- Bess Greenberg
- Ginny Hawker leads a session at the Old-Time Fiddlersâ€™ Convention in Mount Airy, North Carolina. She performs with Tracy Schwarz and the Rough Gems on September 20 at the Rosendale Theater.
“A lot of couples seem to meet here,” Ginny Hawker tells me in her molasses-rich drawl. “Something here fosters romance.” She’s speaking of the Ashokan Fiddle and Dance Camp, near Olivebridge, where 20 years ago she met her multi-instrumentalist husband Tracy Schwarz, composer of “Dirt Farmer,” the title track of Levon Helm’s recent Grammy-winning CD. Like they do every summer, the West Virginia-based couple is conducting workshops during the camp’s Southern Week. “I taught a gospel class in an old pewter shop today,” she enthuses. “No electricity, and the smell of the old ovens...”
The call of the Catskills will bring Hawker and Schwarz—billed as Ginny and Tracy—back to the area for a performance at the historic Rosendale Theater on September 20. They’ll be kicking off a monthly series hosted by local non-profit Hop High Productions, whose mission is to bring cultural music to the Hudson Valley. (Jamaican mento trio The Overtakes plays on October 26; Traditional Chinese and lute virtuoso Liu Fang takes the stage on November 22.) Jed Greenberg of Hop High says, “Ginny’s singing has got that raw power, the fermentation of blues and country—the churchyard, the honkytonk, and the holler—it’s all there.”
It will be a rare full-band experience for Hawker and Schwarz, who will be backed by the Rough Gems on upright bass, drums, and pedal steel. “I’m excited to be the lead singer in the band!” says Hawker. Expect everything from ancient ballads to Cajun to consciousness-raising folk. And expect to be singing along and, most likely, clogging.
Since that fateful night in 1988 when Hawker heard Schwarz sing the obscure chestnut “Hick’s Farewell” in the flickering light of a campfire—“I’d only ever heard my father sing that song,” she says with wonder—the duo has recorded acclaimed albums for Rounder Records, and Hawker has made a name for herself both as a soloist and collaborator. And none other than Emmylou Harris has been a champion of Hawker’s soulful alto, giving Hawker a recent shout-out in O magazine.
Born into a musical family, Hawker grew up in the Primitive Baptist Church in Halifax County, Virginia. Accompanying her mentor father to the Smithsonian, as well as various folk festivals, the two of them performed and taught the ageless, stirring hymns of the church, passing along the rich oral tradition of Appalachia just as the oncoming information superhighway threatened to pave it over.
Schwarz, by contrast, was born in Manhattan and came to folk music via 1940s radio broadcasts and old 78s. Not so much smitten as consumed, in short order he mastered banjo, mandolin, guitar, and fiddle. Alongside Mike Seeger and John Cohen, he performed in the highly influential New Lost City Ramblers—spearheading the late ’50s/early ’60s folk revival. In the ensuing decades, he has not let up.
They may come from very different backgrounds, but Schwarz and Hawker’s shared energy and resolute devotion to each other and to roots music exemplifies the still vital and transcendent possibilities of folk. Having introduced countless listeners to the bedrock soul of common experience, this duo harkens to a less-stratified time, when connections over loss, misfortune, and struggle were more easily made. If ever there were an opportunity to unplug from that which keeps us informed rather than genuinely linked, and take part in a tried-and-true communal event, this would be it. Ginny and Tracy will perform at the Rosendale Theater on September 20 at 7:30pm. (845) 658-8989; www.hophigh.org.