Canal Street String Band: Folk and Blues Roots of the Grateful Dead, a concert on March 14. Harrisburg.

Canal Street String Band, which combines stellar musicianship with an undeniable sense of adventure and plenty of fun comes to Central Pennsylvania on Saturday, March 14, 2020, for a 7:30 p.m. concert sponsored by Susquehanna Folk Music Society at the Fort Hunter Centennial Barn, 5300 N. Front Street, Harrisburg. Concert tickets are $24 General Admission, $20 for SFMS members and $10 for students ages 3-22. Advance tickets are available online https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4272265 or at the door.

For more information, visit the Susquehanna Folk Music Society website at http://www.sfmsfolk.org.

Read about an interview below between SFMS staff writer Curtis Rockwell and Canal Street String Band member Dave Ruch.

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Unlike many shows, there will be an agenda behind Saturday night’s music – that of exploring the traditional music which influenced, informed, and inspired the music of the band, The Grateful Dead.  “The Dead,” founded in Palo Alto, California in 1965, first performed as “The Warlocks,” but by the end of the year had changed their name to “The Grateful Dead” so as not to copy the name of a then recently released album by the Velvet Underground. 

I had the opportunity to chat with Dave Ruch, who founded The Canal Street String Band, about the theme for Saturday’s concert, and about his Buffalo-based trio.  The themed program had its origins about five years ago. 

“Around 2015 or 2016, we played at the Old Songs Festival which is a big festival up near Albany, New York, and one of the workshops we got placed in was on the musical roots of The Grateful Dead.  Those guys started as a jug band and brought lots of different musical traditions into the fold once they became the Grateful Dead.  Some of the music that people think of as Grateful Dead songs are actually really ancient folk songs or old blues or ragtime things that they just put their own mark on.  All the music that they grew up listening too and playing – all the different rootsy stuff kind of filtered into their own original material as well.”

“A couple months ahead of time, we were staring at the fact that we were going to have to put together an hour on the musical roots of the Grateful Dead without ever having done it before so, fortunately for me, I have a long background playing that music, as the first band I was ever in was a Grateful Dead cover band back in the eighties. 

The Grateful Dead has been a gateway for untold thousands of people to discover things like Bluegrass music and old time Appalachian music and old blues.  We were in this venue called the Dutch Barn which is this ancient beautiful old wooden barn from the seventeen hundreds that’s on the property and it was completely packed.  There were probably one hundred and twenty people in there and we did the presentation and the response just floored us.  People just couldn’t get enough – they loved the stories of the music and how the Grateful Dead came to it, but the thing that really blew us away was that probably two out of every three people that we talked to afterwards told us that they didn’t even like or had never really listened to the Grateful Dead, but they raved about the presentation. 

That sort of turned on a lightbulb for me.  So we’ve expanded it to a full evening show with lots of great stories, lots of great music, and again, it’s something that people, whether they have any interest in or experience with the Grateful Dead’s music, it appeals to folk music fans, but it’s also bringing in some Grateful Dead fans who might not usually attend a folk music event.”

The Canal Street String, consisting of Dave Ruch, Phil Banaszak, and Jim Whitford, got its start in the historic district of Buffalo, NY.  “The band started ten years ago back in 2010, but we’d already known each other for twenty-some years and had played in various combinations together with other people over the years, but it was 2010 when I decided to put this group together and I called these two guys to see if they wanted to do it with me.”

The band was formed in response to the city of Buffalo looking for entertainment for its downtown area.  “We have a fabulous waterfront here on Lake Erie that’s steeped in history with the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes. They were interested in putting together some entertainment right down there at the waterfront. 

In the 19th century, there was a street called Canal Street that was, according to all the sailors, some of whom had been all over the world, the wickedest street in the world.  In something like a three block radius, there were something like eighty theaters and brothels and houses of ill repute servicing the sailors who were coming in off their ships and getting paid in Buffalo Harbor.  So I named the group after this old commercial strip.”

“Initially our repertoire was heavy in kind of maritime folk music, you know shanties and things that the lake sailors used to sing, canal songs, stuff that was, if not directly from Buffalo’s waterfront, was based on that sort of experience.”

“I dreamed up the group before I’d even talked to these other guys and sent in a proposal – Canal Street String Band playing music from Buffalo’s heyday and assorted other folk music, and they went for it so they hired us to play a couple of shows.  So at that point I had to put the group together even though I hadn’t talked to either of the other guys yet.  I reached out to them and fortunately they were interested in doing it so we put a whole repertoire together for the first shows and the band has just grown from there.”

While this Saturday’s show focuses on influences for the Grateful Dead, Dave and his musical partners are interested in collecting, preserving and cataloging traditional music, as well as adding some of their own original tunes to the traditional canon.

 “As part of a project up here unrelated to the Canal Street String Band, but related to traditional folk music, I was tasked with putting together and being the project director for a website documenting traditional folk music of the Adirondacks which is a region in northern New York State.  So as part of that I was combing through all kinds of different collections and things and discovered that there are still people up in that region who learned music directly from their elders and their community and they learned it in the traditional way which would be not by reading it on a page but by learning it from another human being. “

“There are a couple wonderful fiddlers up there who have repertoires that go back into the nineteenth century of tunes that have been just handed down through the generations.  I’ve befriended a wonderful woman who had a singing repertoire that went back to her ancestors of the nineteenth century, so yeah there are still people carrying those traditions forward and so it hasn’t ended, though it’s certainly harder to find.”

“We also do perform our own music.  Our fiddle player especially, Phil Banaszak, has written a bunch of great instrumental fiddle music that’s a little more adventurous than your traditional fiddle tunes, so that’s usually part of our show.  We’ll maybe do one or two of those on this particular night.  That’s another element to what we do, we’re not strictly playing old music that we’ve dug out of the archives, we’re also creating our own music which has been really fun.”

More of The Canal Street Band’s music can be explored on their website, www.canalstreetstringband.com Dave’s musical endeavors, including his contributions to the Emmy Award winning project, “Songs To Keep,” can be found at www.daveruch.com

A Note About Coronavirus Precautions:  Based on the latest guidelines from state and local departments of health, the current plan of the Susquehanna Folk Music Society is to hold all upcoming events as scheduled.  We are taking extra precautions for the safety of our patrons, including making sure that bathrooms have additional supplies of soap and that door handles and surfaces are sanitized prior to shows. For the time being, when we have snacks during intermission, we will be offering only individually wrapped food items.  Our staff and volunteers have been directed to stay home if they are ill, and we ask the same of our patrons. If you are a presale ticket-purchaser who is ill and unable to attend, we would be happy to exchange your ticket at no cost for a future performance.  We will announce any modifications to upcoming events via our website and through e-mail communications (so please keep us apprised if you have recently changed your e-mail address).  We look forward to seeing you at a show soon.

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