Berkshire Living: A New Magazine Celebrating the Berkshires
Ceased Publishing in 2011
Welcome to the new magazine, Berkshire Living, celebrating the Berkshires. This was their website for a number of years.
Content is from the site's archived pages affording a brief glimpse of what this e-zine offered its readership.
In 2011 Berkshire Living and its affiliated print publications ceased publication.
The Berkshires is a world unto itself. It is scenic beauty married to cultural bounty. It is urban sophistication in an idyllic, rural setting. It is a destination, a haven, a state of mind, and a way of life.
Berkshire Living’s aim is to capture and celebrate this landscape and lifestyle. The magazine explores the cultural offerings, homes, outdoors, cuisine, personalities, attractions, and style of the region with a fresh, informed voice, a curatorial point of view, and gorgeous visuals.
Berkshire Living does more than simply reflect the Berkshires’ identity and the culturally rich, sophisticated community it has become. The magazinecontributes to, informs and unites the region in a manner befitting the Berkshires. It provides an arena for high-quality photography and writing in and about the Berkshires and intelligent, valuable consumer reporting on the Berkshire experience.
Promoting the area to tourists, weekenders, and its most active, devoted residents, Berkshire Living is an essential magazine for people who live in the Berkshires and for those who wish they did, appealing to the hearts and minds of loyal subscribers and newsstand browsers who want to take the Berkshires home with them.
WHO WE ARE
Michael Zivyak - Founder & Publisher
Most recently Associate Publisher of SPIN Magazine, Michael Zivyak's extensive experience in magazine publishing includes helping to launch the new-economy title, Business 2.0, as Advertising Director, overseeing $50 million in advertising revenues. The former Luxury Goods Sales Manager for Time Inc's Money Magazine and Sales Rep. for Conde Nast's Glamour, Michael has been spending time in the Berkshires since childhood, thanks to his family's weekend home in Otis, MA. After becoming a weekender in 1995, Michael spent time conjuring a plan that would relocate him from New York City to the country. In February 2004, Michael left his position at SPIN to follow his dream of launching a publication that celebrates the area he has loved since childhood - The Berkshires.
For advertising, partnerships and subscription information, contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at 518-325-4979.
Seth Rogovoy, Editor-in-Chief
Journalist Seth Rogovoy has been chronicling the Berkshires' cultural life, growth, and development for nearly two decades, most of that time as a critic, columnist, reporter, and feature writer for the Pulitzer Prize winning Berkshire Eagle, including a stint as assistant editor of Berkshires Week Magazine. As the "cultural czar" of WAMC Northeast Public Radio Network's morning "Roundtable" program, Seth is one of the region's best-known media personalities. Seth's first Berkshire experiences were as a summer camper and kitchen worker at Camp Emerson. A New York native, he later attended Williams College and began a family here. He has happily called the region home for more than half his life.
For editorial information, contact Seth at email@example.com or via phone at 518-325-4979.
Laura Morris, Creative Director
Award-winning Creative Director Laura Morris has worked in the publishing and advertising industries for the last fourteen years, twelve of which were spent designing start-up magazines at Imagine Media Inc., the fast growing U.S. publisher in the previous decade. Among the magazines Laura has designed are Business 2.0, boot, the Net, Next Generation, Game Players and Sports for Kids. Currently the Art Director at Edutopia, a magazine for the George Lucas Educational Foundation, Laura also works in the advertising field in marketing and promotions. She has been Senior Art Director at OTM Partners and Creative Director at Imagine Media, Inc.
Stephanie Skinner, Circulation Director
As co-founder of Skinner-James Communications, Stephanie launched Contract Professional, Purple Squirrel, and The Talent Economy, trade publications serving the IT community. She also co-founded Biotechnology Week, and served as the marketing director of Lawyers Weekly USA. With extensive experience in startups, including developing business plans and marketing campaigns, Stephanie's vast publishing experience includes circulation development and maintenance, promotion, and overall management. A graduate of Mt. Holyoke College, just over the Berkshires' border in the Pioneer Valley, Stephanie has watched and enjoyed the Berkshire region's cultural explosion.
