For much of the past summer, Chris Shaw was busy organizing workshops and staging concerts of the region’s traditional music at the Adirondack Folk School in Lake Luzerne. “It’s vital that we preserve these songs,” said Shaw. “Nothing gives you better access to the Adirondack experience than listening to the music.” But it’s not the mission of the Adirondack Folk School to display the region’s hand crafted products behind glass, nor to make craftsmen into re-enactors; it’s to ensure that the traditions will be continued, said Shaw.
“That’s what’s so cool about the Adirondack Folk School; you don’t just learn the history of Adirondack pack baskets, you make one. It’s the same with music. We want to maintain the musical traditions, but also, to see them live and evolve,” he said. Shaw, a native of Lake George, has made a career of singing Adirondack folk songs and telling Adirondack tales.
His repertoire includes some of the region’s earliest songs, though most of his material is now his own. Nevertheless, even his original songs and stories are deeply rooted in the Adirondack tradition. It’s a tradition he was born into, rather than one he adopted. As a boy he worked on the docks of his family’s tour boat company, which owned the Sayonara, the Ranger, the Patricia, the Roamer and the Miss Lake George Speedboats.
“I’d wander up the hill to Fort William Henry, where my father, Ralph Shaw, was among the local businessmen involved with its restoration. A love of the region’s history came to me early,” he says. His own family helped make that history. One ancestor, John Shaw, fought with Roger’s Rangers during the French and Indian War. Later came the steamboat pilots, lumber men, politicians and tour boat owners. In different degrees, they kept their history alive through their songs.
“Usually when they were doing something else, they’d sing songs they’d heard in hunting camps or from other old timers,” said Shaw. “I learned bits and pieces of them.” When he got to college, he traded the trombone he had played in the Lake George High School band for a guitar and began performing in coffee houses.
“We covered contemporary songs, but on occasion I’d slip one of those old songs into the set, and those really interested the people who were into folk music,” said Shaw.
With help from the Adirondack folk song collections of Marjorie Lansing Porter and Frank and Anne Warner, who had started recording native Adirondackers singing their traditional songs in the 1940s, Shaw was able to recreate the complete versions of the tunes he had heard on the docks or on his uncle’s porch.
In 1988, he recorded his first album, “Adirondack,” and, he says, “I was off to races.” He’s recorded at least a dozen albums since then, toured the world as a representative for Taylor guitars demonstrating American Folk and country style guitar techniques and performed at the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian Institute as well as at folk festivals throughout the United States and Europe.
Shaw has also developed programs for schools, where he presents programs on Rogers Rangers and Adirondack lumber camps as well as story telling and song writing workshops. He also plays traditional Adirondack folk songs in the schools and, he says, “I hope some of it sticks.”
According to Shaw, the musicians who share his appreciation of traditional Adirondack music also share his concerns about its survival. “We’re all conscious of our roles as stewards of a tradition, and we’ve all had that conversation: what’s going to happen to it when we’re not doing this anymore?” he said.
“For a long time, I didn’t think there was another generation coming along who was interested, but now I’m hopeful,” he said.
According to Shaw, “Guys in their early 20s have come up to me and ask me to show them guitar parts. One young guy, who plays in an edgy rock band, said he plays these tunes for his head. I was taken aback; I just hadn’t seen that.”
So thanks to Shaw, and to musicians like Dan Berggren, Peggy Lynn, Roy Hurd, Bill Smith, Tom Akstens and others, the traditions will survive long enough to be adopted by another generation, who may inspire the next one.
On December 15 or 16, make plans to catch the annual “Mountain and Mistletoe” show that Shaw and his wife, the folk singer Bridget Ball, present at the Egg in Albany. Joined by their cohort of Adirondack musicians, they bring a balsam-scented, mountain Christmas to those unfortunates “down below.”