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The Arts

Traditional talent

With activities ranging from scholarship to pub sessions, Northern Roots Festival will celebrate the best of Irish, Scottish, English, Swedish, and French-Canadian music

Tickets for the Northern Roots Festival (combination day and evening, $35; daytime only, $20; evening only, $20; youth combination day and evening, $15; youth day only, $10; youth evening only, $10) are available from the Brattleboro Music Center at or 802-257-4523. Advance ticket purchase is recommended; seating for the evening performance is limited. Admission at 3 p.m., for the Family Concert and Family Dance only, is $5 per person at the door. On Saturday, during the festival, tickets can be purchased at New England Youth Theatre, with doors opening at 11:30 a.m. For more information, visit or call 802-257-4523.

BRATTLEBORO—This Saturday, the Brattleboro Music Center (BMC) will sponsor the annual Northern Roots Festival.

The day-long event brings together local and regional musicians representing the best of various northern musical traditions, including Irish, Scottish, English, Swedish, and French-Canadian. It includes participation workshops, concerts, pub sessions, a family dance, and evening performances.

“There is such an exceptional community in Brattleboro of musicians who specialize in traditional music from the North that we wanted to provide a showcase for this stellar local talent,” festival director Keith Murphy says.

“Along with peers and colleges from the region, the festival is inviting music friends from Boston and New Hampshire to this gathering of music,” he says.

Murphy explains that Northern music, at least initially, was a folk music that traditionally would be performed in the kitchen, the parlor, or the pub. In the 1970s, the music was transformed from a participatory event into music-hall performances.

“While much of the music goes back centuries, musicians today are composing new music in the traditional style, often so seamlessly that one can barely tell the difference,” says Murphy.

“Some composers do attempt to mix the earlier style with a more modern sound, but this festival will attempt to focus on the more traditional style,” he says. “There will a restrained approach to the music.”

Much of the music might sound very similar to the playing found accompanying a contra dance.

“As with Northern Roots music, contra dance music comes out of French-Canada, Scotland, and Ireland,” Murphy explains. “Contra dancing is an amalgam style of French and English styles of dancing.”

Many of the musicians performing at this year’s festival, including Murphy himself, were involved in contra dance circles. “The popularity of contra dancing here in Brattleboro certainly contributed to our lively Northern Music community,” he said.

From Newfoundland to Windham County

For 20 years, Murphy, a veteran performer, teacher, composer, and recording artist in the traditional arts. He has toured extensively as a musician, singing and playing guitar, mandolin, and piano at festivals, folk clubs, and performance art centers.

Originally from Newfoundland, he has been based in Brattleboro since the early 1990s. He has taught instrumental classes at dozens of traditional music events around the country, working with hundreds of mandolin players, piano players, and guitarists.

Along with several others from the Brattleboro Music Center who have since have left the area, Murphy formed the initial Northern Roots Festival five years ago.

This year, Murphy has organized it with a committee of eight, comprised of teachers from BMC as well as other local musicians. “We begin in early October, and it takes about four months of hard work,” Murphy says.

“There will be something for everyone at this year’s festival,” he says. “People can come to listen, to learn, or to participate.”

The daytime events, which run from noon to 5:30 p.m., include workshops for all instruments, panels, concerts, and a family dance.

At any given time, an attendee will find up to five different panels or concerts from which to choose. All but one of these events occur at the New England Youth Theatre.

The daytime schedule includes participatory workshops, including singing with John Roberts, contra fiddle with Ethan Hazzard-Watkins, Irish step dancing with Samantha Harris, dance band prep with Andy Davis and Mary Cay Brass, French-Canadian tunes with Becky Tracy, English country dance music with Peter Barnes, flute and whistle with Shannon Heaton, guitar with Flynn Cohen, piano with Karen Axelrod and Peter Barnes, and a workshop with Michelle Liechti that explores methods of playing one’s fiddle comfortably.

For the first time, the festival will include a daytime Youth Showcase, featuring performances from up-and-coming talent, including Kathleen Fownes and Arthur Davis, Matt Garland and Perin Ellsworth-Heller, Kyra Bleicher and Jeff Lewis, Cecilia Bryan, Phelan Muller, and others.

Peter and Mary Alice Amidon will present a family concert, followed by a family dance led by Andy Davis and Mary Cay Brass.

Other daytime events include a harp demonstration with Maeve Gilchrist, and a song panel with Gilchrist, John Roberts, Tony Barrand, Flynn Cohen, and Brendan Taaffe.

All the teaching sessions for fiddle, flute, guitar, and singing are open to the public, performers and non-performers alike.

“Young performers can learn about playing their music from an experienced artist,” says Murphy. “And people who know nothing about playing can watch an expert give instructions. It will give them a taste of what playing this music is all about.”

Also in the afternoon are the jam sessions at McNeill’s on Elliot Street, which have traditionally been a highlight of the festivals.

Musicians gather with the community for informal participatory “pub sings” which draw from the lively energy of the crowds.

“Sometimes the traditional pub songs can be quite raucous,” says Murphy, who adds that this event is so popular that it has spawn a monthly pub sing at McNeill’s.

The evening’s main event is a grand concert at New England Youth Theatre at 7:30 p.m., where many of the participants of the festival will join in theshow.

Returning for this year’s evening performance is the Traddleboro ensemble, named for the rich presence of traditional players in Brattleboro.

Traddleboro is a shifting conglomeration of local musicians who create and perform sets of music specifically for the Northern Roots Festival. This year’s Traddleboro ensemble is comprised of David Cantieni, Corey DiMario, Ethan Hazzard-Watkins, and Murphy himself.

In past years, Murphy has been too busy running around organizing the day’s events to do much else. But after five years, many tasks have settled into place, and he hopes to enjoy the day.

“I may sit in on some classes,” he says. “I certainly plan to participate at the pub sing at McNeill’s. Definitely the evening concert certainly will be an amazing event.”

The festival is a fundraiser for the traditional music program at Brattleboro Music Center, which is underwriting the day’s activities. All musicians are donating their services.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #136 (Wednesday, January 25, 2012).

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