2004 -2011 PRESS
A Bend in the River
Written by Robin Catalano
Photography by Michael Powers
In the little village of Housatonic, Mass., change is the only constant
A swath of lawn stretches across the spot where the bandstand used to be. Central Block, once home to a busy grocery store, post office, barber shop, and theater, is gone now, a modest package store in its place. And where a trolley on a wooden track invited riders over the river to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a cement and asphalt bridge now hustles cars down Route 7 instead. Of the mill buildings that are still left, only a few carry on with smaller, quieter operations, some having been repurposed, while others slump in ruin like crumbling brick versions of excavated Roman agoras. On this gray November morning, the only signs of life are a shop owner toweling off a streaky window and a group of teenage boys, skateboards tucked under their arms, roughhousing in front of the Corner Market.
Surveying the scene, it’s hard not to think that a hush has fallen over Housatonic, Massachusetts, a town of just 1,300 whose short, intense history is almost indistinguishable from the rise and fall of the mills that once drove its economy. Yet somehow there is an undercurrent of energy, of something about to happen. The residents of Housatonic have watched their own town go up in flames, literally, on more than a few occasions and have managed to rebuild it. Now, like the mythical Phoenix, Housatonic seems poised to rise from the ashes once more.
Robby Baier, a musician who, along with his wife, painter Carol Gingles, turned the historic train station on Route 183 into a recording studio and art gallery, feels the anticipation, too. “[Housatonic] might have a sleepy appearance,” he says. “There is not much of an obvious town center or a shopping district. There are two general stores and a post office and a handful of galleries that are easy to miss if you are looking out for the ‘action.’” But when visitors stick around, they might be pleasantly surprised by the gallery openings at Cosmos Troy Gallery and Lauren Clark Fine Art, an open-mike night at Deb Koffman Artspace, the free pool night at the Brick House Pub, basketball games at the “Housi Dome” (the gym next to the old elementary school), and a variety of dance and music classes at Berkshire Pulse. More art spaces are also in the works. “While it is not the ‘Soho of the Berkshires,’ as has been proclaimed in some articles,” Baier maintains, “Housatonic has a lot to offer if you are willing to spend the time exploring.”
The village of Housatonic was founded in the early 1800s as a precinct of Great Barrington. In its heyday—the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—it was a powerhouse of textile and paper production, turning out some of the country’s finest writing paper and more than half a million quilts and four million pounds of cotton warps each year. A pair of deep economic slumps, after World War II and again in the 1980s, however, nearly destroyed the town, but it revived itself again in the 1990s, largely without commerce. Still, it’s impossible to drive through the town without noticing the hulking ghosts of industrial giants past, particularly Monument Mills, which at its peak occupied 420,000 square feet of factory space in five buildings and employed five hundred people, many of them Polish immigrants imported because of their sophisticated textile work. It didn’t hurt that they also formed a cheap labor force and didn’t object to being sandwiched into tenement houses along the river. Poles, in fact, made up the vast majority of the town’s inhabitants until the 1960s. While most came in search of mill work, others, like Frank Ptak’s family, came simply to be part of an immigrant-friendly community in America.
Ptak, now eighty-four, his tall, slender frame bundled up in a thick navy cardigan and a bucket hat, is the last of the old-timers still living in Housatonic—a fact he shares without a trace of wistfulness, as if he’s just been asked for the time. Ptak’s mother was a homemaker and his father a butcher; he was born on Front Street in Housatonic, near where he lives today. As a youngster, he had no interest in the family business and showed equal indifference toward school. He joined the Navy at seventeen and for three years served as a radio operator on the destroyer U.S.S. Charles S. Sperry in the Pacific during World War II. But the bustling town he left behind—home to five barber shops, five groceries, three package stores, a shoe and a clothing store, an appliance store, and six gin mills and steeped in social traditions like the annual Halloween bonfire and community baseball games—was almost unrecognizable when he returned.
By 1946, the cash-strapped Monument Mills began auctioning off its many mill houses. “The people who bought their houses stayed,” recalls Ptak, tapping his wrinkled fingers on his kitchen table. “Some of them took jobs at [B.D.] Rising Paper. But the ones who couldn’t afford it left town to look for other work and places to live. Those of us who could bought a bunch of real estate. We knew we could sell it later.”
