ORIGINS OF THE CRANBERRY DULCIMER GATHERING
I started playing hammered dulcimer in 1973, living at that time near Corning in the "Southern Tier" of New York State, and my search for folks in that area who even knew what a hammered dulcimer was led me to Mr. John Kleske of Binghamton, New York.
John's interest in folk music in general had prompted him sometime back in the early 1970s to start "The Cranberry Coffeehouse" at his church, the Universalist Unitarian Church on Riverside Drive in Binghamton.
When John and I met and he learned that I was a hammered-dulcimer player (albeit a relative neophyte), he booked me and my musical partner at the time to perform at The Cranberry Coffeehouse in 1974.
John had been an active builder of mountain dulcimers, but had also dabbled in hammered dulcimers and had a growing interest in them.
John Kleske also had connections with a hammered-dulcimer builder (and player) named Ben Stone (now deceased) in Montrose, Pennsylvania. John had met Ben in mid-1976 at a crafts fair at the Marathon (New York) Maple Festival where Ben was exhibiting his dulcimers. Ben was building hammered dulcimers then and had also been building mountain dulcimers since 1973.
John said, "At the Maple Festival the idea was born of holding a festival which would not be a festival, but rather a gathering of musicians without the millers and gawkers that infest the usual festival."
I therefore cannot take credit for the initial concept of the Cranberry Gathering, but I think I can take full credit for the mechanics of making it happen. John Kleske was the one who got the Binghamton church to sign on and handled "venue" issues, and the original idea was hatched by Ben Stone.
I met Ben Stone myself at a festival at Cayuga County (New York) Community College in December 1976 by way of an introduction by the late Nick Krukovsky. Ben had a plethora of ideas for what The Gathering might be.
The name "Cranberry" for the coffeehouse — and later for The Gathering — had come from the fact that John and Alda Kleske owned a getaway cabin on "Cranberry Lake" in northern Pennsylvania across the border from New York State. When John began the monthly coffeehouse at the Binghamton Universalist Unitarian Church, he called it "The Cranberry Coffeehouse."
So Ben Stone, John Kleske, and I supposed that it would be fun to hold a "hammered dulcimer party" for a weekend of playing and sharing. Our original idea was to hold our party at John's getaway, and therefore it was to be called "The Cranberry Dulcimer Gathering." In December 1976 we shifted our venue concept to Ben Stone's parents' farm in Marathon, New York.
However, a better idea quickly emerged: hold the gathering at the Binghamton Universalist Unitarian Church. As I understood it, the church leaders latched on to this idea. Many folks in the church saw it as not only community involvement but as a way to raise money by operating the church's kitchen to offer snacks and hot meals during the entire event. The gathering might even have some money left over for a church donation.
Geographically, Binghamton, New York seemed like a great "northeastern" location because it was the crossroads of Interstate 81 from Pennsylvania from the south and Syracuse from the north, Interstate 88 from Albany and New England from the east, and N.Y. Route 17 from points west.
The Fox Hollow Festival near Albany was to be the first weekend in August, and we supposed that out-of-towners might come a week ahead of that for the Cranberry. Thus we chose the weekend at the end of July and invitations went out to all the hammered-dulcimer players we knew, plus related folks in our Rolodexes and mailing lists. At no time was there any advertising or organized publicity, although Phil Mason of Dulcimer Players' News gave us some mention on page 5 of the Summer 1977 issue.
The emphasis was to be solely "hammered dulcimer," but mountain dulcimers crept in from the very first because of John Kleske's and Ben Stone's involvement with mountain dulcimers.
At no time did we conceive of The Gathering being a "festival," and I for one still object strongly to anyone trying to call it a "festival." It was and remains a dulcimer gathering. John Kleske says, "'Gathering' was a basic philosophy from the very first, agreed upon by all of us."
I myself am quite pleased that the "Gathering" name and concept have endured through 35 years, although I do cringe when I hear the words "festival" and "teachers" sneaking in from time to time, usually from those who aren't quite attuned to our philosophy and have been corrupted by the many "festivals" held elsewhere.
No "admission" or "registration fee" was charged, but we asked for a donation of $3 (yes, three dollars) from each participant to cover the very modest expenses. (In case you're interested, that's the equivalent of $10.81 in today's dollars.) Costs of printing and mailing were absorbed by our good friends Andy and Bill Spence of Andy's Front Hall. Andy's Front Hall was the first vendor to be at a Cranberry Gathering, and I think was the only one at The First.
This first Cranberry Dulcimer Gathering had no featured workshop leaders nor programmed workshops, but I did an on-the-spot organization of some "workshops" for those interested in leading and those interested in attending. We had gathered information on interests through the advance registration.
Workshops on that Saturday and Sunday were by Mike Autorino, Dallas Cline, Durwood Crocker, Michael Current, Doug Ecker, Mike Martin, Jay Round, and Bill Spence. (Workshops on Friday with a Friday-night "open mic" concert originated at The Second in 1978.)
Similarly, we had no "featured dulcimists," but we did put together a Saturday-evening concert which, as I recall, ran well into the night. My archives show that the performers were Deb Autorino, Michael Current, Doug Ecker, Nick Krukovsky, Mary Faith Rhodes, Jay Round, Bill Spence, and yours truly.
On-the-spot volunteerism played an important role in making things happen. We had sign-up for parking volunteers, registration volunteers, site-clean-up volunteers, even restroom-tending, and the ever-popular "Levitation Committee" of sturdy folks to handle heavy-lifting jobs like piano-moving. Folks I've spoken with recently recall the feeling of doing something really new and really meaningful, and they remember the energy which permeated the event making everyone wanting to be a part of it.
A "Cranberry tradition" from the very beginning was punctuality. Through the years, we insisted that workshops and other activities always start and end exactly on time so that everyone is confident about when to be where. I think this ethos has generally — but not perfectly — been continued to the present. ("Starting late only serves to penalize those who come on time," my dad taught me.)
My records aren't totally clear on the matter, but it appears The First had 81 advance registrants and the total attendance was 107.
We distributed our excess cash to those who led workshops and appeared in the concert, made a $50 contribution to the church, and then we had $32 (yes, thirty-two dollars) left. Ah, me, what to do. Well, we said we'd keep it in the bank just in case we decided to do this again in 1978.
Of course we decided we would. Planning for the Second Cranberry Dulcimer Gathering began in October 1977, with a "steering committee" meeting in Binghamton in February 1978. The rest, as is often said, is history.
Some historical notes:
The Seventh (1983) was the last one I managed. The Eighth (1984) was chaired by Tom Baehr, and I know that for 1984 I and my musical partner at the time, Pamela Roberts (autoharper extraordinaire), were one of the two concert features. (Neal Hellman was the other.) This was how autoharps got into the Gathering. The next year, 1985, was the first year autoharps were officially part of the workshops and concerts because of the interest Pam generated.
However, we should note that the previous year in 1983 Margaret MacArthur was signed for mountain dulcimer, and because of her unique "MacArthurHarp" I scheduled a workshop called "Unhammered Things with Lots of Strings." It was well attended with some Irish harps, John Kleske with his unusual "ukelins," and of course autoharps.
Tom Baehr was general manager and program director for more years than
I was, organizing and running the 8th through the 31st! CarolLynn and
Gene Langley took over for 2008 through 2010 and into 2011 and —
we hope — beyond. Throughout, I felt like a proud parent who was
delighted to see his baby grow up and succeed on her own without me.
Ben Stone passed away in 1999. John Kleske passed away in 2010.