folky Hudson River Sampler turns 25
Before the early 1960s, a folk song was basically an old ballad of unknown authorship. But as singer-songwriters, starting with Bob Dylan, appeared on the scene, controversies raged—and still do—over the term’s meaning. Folk-music maven Wanda Fischer, a blonde, 60ish woman whose WAMC radio show The Hudson River Sampler celebrates its 25th anniversary this weekend, won’t touch the question even though she knows the genre intimately. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, she can’t define it, but she knows it when she hears it. “The ‘What is folk music’ debate is not winnable,” she wrote in a recent e-mail interview. “I play what I like and what I consider to be folky. It is a matter of taste, and I won’t deny it.”
Fischer’s taste, however, is unimpeachable, being informed by decades of
listening to everything within folk’s admittedly ambiguous bailiwick:
bluegrass, blues, Celtic music, protest songs, early country music,
contemporary singer-songwriters, and acoustic instrumental masters. She
is also a singer and a guitar player, with a CD (Singing Along with
the Radio) of her own. Consequently, what her listeners get is a
knowledgeable selection of songs offering something for every kind of
folk fan. “Wanda’s gracious personality and good taste boosts the
reputation of folk music,” Sarah Craig, the director of Caffe Lena, said
in an e-mail. “I always feel confident that all is alive and well with
folk music after an hour spent listening to Hudson River Sampler.”
Wanda Fischer was born in Kingsport, Tenn., where her father was friends with Maybelle Carter and others of the famous singing family. After serving in World War II, her father couldn’t find work back in Tennessee, so the family moved to Weymouth, Mass., near her mother’s hometown of Boston (her parents met at Beantown’s long-gone Hillbilly Ranch). She grew up with roots music: “Folk music—particularly old-timey stuff and bluegrass—was always a part of the home scene, and when we went to visit my father’s family every summer, members of the Carter family would visit, and when they opened the Carter Family Fold, we went there to sing, play, and just listen,” says Fischer, adding, “I have some great photos of my father and June riding on my dad’s motorcycle.”
By the mid 1960s she was frequenting folk coffeehouses in Harvard Square and hitting the Newport Folk Festival in the summer (she was there when Arlo Guthrie premiered his famous rambling antiwar saga, “Alice’s Restaurant”). “I saw many legends back then without knowing they were legends—Mississippi John [Hurt], Bill Monroe, Richard and Mimi Farina, Ian and Sylvia, etc.”
Fischer, like many other folk fans at the time, also became an antiwar activist, and once saw a young John Kerry address 100,000 protesters at a peace rally on the Boston Common when he was with Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
After receiving an English degree in 1975 from Northeastern University, she moved to Worcester, Mass., with her husband Bill, a medical student. While he was in school there, she volunteered for a local community radio station, WCUW-FM, at first producing their program guide. When the host of the station’s folk show left, Fischer took over the microphone, and learned how run a board, edit tape, and other technical skills. She captained the show for the next four years.
The Fischers moved to the Albany area in 1979 when Bill began his residency here. Wanda plunged into the local folk scene, which at the time consisted mainly of weekend concerts at the Eighth Step and Caffe Lena, the late Jackie Alper’s Sunday-evening WRPI show Mostly Folk, the weekly hootenannies of the Pickin’ and Singin’ Gatherin’, and the Fox Hollow festival in Petersburg. In the process, she became fast friends with Alper, a venerable folkie and leftist who had performed with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger in the Almanac singers, and was musicologist Alan Lomax’s personal secretary.
Looking to get back into radio, Fischer got involved with WAMC, then broadcasting from the WMHT studios in Rotterdam, by designing their program guide. History repeated itself when in 1982 WAMC honcho Alan Chartock offered her a folk show, which now airs Saturday evenings from 8 to 10:30 PM on 90.3 FM and its regional mirror stations, as well as online in streaming audio at www.wamc.org. The broadcast debuted on Sept. 18 of that year, and the left ends of local and regional FM-radio dials have been happier ever since.
So what can you expect to hear on the Hudson River Sampler? “Just about everything,” Fischer says. “Traditional, contemporary, folk, blues, bluegrass, old-timey, political music. However, my taste runs to the more acoustic. I don’t like heavy production—big drums, big organs, big horn sections, etc. I like the recordings that sound like what it might sound like to hear the acts in person.”
This broad range of styles notwithstanding, she is still choosy about what she spins while allowing for spontaneity. “I only get to play between 30 to 35 cuts every week, and we have about 10,000 CDs in the library at WAMC, so I am selective. I put together sets of things that seem to ‘belong’ together, whether thematically or musically.”
Fischer mostly improvises her playlists in the studio. “I don’t plan out my show before I go to the station every week. I usually pull out a few things that I have been thinking about all week and then let it flow. I’m constantly running back and forth to grab this or that CD from the library.” A look at last Saturday’s slate (viewable online at www.wamc.org/prog-hudson.html) showed she played cuts from both national and local artists, including Roger McGuinn, Anne Hills, Phil Ochs, the Hunger Mountain Boys, Paul Straussman, and Christopher Shaw.
Naming her favorite artists, she says she prefers traditional musicians and singer-songwriters. Her top picks? “Whew, that’s a long list. I could play John Kirk’s ‘Shenandoah’ every week, but I don’t. Connie Kaldor, John McCutcheon, Bill Staines, Gordon Bok, Anne Hills, Priscilla Herdman, Cindy Mangsen, Steve Gillette, Chris Shaw, Bridget Ball, David Roth, Bernice Lewis, Cheryl Wheeler. Kim and Reggie Harris, and Magpie. And the list could go on. The theme song for my show all these years has been ‘Big Dark’s Fancy’ by Cindy Kallet. She’s wonderful as well.”
At least one from that list, singer-songwriter Bernice Lewis, will share the bill tomorrow (Friday) at a 25th-anniversary concert at the Linda Norris Auditorium with a lineup of performers cherry-picked by Fischer. Also appearing will be fellow songsmiths Jonathan Edwards, Debra Cowen, and Pat Wictor, and rootsy fingerstyle-guitar ace Toby Walker.
Twenty-five years on, Wanda Fischer isn’t slowing down a bit. “As long as it’s fun,” she says, “I’ll keep on doing it.”
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