Parlaying his Navy-honed skills with electronics, the twenty-one-year-old Ptak became the area’s youngest retail entrepreneur, opening Housatonic Appliance Center. Fluent in Polish, he was a hit with locals. And as the first to sell and service color TVs in the southern Berkshires, he became so successful that he soon opened a second store in Lee, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, the post-World War II economic rebound didn’t last long.
After a series of protracted labor-union disputes, Monument Mills closed for good in 1956. “Before that,” Ptak says, “everything was pretty much the same since the eighteen hundreds. When they closed, everything started to go downhill. The town just about collapsed. The older generation didn’t know anything else.” Ptak moved his flagship store to two different Main Street, Great Barrington, locations where it remained until his retirement in 1975.
Despite such difficulties, Ptak and his wife, Doris, stayed in Housatonic. They had five children; a son and a daughter both died in their youth from cystic fibrosis. Daughters Pam and Deb were one of fifteen sets of twins born to townsfolk within a ten-year period (there must be something in the water; twins are still prevalent in Housatonic today). Ptak proudly shows off a sepia photo of them in their Communion veils and dresses, made by Doris, smiles lighting their cherubic faces. Now adults, both live in the village. Another daughter, Terry, is retired from the police force in New Britain, Connecticut.
In 1963, Ptak bought his current house and its contents for $13,150. He didn’t know just how much he was getting in the bargain. In the attic, he discovered a collection of more than a thousand glass-plate photos circa 1896 to 1910, taken by the house’s former owner and town barber Fred Sauer. Ptak purchased an antique photo enlarger and taught himself how to make prints. Ever since, he’s been printing, organizing, and displaying the photos in frames he makes himself. The resulting images document the amazingly vibrant town that Housatonic was before the mills folded.
Even more amazing, Ptak can recall what’s in every shot. Leaning over prints and photo albums, he points out people, places, and businesses long departed. The way Ptak fills in details about the uniformed town marching band, the crack of a bat on ball echoing over Rising Field, catching a show at the Central Block theater, or taking the ten-cent trolley into Great Barrington, these things could be happening right now, just around the corner, instead of decades ago.
Ptak is less than thrilled about today’s Housatonic, with musicians, painters, writers, photographers, and gallery owners leading the push for a revitalization effort. He waves a hand and says, “I don’t fit into that scene. A lot of things about this town have stayed the same, but a lot has changed, like the arts community. The people have changed, too—they don’t get as friendly with each other as they used to. There are more second-home owners. It’s good that they bring new money into the town, but I think they should put their kids in the local schools.” He pauses briefly, then resumes, “You used to be able to go right into the middle of town and buy everything you need. You can’t do that anymore. There just isn’t enough business.”
As if to punctuate this sentiment, the fire station whistle blows at noon. It’s a haunting sound, a reminder of the village’s long and tortured relationship with fire. Between 1850 and 2001, no fewer than a dozen major conflagrations have razed manufacturing buildings (including the town’s original factory, Dean & Whitmore, and its successor, Housatonic Manufacturing), a theater, a post office, a church, retail stores, an inn, a lumber mill, even the town’s bandstand and part of its public park.
But the resilience of Housatonic’s residents has kept the town alive. Dawn Barbieri, who twenty-eight years ago married into the family that owned Barbieri Lumber, a mainstay of the local economy for two decades, knows something about personal toughness. A petite, soft-spoken woman with straight brown hair spilling down her back, she greets visitors from behind the desk of the Ramsdell Public Library, a stately Georgian revival building opened in 1908 between the Corpus Christi Catholic Church and the Housatonic Congregational Church on Main Street, on the site of the first house in Housatonic (the home has since been moved to High Street; the town has a tradition of moving buildings from one place to another).
Barbieri, who has worked at the town library for nine years and is now its assistant director and program coordinator, can still remember certain pieces of the good old days—Memorial Day parades, large Polish picnics on the town green, baseball games at the now weed-choked park on Route 183—but for her, Housatonic has been marked by more recent events. The first was the 2001 arson that ravaged three of the old Monument Mills buildings, including those occupied by Barbieri Lumber. (Only a portion of a fourth building, which now houses the Berkshire Pulse dance studio, was salvaged.) She speaks about it matter-of-factly, but it’s clear she’ll be moving on to another topic, pronto. The second was the closing of Fox River Paper, which occupied the old B.D. Rising Paper mill buildings, in 2007. Hundreds of workers were laid off and couldn’t be absorbed by the building’s new tenant, the much smaller Hazen Paper Company. But the third blow, the closing of the elementary school on Pleasant Street that same year, was perhaps the worst for Barbieri. With a heavy sigh, she remarks, “Kids used to play there every day. It was so full of life, and now it’s empty.”
