On Friday, June 9th Tom and Betty Druckenmiller with Norm Williams took to the Godfrey Daniels stage, which celebrated 41 years in March. In an attempt to make the listening room as much like a porch as possible the group brought iced tea which they served in mason jars and Tom brought along an antique radio to add to the mood. The group talked freely with the crowd, making a connection between band and audience immediately. It seemed that a non-band member could have jumped on the stage and played along at any moment.
After introducing the band, Tom proudly announced that they had been coming to Godfrey Daniels since the second show, testifying to the musical community in which they and the venue take part. The trio introduced each song with a story that frequently involved naming musical mentors and friends. The group knew the history of most of the songs that they played and took a minute to explain them to the audience, inviting them to share in the history of the music. According to Betty,
We love the stories that go with the tunes and find that the ones that are easiest to learn and keep are those we’ve learned from people we care about. For me, personally, there’s a quiet force or spirit in the music that seems to carry the people that played it before, and I keep them in mind when we play or present the music.
In part, the nature of old time music fosters community. Betty pointed out that “150 years ago, there was no way to listen to music except in the audience and on the porch” which necessitated intimate relations between musicians and listeners. In their performances, the group strives to recreate this “old fashioned, old time, sharing of song.” As Tom explained to the audience, he wants his listeners to be “transported to the front porch.” Thus, the entire show was acoustic and audience members were encouraged to join in singing the songs they recognized. The group alternated between instrumentals and vocals, deciding on a whim which songs they wanted to play from a pile of sheet music on the floor at their feet.
At different times during the show, each member took center stage, choosing the song they most wanted to share with the crowd. For instance, Norm Williams, who is currently in the process of recording a solo project, pulled out a Native American Flute to play a track from his individual work. Together the musicians play a diverse range of instruments. Along with the flute, Betty writes that “Norm has been “serious about the dulcimer” for almost 20 years.” Tom plays the banjo and Betty plays the fiddle.
The music incited joy across the audience, glancing around I saw smiles growing on faces, the bouncing of knees along with the beat and the gentle nods of heads. A little girl danced in her chair and took the hand of her guardian before dancing it across the table. The songs moved between gentle melodies and tunes you can’t help but dance to such as “Rock the Cradle Joe” and a tune inspired by a Texas waltz.
The nature of the music was particularly inspiring because although many of the lyrics dealt with sentimental events like heartbreak, hardship, and death, they each ultimately celebrated the light within the dark. Music in the most general sense often turns terrible circumstances into art that unifies people in the struggle. According to Betty, “The South Side has always been a vibrant part of the Bethlehem culture, from the days when the Steel was open and immigrants from many countries brought their celebrations, music and family traditions with them when they came… At Godfrey’s the emphasis has often been participatory, with Irish, Bluegrass, Old-time and other jams taking place each month.” In the face of the inevitable challenges of bringing diverse people together, music acts to bring down walls and build up bridges from one porch to the next. Just as music allowed for a community when the steel was open, it continues to do so in South Bethlehem today. The entire show was a reminder of the power of art to make beauty out of anything, and to form strong and unified communities.
For more information about the group check out www.tomandbettymusic.com. You might also tune in to Tom’s show, In the Tradition, on WDIY for traditional folk music best listened to from your own front porch.
Photos by Mareesa Miles.