The first time I heard Salty Dog Blues live was in the summer of 1959 at the Chilmark Community Center. The last time I heard it live was Saturday night in the same room at a free local musicians' jam that brought music to the people and people of all ages to the music. Even in a canyon almost 50 years wide, the echo bounced back true. On the older side of the divide were the likes of Bill Keith, Jessie Benton, Davey Gude, and Ja Scott. Last weekend, it was Ballyhoo, the popular Island bluegrass band, that held up this end.
Saturday's musicale was a throwback to the way music was made long ago up-Island - free, friendly, and plentiful - before TV and the Internet took over the world and people stopped gathering as often. More than a dozen performers climbed onto the wise old stage and gave new life to live music. There was a sound system - and a good one, thanks to Ballyhoo's Brad Tucker - but there was no fussing around with wires and buttons and knobs. Musicians just picked up their instruments and went at it.
Alex Karalekas, a singer/songwriter from West Tisbury, organized the jam.
"Willy Mason and I had the idea back in the fall, but we lost touch, and I went to the Chilmark selectmen and set up the jam at the Community Center around Thanksgiving, and then Willy told me that he'd set one up for the Grange the night after the one in Chilmark," Alex said.
Both events drew large, enthusiastic crowds, so he decided to try it again Saturday night.
"There's a lot of talent here that never gets heard, and we wanted to get the community in back of us and hear our music," Alex said. By the looks of the audience Saturday night, the community was happy to oblige. Upwards of 250 people came and went through the evening, enjoying music that ranged from the exotic, to the poetic, to just plain fun - from the personal to the universal.
On stage for two or three songs each were: Isaac Taylor, Adam Howell, Willy Mason, Nico Ewing with Adam Lipsky and Maddoc, Ballyhoo, Milo Silva, Alex Karalekas, Joe Keenan, Bridget Conlon, Sofi Thanhauser, Bones's trio, Nina Violet and her sisters Marciana Jones and May Oskan, Colin Ruel, Jellybone Rivers and the Maniacs of the Heart.
As much as they gave of their talents to the audience, the musicians received plenty in return, according to Michele Jones, who not only sang with her daughters Nina, Marciana, and May, but also helped bus the bountiful potluck out in the center's entrance room. "There are many young, talented performers who need the encouragement of their community and a safe environment to get the courage to get up and sing," said Michele. "And the professional musicians among us get the chance to try out new material."
And about that potluck: The groaning board pulled its weight, supporting a load of the usual suspects - pasta dishes, casseroles, salads, chips and salsa, crackers and cheeses. But this was Chilmark, after all, and no one was surprised when a plate of venison materialized, or when Tom Osmers set up a raw bar behind the snack bar and cut Tisbury Great Pond oysters and Menemsha Pond scallops to order.
Thanks to the organizers, the town of Chilmark, and the many generous musicians, the jam filled a happy throng of friends and family with taste treats for the ears and palette, along with a comforting reminder of our common need to group up - a great way to ring in the holidays.