Undaunted, Barbieri has been part of the effort to bring new life to the town. She and a group of townspeople—Baier and Gingles among them—have lobbied hard to obtain a development grant from Great Barrington to study how to make the streets safer and more accessible, how to make the library ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)-compliant, and how to turn the old school playground into a park. They’ve encouraged the growth of Housatonic’s new favorite sport, basketball, and initiated discussions to make the school building into an arts venue. But talks slowed when two competing organizations couldn’t bring their ideas into alignment, and reached a stalemate with the death of Alice Bubriski, the daughter of one of the town’s original Polish immigrant families and the longtime “unofficial mayor” of Housatonic.
Unlike Ptak, Barbieri sees the arts scene as integral to Housatonic’s rebirth, and she’s found her own place within it. She plays saxophone in the local seven-piece blues, funk, and groove band, Fragment Poly, and is an illustrator, calligrapher, and poet. But her main form of expression is in watercolor. “I like to paint the few farms that are left in southern Berkshire County, to record a way of life that’s vanishing,” she says. “I also like to paint distressed buildings, dilapidated old cars and tractors. It’s capturing a life that was.”
While a “life that was” still resonates throughout the town, Barbieri is encouraged to see new families settling here and people talking about ways to bring in commerce; she hopes this will lead to renewed efforts at creating affordable housing (the median house or condo price on Housatonic’s tightly built streets hovers around $230,000). As she neatens a stack of papers behind the circulation desk, flanked by display copies of Still to Mow by poet Maxine Kumin, Benazir Bhutto’s Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West, and The Lolita Principle by Julia Wagner, Barbieri ruminates over her wishes for Housatonic. “In many ways, it’s a repressed little village,” she says. “I saw it with my own kids—when they were grown, they moved away, because there’s little affordable housing and even fewer jobs. But even with everything that’s happened, the spirit of this town has stayed the same. People have such affection for what was here. It’s a great community to live in, but it can be even better—more attractive, with more places for families, business, and the arts to grow.”
Despite—or perhaps because of—the various misfortunes Housatonic has endured, its residents have become masters of reinvention. Richard Bourdon, owner of Berkshire Mountain Bakery, exemplifies this as well as anyone. As a French-Canadian music student in the 1970s, he moved to Europe. With a child on the way and not enough money to support his family, Bourdon, who always enjoyed cooking, placed an ad in a Dutch newspaper as a baker, and a new career was born. In 1985, he was recruited to teach baking at the Kushi Institute in Becket, Massachusetts. When he outgrew the space, he decided to strike out on his own.
“The first time I ever drove down through Housatonic to Great Barrington to drop my kids off at the Steiner school, I was driving by the river and I noticed those big trees by the road,” he recalls. “The rushing water. The quietness of it. The curving of the road around the river. It seemed like you were going into a small town that had more of a European flair.”
Bourdon, father of five and now grandfather of three, all of whom still live in town (except for a daughter in Montreal and a son in Northampton), opened his first small bakery, funded with cash from three investors that he eventually bought out in 1985. His sourdough breads fairly flew out of the ovens, and within six months he went from making two to three thousand loaves to eight thousand per week. He quickly required a larger facility and moved into the old mill building on Route 183 that Berkshire Mountain Bakery inhabits to this day. By 1987, he was up to ten thousand loaves. Today, they don’t make ten thousand loaves anymore, but have instead chosen to diversify, also making frozen pizzas, toasts, cookies, and the pizza crust for Baba Louie’s in Great Barrington. But Bourdon retained his focus on the quality of the product. “I committed to bringing better food into this world,” he says, his Québecois accent still apparent. “I don’t make sourdough bread to uphold a tradition, but because I went into it with a question about what works best. What you have in the end is more than what I had in the beginning. It’s healthier, and it tastes better.”
