Monday, September 03, 2007

The Road to Johnstown

The City and the Celebration

On a rainy night in May of 1889, the waters of a lake belonging to a private hunt club in western Pennsylvania burst through a weakening dam, sending their onslaught down the valley, and into the sleepy city of Johnstown. After thousands of dead, and many more left orphaned or homeless, the city would rebuilt, but would never be the same. One hundred years later, the city remembered that fateful event with a year-long celebration. It was Labor Day weekend of that year, when an ethnic festival was held in the Cambria City neighborhood, a cluster of houses, taverns, and churches, in the shadow of an old ironworks factory.

On that same weekend, for the next three years, the National Folk Festival was held in the same location. When it left in 1994, the Johnstown Folk Festival was on its own.

The tensions between the neighborhood and the festival organizers were there from the start. Nearly a dozen churches within blocks of one another, most of them Catholic, and most of them serving particular ethnic groups that had long moved to the suburbs, saw in this event a major fundraising opportunity. The Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA), organizers of the annual event, saw a responsibility to ensure its future. Food items on the street had to be bought with notes known as "scrip." For three or four scrips, you could get a gyro sandwich, and the means of exchange provided JAHA with a percentage for entertainment and other overhead costs. But in the parish basements, you could use cash, and the festival itself got nothing. Eventually that same sandwich would cost more. Eventually more of the acts were from outside the region, and fewer of them could be described as being of an "ethnic" character. There were the occasional security problems with thieves stealing the proceeds and disappearing into the neighborhood. The organizers thought the neighborhood wasn't cooperating. The neighborhood thought the organizers were getting "too big for their britches."

Eventually the matter was settled. With the increasing role of local corporate sponsorship, and increased competition for tourists from other events on a holiday weekend, what became known officially as the AmeriServ Johnstown FolkFest moved in 2004, to a permanent and secure (as in, only two ways in or out) location close to downtown at Point Park, where two rivers converged. Admission was still free, but the food cost more than twice what it used to, and the unique local character was lost. Meanwhile, less than a mile to the west, the old neighborhood of Cambria City was undaunted, continuing the Cambria City Ethnic Fest, a modest undertaking with local entertainment and ethnic foods that were reasonably priced. Beginning this year, thanks to the sponsorship of AmeriServ Financial, and the reconciling efforts of Mr Ron Conavali of JAHA, and Msgr Raymond Balta of St Mary's Byzantine Catholic Church -- both of whom get the Tip of the Black Hat for the past week, retroactive -- a shuttle bus was set up to connect the two events. Two events are now joined, separated by less than a mile, and more than a passing view of how a city's heritage should be celebrated.

I Am A Pilgrim

At first glance, I should have no sentimental attachments to the area. My late ex-mother-in-law was born and raised just north of the city, and Paul still has relatives from his mother's side in the locale. On the other hand, just up the road is the town of Ebensburg, where my mother's mother's family (Evans) first settled from Wales. They were originally Methodists. My theory is that the ones who became Catholic had to exile themselves to Ohio, and the rest of the story led up to me. So maybe there's this cosmic connection thing going on. Or maybe it's the friendliness of the people here, where I can go to little towns and hamlets and yak it up with the natives, as if I had lived there my whole life.

I've been making a pilgrimage to Johnstown, since back when the whole thing began. Over the years, sometimes I would take Paul, sometimes I go alone. Lately I have taken this chance to give Sal a taste of the real America. I find that if I can ignore, 1) that a "folk festival" is named after a bank, 2) that the food costs twice what it's worth and that I should save my appetite for that "other festival" down the street, 3) that only about half the musical acts can be considered vaguely ethnic, and 4) that many of those acts are from outside the area -- I manage to have a great time.

One of the perennial favorites of the FolkFest has been Bill Kirchen, former guitarist of Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, and the artist behind the hit "Hot Rod Lincoln." Not only is he arguably the quintessential rockabilly guitarist of the post-Woodstock era (the pre-Woodstock title going to either Duane Eddy or Luther Perkins, did I leave anyone out?), Kirchen is a consummate performer. One time I saw him do his big hit, the climax of which was impersonating a series of guitarists by imitating their signature licks, one after the other. Now that's entertainment. And the best news is, he's moved back to the DC area. Maybe he'll go back to being the house band at that biker bar in Annandale. But I doubt it.

