By Elmer Ploetz
When people think about traditional music in America, they usually think of Appalachian mountain ballads or country blues from the south.
But through the years Dave Ruch has discovered that every part of the country has its own traditions in music — including Western New York.
Americana fans will get a chance to find out what he means by that when he brings his songs of the Erie Canal and the Adirondacks to the Sportsmen’s Tavern
That’s the approach Ruch will take when he brings his “Music of the Adirondacks and the Erie Canal” performance to the Sportsmen’s Tavern on Wednesday, Jan. 18, at 7 p.m. He’ll be bringing along his acoustic guitar, two different types of mandolin (a traditional mandolin and an octave mandolin), a five-string banjo and probably the bones, spoons, washboard and jaw harp. You can buy tickets HERE.
In a recent interview, Ruch said he had been interested in folk music since the 1980s, but his interest in traditional music took off when he joined Jerry Raven and Judd Sunshine in the Hill Brothers group in the ‘90s. They did hundreds of school shows, playing music reflecting the region’s history.
“That’s definitely what got me interested in this realm of folk music that’s more traditional, more historical,” he said. “I think everybody’s familiar with Irish traditional music, or southern Appalachian traditional music. But I was really interested to discover that every area of the country has its own traditional music. There’s music that fiddlers used to play and music that ordinary people used to sing before they had radios and TVs for their own entertainment.”
On top of that, Ruch has received multiple grants through the year through TAUNY (Traditional Arts in Upstate New York) to document traditional music in the Adirondacks. TAUNY recently received a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts for Ruch to do “New Audiences for Old Songs” with fifth-generation Adirondack balladeer Colleen Cleveland (more about that further down in this story).
As for the Sportsmen’s show, it will be the first time Ruch has performed his traditional material there since he curated a project with the Black Rock Historical Society to bring in three visiting artists in 2019.
“It’s been too long since I’ve gotten to do this at a place like the Sportsmen’s,” he said. “This show that I’m going to do in a couple of weeks is going to be equally divided between material from the Adirondack region and material from the Erie Canal. What’s different about it is just probably the fact that it’s not just a person standing there singing songs and playing music, there’s a lot of great stories that go along with all the music. There’s great stories in terms of how I found some of the music; There’s great stories about the people that the music came from. So I get to convey all of that kind of stuff in between the songs. People overwhelmingly seem to really enjoy that part of it as much as the music.
Ruch, of course, is no stranger to the Sportsmen’s stage, though. He’s performed there with multiple bands through the years.
In fact, it was a call from Kenny Biringer, who books shows at the Sportsmen’s, that persuaded Ruch and the fellow members of his teen band the Wild Knights, to reunite for a show there. The Grateful Dead/Allman Brothers/The Band-inspired group has done occasional shows since.
Ruch has also performed there with the Canal Street String Band and now frequently plays with Organ Fairchild, a popular jam trio.
He has also managed to do something very few people do in Western New York: he makes his full-time living doing music.
In fact, he’s shared his knowledge in how to do that with a series of articles (80 and counting) at https://daveruch.com/advice.
He said many musicians are creative, but they don’t care to take care of the details of the business side of performing.
“It’s just not in their wheelhouse,” he said, “to market themselves and do the administrative stuff that it takes to make a living at it.
“There are a lot of people in this town who are way more talented than I am, but I don’t seem to mind doing all the busy work and all the marketing and the legwork that you really need to do if you’re going to try to make a living at it. It comes kind of comes naturally to me.”
Getting grants is hard work, but Ruch has been involved with several through the years. His latest, announced last month, is the aforementioned TAUNY grant to work with Colleen Cleveland on her family’s trove of songs. Ruch has had a cabin near Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks for about 15 years and has gotten to know Cleveland while performing on the same bill with her.
Ruch with be working with a collection of over 900 traditional songs the Clevelands have sung over the years, some of them found nowhere else.
“Colleen Cleveland is the fifth generation to sing these old songs and ballads that had been in her family forever,” he said. “People sang just to pass the time or to leave the tedium of whatever the job of the day was. So she and her family have written down over 900 songs that they have, basically, inherited from their elders.
“Some of them are old Scottish, and English ballads that were brought over to this country with the early settlers. Some of them are regional songs that they heard from a co-worker or a neighbor.”
Colleen Cleveland has been singing the songs for years, but the goal of this project is for Ruch and Cleveland to work together to introduce those songs to musicians in other genres.
“There’s a very, very small sort of niche audience for these old songs,” he said. “But we’re trying to get the songs into the ears and onto the fingers of country musicians and bluegrass musicians and old-time musicians, and even rock musicians and people who play more in well-known genres.
“The songs are timeless. I mean, some of them are fairly archaic sounding because they are hundreds of years old. But they’re great songs, and they tell great stories. And so I thought it’d be really cool to see if we can get the songs out in the air again, get people playing them and singing them for their audiences.”
Ruch approaches his research into older music as a labor of love. He doesn’t have a degree in folklore or musicology.
“Essentially what I’m doing is kind of amateur folklore work,” he said. “I don’t claim to be a professional folklorist.”
On the other hand, he is giving people a chance to learn about the state’s musical heritage, searching out how the music has changed over time and preserving it for future generations.
Americana fans will have a chance to find out just how much fun that can be — with an adult beverage of your choice in hand — with the Sportsmen’s show.