Bourdon is in his element tromping around the bakery—lined with rolling racks and heavy machines that look like something out of a mad scientist’s laboratory—and discussing the technicalities of bread making. He could do without the business end of things—evidenced by his lack of a cash register (“I don’t have enough room on the counter,” he argues, and instead uses a cash box)—and positively detests marketing, though he acknowledges it’s a necessary evil. “Staffing’s always been difficult,” he comments, carrying a mammoth tin of olive oil from one storage rack to another. “Housatonic is a quiet town. People don’t look for jobs here. We have a lot of drive-through traffic in the summer, but most don’t stop.”
Bourdon enjoys the growing presence of the arts community and might even like to see the mills turn into something like MASS MoCA in North Adams, but he knows that won’t happen until a business infrastructure is put in place to support it. “We need new businesses—all kinds—but there’s no way it can happen right now. The ones that are here are having a hard enough time, especially the galleries. We need stores, restaurants—if you have to get back in the car and go to Great Barrington just to get something to eat, that’s a problem.”
Still, Bourdon, like many Housatonic long-timers, isn’t going anywhere. “My whole life happens in a half mile,” he shares. “There is something beautiful, comfortable here. It’s a town with no parking meters. People are pretty friendly. We don’t have nearly the problems with congestion that some of the other towns do in the summer. The arts scene is growing, which is nice. Things will happen in time. They always do.” BL
Robin Catalano is a contributing editor to Berkshire Living.
THE BEAT GOES ON: The Boss's Lost Promise
Written by Seth Rogovoy 2011
The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story
How do you follow up the greatest album in rock ’n’ roll history? This was the problem Bruce Springsteen faced after the late-summer 1975 release of Born to Run, the record that put him on the cover of Time and Newsweek in the same week in October, instantly pegging him as the savior of rock ’n’ roll.
Conventional wisdom at the time would have had Springsteen follow up the huge critical success of Born to Run with an album rushed to market in early 1976, something perhaps in the same vein as its predecessor but slightly more commercial (oddly enough, Born to Run produced no hit singles). In a curious twist, Springsteen was saved from that fate due to a legal tangle with his manager that effectively kept him out of the recording studio for two years. While his career may have lost momentum as a result (although he continued touring, enhancing his reputation along the way as a phenomenal live performer), the forced time off saved him from recording and releasing a half-baked effort and colored the work that finally stood as the official sequel to Born to Run, 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town.
When it first came out, Darkness was shocking in its lack of resemblance to Born to Run and the albums that preceded it. Gone were the dramatic, romantic epics, the operettas of teen lust and love like “Rosalita” and “Jungleland” that owed as much to William Shakespeare and Leonard Bernstein as they did to James Dean and Roy Orbison. In their place were stark portraits of being stuck in dead-end jobs in nowhere towns and shattered romantic dreams. If Born to Run was about cutting loose and getting free (“Tramps like us/ Baby we were born to run”), Darkness was about stasis, dismay, and loss of idealism (“You’re born with nothing, and better off that way/ Soon as you’ve got something they send someone to try and take it away”).
The mood of the music on Darkness matched its lyrical content. Where Born to Run was revved up R&B, full of swinging horns, swooping strings, keyboard glissandos, and Clarence Clemons’s jazzy saxophone riffs, Darkness was mostly a stripped-down affair—mournful ballads and grim rockers, the horns replaced with Springsteen’s own sharp, stinging guitar licks and vocal howls and moans. Even the album art reflected the change—the Boss shared top billing with Clemons on the cover photo of Born to Run, the two of them, instruments in hands, “all duded up for Saturday night,” whereas Springsteen appeared alone on the cover of Darkness, posed in front of closed venetian blinds and looking like he just got home from working an eight-hour shift on the assembly line.
Late last year, Columbia Records repackaged Darkness on the Edge of Town in a massive box set called The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story, which, in addition to a much-needed digitally remastered version of Darkness, includes two CDs comprising The Promise (also available separately as a two-CD set) and three DVDs—two featuring vintage 1970s concert footage and a third containing a documentary film about the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town. (No major artist has suffered as much as Springsteen in the transition from analog to digital; his albums have never sounded as warm on CD or in digital files as they originally did on LP; the remastered version, like 2005’s thirtieth-anniversary edition of Born to Run, goes a long way toward improving that technical problem.) The box set also includes an eighty-page notebook containing facsimiles from Springsteen’s original notebooks from the recording sessions, which include alternate lyrics, song ideas, recording details, and personal notes, plus a new essay by Springsteen and tons of archival photos.