Another act I was looking forward to seeing, was an alt-country band entitled Scott Miller and the Commonwealth. Miller is originally from the Blue Ridge in Virginia, but now lives in Knoxville. He does these great songs about life on the road, life in the South, and is inspired by things like letters from a Confederate soldier in the Civil War, not to mention the "original" Civil War, according to his telling of it, which would have been the Whisky Rebellion, one that happened in that part of the state. He performed what started out as an acoustic version of "My Daddy Raised A Boy (And Not A Man):" "My old man could be your dad's old man. / He lied about his age to fight Japan. / It wasn't long before he came back home. / He had some help from the atom bomb." Now that is just righteous! It ended with the band joining in on the final chorus. (His music can be heard by clicking here.) I've already had two of his albums, but I got a third, the all-acoustic one. He and I had a chance to talk afterwards, stuff like the Whiskey Rebellion and why more people don't know about stuff like that. He was a refreshing departure from the politically-correct twerps I run into a lot. He obviously reads too much for his own good. A man after my own heart.

Later in the day, they had zydeco. In particular, they had Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers. Now, most zydeco bands come in two varieties. There are the "show bands," which play more rhythm and blues or Motown or funk than they do nouveau zydeco, let alone the old stuff. Such bands are the ones that white people in New Orleans and Baton Rouge trot out for tourists who drink too much and jump around a lot. But THEN, there are the "dance bands," which play the real deal. The last real dance band to play zydeco at Johnstown was Nathan Williams, and that was about ten years ago. Not that the others aren't bad; you just can't dance to them. Fortunately, the son of "Rockin' Dopsie" was closer to a dance band than a show band, and that was good. Some of these guys just don't get it. I don't get that they don't get it.

But there was also dancing to be done at one of Sal's favorite spots, at that "other festival." One of the churches in Cambria City has a pavilion where the food is good and inexpensive, and Lou Stein and All That Jazz keep the party going. Sal and I wowed the audience with the cha-cha. She did take some persuading, but in the end she's a class act. What can I tell you?

Last year, we even danced at the hotel lounge, where there were these two guys, a duo on piano and stand-up bass. The duo was back this year, and we had a chance to get caught up with the guys, and ask about some new developments in the local economy. Over where the old Lutheran church once stood near the hospital in town, a major defense contractor is building a new facility for its medical services division. This same subsidiary provides contract nurses for the Public Health Service at clinics stationed in Federal government buildings. I asked the band about this. They owed it to their congressman, Jack Murtha, the retired Marine who has been very critical of the war in Iraq. But the people in Johnstown, who generally are fiercely patriotic, really don't care what he says inside the Beltway; they care what he does for them at home. And landing this facility means bringing jobs.

Sunday in God's Country

We left Johnstown on Sunday morning. Normally we go to Mass downtown, at the Pro-Cathedral of St John Gaulbert. For several years, I have had to endure some aging hippie wannabe as the celebrant, who is all too aware that the Mass is being televised, and loves to show off. It's embarrassing to watch a grown man make a damn fool of himself on television without Jerry Springer to help him along. So we headed north, to a little town called Patton, where there was a parish called Queen of Peace. Like other parishes in the northern part of Cambria County, this one is staffed by Benedictine Fathers attached to the Saint Vincent Archabbey in nearby Latrobe. My mom has a cousin there among the Brothers. Sal was grateful there was breakfast at the parish hall, something I didn't factor into the itinerary. The church was beautiful and well-maintained, the Mass was reverently celebrated, and the priest was a devout and personable fellow named Father Ananias. We spoke for a bit afterwards, and talked of his plans to institute the Old Latin Mass there when the papal decree becomes effective. He's been getting calls from all over that part of the state about it. I let him know his parish was mentioned in a discussion on the internet. Sometimes good news travels fast.

That afternoon, we took the scenic route home. We stopped by a roadside stand for fresh corn. To anyone traveling through Pennsylvania, I recommend US Highway 30, "The Lincoln Highway," one of the country's great scenic routes. We stopped in a little town called Schellsburg, where there was a little country supermarket where we got more produce. There was also a festival sponsored by the Shawnee Valley Volunteer Fire Department ("Bustin' Ours, Savin' Yours"). They featured a sound stage with southern gospel music. We ate haluski and listened to the soulful sounds of The Gospel Rays. This sort of thing is rather popular in these parts.

It's always good to get back home, no matter where you go. I miss God's country, and wish I could get lost on its roads more often. Sometimes, when the weather is just right, and the people you meet along the way are the salt of the earth, it's like being a little closer to heaven.

Just a little, mind you.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the read.
Jim Baldwin

Brian Kopp said...

Great report on the Folk Fest, thanks!

Good to see you found Queen of Peace in Patton; we just joined, even though there are many (dozens?) of Catholic parishes closer to Johnstown. The pastor truly is a good priest, and understands ALL the issues near and dear to traditional Catholics.