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Counter Culture in the Catskills

You know that feeling when you wake up completely surrounded by nature? Rolling hills, mountains, trees, and lush green all around you - that feeling of waking up enveloped in something honest. There’s a catbird shrieking outside my old bedroom window, not far from Monticello, NY. I grew up there. In a three bedroom house with a bay window, a yard, and a driveway. At least, I imagine the catbird is still shrieking, it never really stopped. Until we moved, but none of it really stopped. We were right in the heart of the Catskill Mountains in southeastern New York - the 845, and it was just nature, nature and art. There were trees and there were cows, and there were more trees and more cows. There was also art. Art was everywhere. From the shops to the cafes to the town gazebo. Even your piece of shit, bigot neighbor had a barn quilt somewhere on their property, but that’s upstate New York; Sullivan and Ulster Counties lay like a misplaced bible-belt stretched halfway across the Hudson Valley and the funnel to New York City. And every single person knew how to play the chorus of American Pie on guitar. It was like a weird legacy of Woodstock; wearing mutton chops, a tie-died t-shirt, and a Regan/Bush ’84 hat. Growing up in the Catskills took way longer than I’d hoped.

In 6th grade, I remember hearing Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell” play for the first time, and if you wouldn’t believe it, this tune was “not country enough” for some of the other members of that general music class. It was the most beautiful piece of music I’d ever heard. It introduced me to folk music and the musical pipeline that linked the Catskill Mountains to Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park, to the Appalachian Mountain Range, and on down all the way to the Great Smokies. It wasn’t a coincidence that artists like Pete Seeger and Levon Helm settled there. It was in the soil and it was in the air. The Catskills were the first breath after a long plunge into the unkept budget motel swimming pool that was New York City. Don’t get me wrong, I love New York City very much, but it smells like pee for three months out of the year, and that’s too much. I don’t think it was the pee that drove so many incredible artists to the Catskills. It was Woodstock.

After feeling my way through the guitar parts of Third Eye Blind’s sophomore record, Blue, I thought I’d be ready to take a swing at Simon & Garfunkel’s, Bookends. I was wrong. Like every cocky little jerk with a Fender Strat, I was ready to be the next punk/rock/ska sensation, and I was wrong. Over the next ten years, I devoted myself to learning the guitar and found myself reconnecting with the legends of Woodstock and the Greenwich Village folk scene. I spent hours fumbling my way through old protest songs, trying to turn them into my own. At that point, it all made sense. This is where so much of this music came from and it was a part of me. I wanted to be a part of it, but I had a lot of work to do, since I was still a very shitty guitarist and singer. This was the culture that these incredible artists brought to the Catskills, and it stuck. It was in crummy home recorded version of “This Land Is Your Land” made by your Dad, it was in the mutton chops that ran from under that stupid Regan/Bush ’84 hat, and it was in me. Not to sound too melodramatic, but between the years of 2000-2008, I only wrote protest songs. They weren’t good, but they were fueled by this counter culture, and that taught me how to play and write honestly.

Fast forward to my 30’s: I am still playing songs by The Band, Simon & Garfunkel, and the rest of the greats that made their mark on the 845 and 914 area codes. However, my tastes have expanded to another generation of great folk writers like Scott Hutchison and Frightened Rabbit, Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, Mumford & Sons, and Nathaniel Rateliff. I am still doing my best to write honestly and with the objective of making the world a better place. From what I understand, that is folk music and this is the counter culture. We live and create with hopes that it could make this world better for everyone, and we’ll keep doing it until we can’t anymore.


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