Taken as a whole, it is a massive, pricey package, but it succeeds in its aim at opening a window on Springsteen’s creative process at this turning point in his career. The documentary film in particular exposes Springsteen for the master control freak that he was and always has been—and I mean this in the best possible way. He knew what he was after, and he wouldn’t let the influence or opposition of anyone stop him from getting it, even to the point of driving his fellow musicians, producers, and engineers bonkers.
The two dozen songs from the Darkness sessions that constitute The Promise also demonstrate Springsteen’s wisdom in releasing the album the way he did. The songs on The Promise bear more in common with his subsequent album, 1980’s The River. They could have been released as Another Side of Bruce Springsteen, so different are they really from anything else that he recorded up until then. They hark back to the early New York rock ’n’ roll of Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and other Italian rockers who so strongly influenced Springsteen, as well as Buddy Holly, the Byrds, and Phil Spector. At times the songs as performed by the Boss and the E Street Band sound more like Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes—indeed, the latter recorded some of these tunes, and some of the horn players from Southside’s band lend a hand here. There are a few clunkers—did we really need to hear earlier, crappier versions of the songs that would become “Racing in the Street” and “Factory”? (No)—but for the most part, The Promise is one of Springsteen’s most infectious albums, one that could have undoubtedly produced a string of pop hits (and one that did, for other artists, such as the Pointer Sisters’ version of “Fire” and Patti Smith’s improved rendition of “Because the Night”) had it been released in 1978—or 1988 or 1998, for that matter.
We come to understand, however, that this is precisely why Springsteen withheld these songs in favor of Darkness on the Edge of Town, the album that introduced a new Bruce Springsteen—a more somber, terse chronicler of America’s lost promise. After only a brief left turn for The River (really two albums in one, an attempt to have it both ways with Darkness-like ballads and Promise-like party tunes), this is the Springsteen who would adopt a middle-American twang for Nebraska on his way toward the global superstardom that followed Born in the U.S.A.
The Springsteen who made those albums and all his subsequent ones was not the Boss of Born to Run. For better or worse, Springsteen left him behind. For my money, it was for worse—the hokey, affected twang and the Steinbeckian social portraiture has always rung a little false; Springsteen seems at his most effortlessly creative and honest as the R&B-inflected street poet of his earlier albums.
Nevertheless, and now seen and heard in context, in retrospect, and with its improved sound, Darkness on the Edge of Town certainly stands tall as one of the all-time greatest rock albums, a work of meticulous perfectionism that so perfectly captures a sense and a mood and a time in American history when, indeed, brute reality crushed whatever romanticism or idealism lingered from the 1960s. Springsteen says that he strongly identified with the punk-rock that was contemporaneous with Darkness, and indeed, in message and attitude, they shared a close kinship. If we lost the greatest rock ’n’ roll romantic to the collapse of our industrial might, economic recession, and Ronald Reagan’s false promise of morning in America, we can’t well pin the blame on the romantic himself. Springsteen explains this dilemma best when in “The Promise” he sings, “When the promise is broken you go on living/ But it steals something from down in your soul.” [FEB/MAR 2011]
The Promise: The Darkness on the Edge of Town Story
Seth Rogovoy is Berkshire Living’s award-winning editor-in-chief and music critic and the author of Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet. Read more of his music reviews at www.berkshireliving.com.
Written by Juliane Hiam
Photography by Gregory Cherin, with archival photos courtesy the Guthries
Three generations of Woody Guthrie’s descendants carry on his legacy from the Berkshire Hills
All is quiet in the church. Incense smoke ribbons through the air amid rays of sunlight that stream through a beautifully ornate window, in front of which there is a shrine: a Buddha sits shoulder to shoulder with a Christian pietà, which sits next to a Jewish hannukiah, all surrounded by candles and religious and spiritual symbols of many other denominations.
