A happy musical accident
Groanbox Boys will be at Outerland on Monday.
Cory Seznec was born in Nice, in the south of France. While he was catching the music bug from a crazy Hungarian piano teacher, Michael Ward-Bergeman was developing his accordion skills as a clown on Long Island and teaching circus arts in a visionary public school program. It seemed unlikely their paths would cross. They found each other a little over two years ago while living in London, England.
"Cory had placed an ad on Craig's list" said Michael. Banjo looking for accordion. Cory's grandfather was an accordion player in the Navy. He had learned to love the instrument listening to "Good time Charlie" play seafaring and jazzy tunes. Michael just loved to play.
After a few jam sessions, the duo quickly realized they were a perfect musical match, both sharing a passion for the rich heritage of pre-electric American folk and unusual musical instruments. "We just embarked on this journey of all-American folk tradition," said Cory. The Groanbox Boys were born.
Soon, they were raising interest in the London circuit. "Anything worked, " said Michael, "...rock, blues, folk clubs...we always managed to fit in and connect with all kinds of people." The band was a hit.
What makes the Groanbox Boys unique and might explain their success is their distinct instrumentation. Cory, the younger of the pair, plays the guitar, the harmonica, and a fretless gourde banjo similar to the instruments played by slaves on plantations in the early 19th century. "It's a neat instrument," said Cory, "it's funky and has more slide than a regular banjo." Michael plays the accordion and the "shackles," a set of brass bells traditionally used by Indian classical dancers.
But their most remarkable feature is the Freedom Boot.
Inspired by an instrument noticed at a Morris dancing folk festival in England, the Freedom Boot was created at one of the first venues the Boys played.
Made from a six-foot pine dowel, four hundred and twenty bottle caps from the small organic Freedom Brewery in rural Birmingham, and a leather boot bought at a charity auction, the instrument plays like a tambourine.
Since the creation of the Freedom Boot, they have found that boot-like instruments are part of many ancient cultures' traditional music, whether it's the Lagerphone in Australia, the Chaghana in Central Asia, or the Bushwacker in New Zealand.
Adorned with strange symbols and mementos from their travels, the Groanbox Boys' Boot has become more than an instrument. Like a scrapbook, it has captured their spirit.
Groanbox Boys, Monday, July 16, the dock at Outerland, Airport Road, Edgartown. $5 cover charge.
Amadine Surier is a contributing writer to The Times.