Carrying on an oral tradition: ‘Song and Story Swap’ opens new season

Last modified: Thursday, October 30, 2014
The Pioneer Valley Folklore Society will kick off its “Song and Story Swap” season with a fundraising concert featuring contemporary folk and American roots musician Cliff Eberhardt Sept. 6 at 7 p.m. at the Nacul Center, 592 Main St. in Amherst.

This is the organization’s annual showcase concert, and proceeds from the performance will go toward sustaining the monthly swaps, which take place the first Saturday evening of the month, from September to June.

“We’re basically sacrificing one of our swaps for this event,” said Paul Kaplan, the event’s organizer. “This will cover our operating expenses.”

Eberhardt grew up in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and started playing music professionally at the age of 15. He became a major figure in the New Folk scene in Greenwich Village in the 1980s and has toured internationally. He lives in Williamsburg.

“He’s a local guy and we really like to feature local people,” Kaplan said. “He’s written some great songs and has a beautiful delivery.”

Kaplan reached out to Eberhardt through his agent over a year ago, but said he was only recently able to set up the performance due to Eberhardt’s busy tour schedule.

“I travel all the time. I’m not around a whole lot,” Eberhardt said in a recent phone interview, adding that he will be flying in from Nashville for the show and flying out to Charlotte, North Carolina, the next day.

During the concert, Eberhardt will perform two 45-minute sets with an intermission.

“I do excerpts from my nine albums and I do a lot of storytelling,” he said. “Some people think I’m funny,” he quipped.

Tickets for the show cost $15 and are available at Amherst Books, 8 Main St., Amherst.

New month, new theme

Ordinarily, the swaps, which are free and open to the public, feature a group of musicians, storytellers and listeners who gather downstairs at the Nacul Center to share stories, sing songs or just listen in.

The event has a different theme each month, which, in the past, has ranged from “Travel,” to “Old Favorites,” to “Turtles” and more.

“We ask (participants) to suggest a song, lead a song, sing a song, tell a story on that subject,” Kaplan said. “We have some really fine storytellers who, all month, practice up for their story.”

Each swap also features a guest performer, who presents a 45-minute set of acoustic material. During the performance, audience members pass around a basket to collect donations for the artist.

Kaplan said it hasn’t always been easy to find guest artists, but it has gotten easier in recent years.

“I think that word has gotten around that it’s a good place to perform,” he said. “We get really high-quality people that like playing in an acoustic, intimate atmosphere. ... But what goes before and after them is equally important,” he added.

“The Song and Story Swap” began at the Montague Book Mill when the Pioneer Valley Folklore Society had an office there in the early 1990s, according to Kaplan. It was held for a time at the Black Sheep Deli in Amherst, and, five years ago, moved to its current home in the Nacul Center.

Kaplan said that although the Black Sheep was wonderful, it has been better to have a quieter, non-commercial meeting place.

“Anybody who knows anything about Amherst can’t imagine that it’s a quiet place here (on a Saturday night), but we never have any disturbance of any kind here,” Kaplan said. “It’s just a peaceful sanctuary. It’s just lovely.”

The audience tends to be middle-aged or older, but Kaplan says many young people attend the event, as well. And they’re not just Amherst residents — according to Kaplan, attendees come from Springfield, Northampton and more.

“(The swap) suits the consciousness of people who just want to be part of the ongoing oral tradition,” he said. “That’s why I do it — because the human contact that this affords is priceless.”

Kaplan, who lives in Amherst, has been the host of the “Song and Story Swap” for 15 years. In that time, he’s seen a wide variety of performances.

“We’ve had everything you can imagine,” he said. “It’s really just more of a sharing. Except for the featured artist, we’re all on equal footing. If you want to present, you present. You can get to be your own critic and editor, and you get to say your piece,” he continued. “We find that people tend to be really eloquent, even just off the cuff.”

Kaplan recalled a particular evening when a couple showed up to the swap. The woman told a story about an interesting chain of events, and then the man shared a story.

“It turned out it was the two of them telling the same story from different points of view. It was the story of their life, essentially,” Kaplan said.

Attendance varies from month to month, and often depends on who the featured artist is, Kaplan said.

“We get anywhere from six to 60 people.” The vast majority end up participating, even if they did not originally intend to, he added.

“I think it’s very rare to have a place where you can come and absorb or share, and there’s no pressure either way,” he said.