It is the calm before the storm of a concert. Arlo Guthrie’s four adult children are expected to arrive at any second. But until they do, the atmosphere inside the church is, well, churchlike. Then, suddenly, the doors to the former Trinity Church in the Van Deusenville section of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, open, and children run in, giggling, followed by Abe and his wife, Lisa; Cathyaliza (known to all as Cathy); Annie; and Sarah Lee Guthrie and her husband, Johnny Irion, with more kids in arms. They are smiling and hugging and nurturing, siblings offering to fetch food for each other’s kids. Shoulders are patted and toddlers are passed from arms to arms to arms as they all settle into sofas and cozy chairs. As the musicians prepare for the concert, their eyes are wide, their gazes invested and present, smiles bright. Their eyes all say Arlo, and their huge smiles bear the imprint of their mother, Jackie. Their realness as human beings, as down-to-earth folkies, born to the manner, is written across their faces.
The Guthries are known as the “First Family of Folk.” I’ve heard this title thrown around for a long time, and to me it has always meant that they carry the honor, mystique, “nobility” as it were, that comes from being descendants of Woody Guthrie, the most influential folksinger of the twentieth century, and in turn, of his son, their father, Arlo Guthrie. The “First Family” moniker is a badge of honor that separates them, places them higher than others, suggestive more of the children of presidents than folksingers, a silly title perhaps for anything associated with folk music, which in many ways stands for a rejection of the culture of titled nobility and aristocracy.
Rather, if the three generations gathered this day at the Guthrie Center are the First Family of Folk, it’s as much because fame and commercial success are not high on their list of priorities. For the Guthries are all about home, land, music, nature, truth, and community on the most basic levels—the very stuff of Woody Guthrie songs like “Pastures of Plenty” and “This Land Is Your Land.” Their music, like his, is completely honest and organic. They use it to challenge, to provoke, to connect people, and to connect themselves to the world. What makes them the First Family of Folk is even reflected in the place they call home—not some White House or grand palatial estate or former industrialist’s summer cottage, but a regular old farmhouse at the end of a dirt road in the quiet hilltown of Washington, Massachusetts.
In the summer of 1969—the summer of the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival, where Arlo Guthrie was a headliner—Arlo decided that his apartment in the very happening Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan was not going to be the place he and his wife, Jackie, then pregnant with their first child, Abe, were going to sow seeds and grow a place to call home. That decision has everything to do with why the Guthrie children, and now grandchildren, look you in the eye and speak with their hearts and minds alert and open. You can even hear it in their voices, which are imprinted with the unique cadences of the eastern hilltowns of the region: they’re rural, small-town Berkshire folk, right to the core.
“Jackie and I still look at each other, even now, and say it’s the smartest thing we ever did,” Arlo says of their move from New York City to the woods of the Berkshires. “When you’re working in music, you’re working with a lot of people. And it’s really the contrast that I love. It’s good to get away from all of that…. When you go home, you go home. [Living here in the Berkshires] is a kind of old-style America that really doesn’t exist very many other places anymore. We’ve got great neighbors here. People take care of you here. They’re neighbors in the old sense of the word. There’s no better place to be, as far as I’m concerned.”
Born in 1947, Arlo started visiting the Berkshires from his hometown in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn as a child of ten or eleven when his mother, Marjorie Mazia Guthrie, who was a Martha Graham dancer, would teach dance at Indian Hill, a summer arts workshop in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Woody Guthrie would also come to the Berkshires, where he performed at the burgeoning Berkshire Music Barn, later to become the Music Inn. When it came time to attend high school, Arlo chose the Stockbridge School, an alternative, educationally progressive, integrated boarding school, the campus of which later became the now-defunct DeSisto School. So the Brooklyn-raised Arlo Guthrie actually spent a good portion of his developmental years in these environs, not far from where he would eventually settle down to raise a family and preside over a folk music dynasty.
In 1969, at the same time the Arthur Penn-directed film, Alice’s Restaurant—based on the Guthrie song recounting a fateful Thanksgiving Day meal at the church and its aftermath—was being released, Arlo and Jackie found their property in Washington. They got married there and have lived there ever since. It was originally a farm consisting of a traditional farmhouse, more than two hundred years old, and a hunting cabin. “These days,” Arlo says, “Jackie and I live in the hunting cabin, and Abe and his family live in the house.”
