PERRY HALL — Americana is alive and well in Perry Hall, where folk fans gather once a month at Perry Hall Methodist Church to enjoy live music from renowned artists as well as from locals with a passion for performing.
The Perry Hall Folk Music Night began 15 years ago, when Neil Zimmerman decided he wanted to keep the traditions and spirit of folk music alive in his community.
“In 2004, I acquired the CD Treasures From The Folk Den by Roger McGuinn,” Zimmerman said. “Roger had traveled around the country to the homes of other noted folk singers recording old folk songs with them. His stated purpose was to preserve old folk music. I thought that preserving folk music sounded like a noble effort.”
Zimmerman said he also had a guitar that was sitting in a corner gathering dust.
“From this,” he said, “the idea of sponsoring an open mic folk music series was born.”
Zimmerman chose Perry Hall Methodist Church as his venue, as he is a member of the congregation. He presented his proposal to church leaders in 2004. They were amenable to his request, and he’s been hosting the event there every month for the past 15 years.
The Perry Hall Folk Music Night is a family friendly event, and that’s just what Zimmerman intended it to be from the start.
“It provides a safe, inexpensive music event for all ages,” he said. “We generally get between 25 to 50 people. It gives musicians the opportunity to try out their music in front of an attentive audience, because it’s not like playing in a bar or club. It gives some exposure to struggling musicians and allows for networking.”
Nearly 140 different people or musical acts have played at Perry Hall Folk Music Night. And that doesn’t include the number of people who decided to give open mic a try. Zimmerman said the monthly event started out as just that.
“It was originally just an open mic until 2006,” he said. “That year, a singer-songwriter from Washington, D.C. named Rob Guttenberg contacted me. He was trying to promote his music which was geared toward supporting the cause of the disabled. He himself is a brain injury survivor.”
Gutternberg wanted to be paid, as he was a professional musician.
“He wanted to be paid a small amount,” Zimmerman said. “So, I came up with the idea of having him be a featured performer. He would play a 40 minute set and everyone else would get to do their usual 3 songs. I gave him part of the donations that I received that night.”
The night is free for all to attend, but Zimmerman does take donations. Any monies gathered are split between the church and the featured artist.
Professional performers showcase their original compositions as well as cover songs of famous singers like Bob Dylan, Peter Seeger and Woody Guthrie.
And it’s not just folk that music lovers might hear. Many visiting artists have played rock and pop music as well.
“In May 2011, our featured performer was Baltimore singer songwriter Terry Gourley, who describes her music as folk rock fusion,” Zimmerman said.
Gourley is currently involved with the rock music camp called Rock Star Jam and her guitarist, Tobias Hurwitz, is the lead guitarist for the Baltimore Ravens Marching Band.
Zimmerman said that Gourley and Hurwitz left a lasting impression when they played at Folk Music Night.
“Tobias brought with him to the Folk Music Night some of his students,” the curator said.
“During the open mic they performed an inspiring rendition of the Beatles’ Let It Be. Tobias himself dazzled us when he played the instrumental solo in the middle of the song.”
Most recently, folk musician Brooksie Wells has performed for the monthly get-together. Wells has performed at the Folk Music Night several times and said she always enjoys playing at the church.
“Neil and his wife are very supportive of artists who are local and are just so nice,” she said. “I live in Atlanta now and when they asked me to play again I didn’t hesitate to come back up. The ambiance is friendly and it’s the old fashioned way of sharing music, where people of all levels can perform. Everyone puts a lot of heart into it.”
Wells said the folk scene in the Baltimore area is very strong and that the event Saturday was well attended.
“Folk and bluegrass music have been very strong here since the 1970s. I felt very supported and loved by this local folk community,” Wells said.
Wells was signed on by Bobby Darin, a member of the infamous Rat Pack, when she was 19 years old. She stopped performing when she had kids and began writing songs and albums for children. Once her kids grew up she returned to writing and performing her own music.
Wells has released five albums since her return to the folk scene 12 years ago. Her latest album, In My Pocket, was released this May and was named #7 Album of the Month by Folk DJ Chart.
The next artist to perform at Folk Music Night on November 16 is Philadelphia singer songwriter Matt Roach. Roach classifies his music as an alternative to rock and pop, with a little country comedy thrown in.
“For the folk of it,” he jests.
As for the future of Folk Music Night, Zimmerman said he will continue to seek out artists and welcome people to perform at the open mic for as long as he can.
“You’ll hear music performed on guitar, piano, bass guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, mountain dulcimer, flute, harmonica, ukulele, autoharp, recorder, trumpet, tambourine, maracas, harp, Tibetan singing bowls, and maybe even a harp guitar,” Zimmerman wrote on his website.
“You might even hear yourself singing along. So, try us out. You’ll be glad you did!”