of some common folk instruments, history and origination of folk music and playing and singing some of the more common folk tunes with the participation of the children. The program also included a hands on workshop where the children could make simple shakers, drums and banjos with the assistance of Society members. For example, in 2005 the Society supported the Calypso Elementary School's Local Talent Arts Day in Bethlehem. The Society supported other children's events throughout the region and even teamed with the Lehigh Valley Storyteller's Guild to put on concerts for children at the Bethlehem Ice House which was hosted by the Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre.

Recordings

Through the years and up to the present, the performing band was the primary fund-raiser for the Society, but the Society sponsored a number of recording projects so that it could share the music beyond the live performances and raise additional funds to help operate the Society. In 1999, after numerous requests by audiences, the Society recorded a compilation of folk songs. Edie Kuhns recruited two family members to join the band for the recording sessions. Mark Locher played bass and his father-in-law, Cary Rufe added mandolin and banjo. Twenty-four multi-track song recordings were made by Bob Miller in Karen and Len's 3rd floor make-shift studio on S. 14th St. in Allentown, and Mr. Clark Ferguson, the owner of Bearswamp Studio in Macungie, mixed the recordings for the Society and produced its first CD, called "Generation After Generation". The CD was released in December 1999 and it promoted interest in the Society when it was played on WDIY, WBYO, WDVR and WXLR public radio stations. The CD led to many bookings for the band helping to grow the society' name and expand it's programming. Shortly afterwards, Cary and Mark left the band, and Len Christman began to play bass, while Karen Dunstan who played guitar up to then, become the mandolin player for the band.

In 2000, the Society recorded an old parlor gospel song, "Father Along" with Tom, Betty and Nathan Druckenmiller which is on their Harvest Time album. In 2003, the Society recorded a unique arrangement rof a Christmas standard, the "Holly and the Ivy", which was used by Bummer Tent records for their annual Lehigh Valley Christmas Concert CD.

Since there were many gospel folk songs being performed by the Society band, between 2003-2004 the Society recorded and released its second album, "Home Beyond the Sky", a double CD of 28 songs devoted entirely to gospel music and featuring two original gospel songs by Jerry Gallagher. For the album, Bob Miller set up a recording studio at his home in Ruchsville and with the expert assistance from Clark Ferguson from Bearswamp Studio and John Dewhurst from Frog Song Productions, recorded and mixed the songs. Scott Atkinson, a singer/songwriter, an former editor of Sing Out magazine, who had recently joined the Society band, added harmonica, Dobro and vocal tracks to the compilation recordings. Scott participated with the performing group for several years afterwards until he moved from the area. One recording session for Home Beyond the Sky featured the New Light Evangelical Lutheran Church children's choir who came to the studio to sing "He's Got the Whole World" with the Society members. For the cover of the album, the Society searched for a old church in the area and with permission of the elders photographed the Hosensack Grace Evangelical Church for the album graphics. Afterwards, the Society band performed several free concerts for the Hosensack congregation with the music integrated into the Sunday services. The CD was released in a special concert in April 2004 held by the Society for the public at the Bethlehem Ice House. As a result of the CD, the Society performing group played at services in many different churches and at other gospel events in the years to follow. The Society members worked extemely hard for over a year to record a quality album and is especially proud of the accomplishment.

Jack Vass from Allentown joined the Society shortly after the gospel CD was released, and he became a key influence on changing the music played by the performing group. Jack was a fan of the revival folk songs and was a lifelong fan of the Kingston Trio music and his influences were quickly integrated into the play-out repertoire. Then, in 2006, the Society band came together once again in Miller's recording studio and recorded their 3rd album entitled "Garlic and Angels". This album was produced by Miller for the Society and it included 18 original songs composed by 7 individual members - Len, Karen, Jack, Bob, Jerry, Kristin and Edie. The album featured three "garlic" songs which were composed by band members for the 2000 Stroudsburg Garlic Festival. Local artists John Wesley Dickson and Ken Levin appeared as guests on the album adding some special lead guitar and flute tracks.


The Sustaining Years

Between 2008-2013, the Society continued to regularly sponsor its monthly jam sessions and focused mainly on the performing group which continued to play regularly for senior citizen homes and groups across the region, for festivals,and for many special events, such as family reunions, luncheon and dinner meetings of private organizations, and Holiday season parties. The group worked especially hard to promote the name of the Society by delivering professional shows including an eclectic blend of folk music tailored to the event and the audience. The group included members Len Christman (on bass and vocals), Bob Miller (on banjo, Dobro, vocals and and sound), Karen Dunstan (on mandolin and vocals), Jack Vass (on 12-string guitar and vocals), and Kristin Benjamin (on acoustic guitar and vocals). The performing group was especially proud of singing many unique arrangements of traditional folk music in three-part harmony. For several years, the band added Pam Smith who specialized in hand-held percussion and occasionally Jerry Gallagher would rejoin the band at special venues.

In 2013, both Jack and Kristin left the band. Gary Bast, a long-time member of the Society joined the performing group to replace Kristin on guitar. Most recently, in January of 2014, the Society's newest member, Rob Lennick, joined the band to replace Jack on 12-string guitar.

Over the past few years, the Society donated funds to the Lyons Fiddle Fest Association to help in the sponsorship of the youth fiddling contests. For many years, you could always find the Society's playing circle in the field at the Lyon's Festival where other musicians could join in and jam along.

In appreciation for the use of the LV Senior Center as the home base for the Society, each year since 1997, the Society hosted a free performance of the band for the annual picnic of the LV Senior Citizen Center held in Schnecksville.

Through its history, local public radio and TV and news articles frequently promoted the happenings of the Society. Members appeared on WDIY as a radio guest of Steve Aranson who DJ's a Folk Classics Show. WLVT-TV 69's Tempo Show featured the Society and the band performed live. WBYO Christian Radio in Sellersville featured the Society's gospel Cd and broadcast live performances. Phil Stahl twice featured the Society on WXLV Radio broadcast at LCCC studios in Schnecksville. The band was aired on public radio WDVR-FM in Sargeantsville, NJ. And Rich Evans, who hosted bluegrass and folk music shows on radio stations WBYO-FM and WXLV-FM, regularly played the Society's music.

Numerous local newspapers and community bulletins often featured articles about the Society and advertised the concerts of the performing group. Twice the Morning Call featured the LVFMS band in their Band of the Week entertainment series.


Going Forward

This year (March, 2014) the President, Kristin Benjamin, who ran the Society and led the performing group for so many years, passed away, and an era had ended. A group of 8 Society members came together at her family's luncheon after the funeral to perform a short tribute to Kristin. The short concert was highlighted by a recording of Kristin's solo voice singing the introduction to "I'll Fly Away" from the gospel CD. Bob Miller, the Vice-President of the Society's Board, has assumed the responsibilities as the new President and plans to move the Society and the new performing group forward with new ideas and new directions. Bob said this about the future: "I have been a member of the Folk Society since its beginning and I have personally seen the value of the organization in providing a cultural service to our community and in sharing the joy of musical entertainment for all in the Lehigh Valley for so many years. Seeing the happy faces of those who participate in our jam sessions, making a group of seniors smile, feeling the excitement of larger audiences at festivals or seeing young children sing a long with the old folk music - these are good reasons to move the Society forward."