The Guthries couldn’t have chosen a better spot for the small-town life that Arlo sought out as a refuge from the madness of the music business. Washington is such a small town that it actually shares a school, a post office, a library, and other amenities with a bordering town, Becket. Those who grew up in Becket when the Guthrie children were small (as did this writer) are familiar with that certain hilltown something that Arlo calls “old-style America.”
Back then, it looked something like this. Daybreak: a mist rises in the parking lot between the Becket Arts Center and the white clapboard Athenaeum. Across the street at the Becket General Store, Bob Gerner has just returned with the morning doughnuts and crullers from the Morningside Bakery in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Macrobiotics pioneer Michio Kushi wanders down the road from the Kushi Institute for some coffee. The young Bobby Sweet, who lives in a house behind the general store and who will grow up to be one of the region’s best-known musicians, comes in to keep warm while he waits for the school bus. Arlo Guthrie pulls up in his boat of an old car, sweeps the long hair under his hat, and fills up at the gas pump. The town police chief is in for coffee and conversation at the counter, after having milked his cows hours earlier. A local farmer delivers eggs, says hello to everybody by name, pays a phone bill at the counter, slaps up a sign that he’s got firewood for sale, nabs six customers within twenty seconds, and returns a couple of videos to the town librarian, who also happens to be sitting at the counter eating a cruller and sipping coffee.
The same atmosphere prevails today. It’s a low-key, kicked-back way of life into which the Guthries fit perfectly. Intense isolation is mixed in with intense friendships. Generally, people in the hilltowns spend more time alone, but they also depend upon and appreciate one another more than people in an urban area. It’s a haven for artists, loners, natives whose families have been there for five generations, and city transplants who need room to think. It makes for a perfect bohemian blend, resulting in “the Topanga Canyon of the East Coast,” as Sarah Lee Guthrie describes it. “Lots of freaks, and we consider that to be a good thing.”
Milton, a New York musician and a friend of the Guthries who has spent time in Becket since he was a kid and who frequently performs at that other rural oasis, the Dream Away Lodge, describes Becket as a “holy ground” for musicians and artists. “It’s rare that artists can find a place to do their thing freely and be free to breathe the air and dig the country at the same time.”
“We would go on tour with dad,” says Annie Guthrie, “but this was always home, and we were always free. I would go out in the woods in the morning and be gone all day and come home dirty and filthy. I love the community here; I think it’s really romantic and has a lot of charm. It’s one of the few places that is really untouched.”
It was also a place where Arlo and Jackie could instill their strongly held values in their children relatively free of the noise of the prevailing culture. Annie recalls an emphasis on making the world a better place by serving others. “We were not raised in any one religion,” she says. “It was what my parents called an ‘interfaith experience.’ Dad had done a lot of soul-searching on his own. He has walked a lot of different paths to find what was right for him. And my grandfather had started that search.” Annie recalls a story about the time Woody entered a hospital and had to fill out a form identifying his religion; he wrote, “All and none.”
Arlo was raised Jewish by his mother and, more so, by his grandmother, the famous Yiddish poet and lyricist, Aliza Greenblatt, affectionately known as “Bubbe” to all, who lived across the street from Marjorie and Woody, enabling her to watch after Arlo and his younger sister, Nora, while Marjorie was dancing and while Woody, who spent several years in California in the early 1950s, was on the road. (By the time Arlo turned nine-years-old, Woody was hospitalized for the Huntington’s disease that would eventually take his life in 1967; thus Bubbe was, in large part, Arlo and Nora’s primary caretaker.) Rabbi Meir Kahane, who later founded the Jewish Defense League, was the local rabbi who presided over Arlo’s bar mitzvah service.
“Woody,” Annie says, “well, he was a variety of things. My own mother was Mormon, but she’s now interfaith also.” Sarah Lee and Annie spent time at an interfaith ashram in Florida during high school. “Our parents didn’t push religion on us. They would answer questions with their hearts. Our parents’ religion is kindness.”
Their “religion” seems to permeate all aspects of their family dynamic. Annie describes a commitment to each other and each other’s kids. When one or another sibling has to go to a gig, the children sometimes spend weekends with cousins at each other’s homes. The young cousins are Annie’s children, a son, Shiva Das (they call him Mo), and daughter, Jacklyn; Abe’s son, Krishna, and daughter, Serena; Cathy’s daughter, Marjorie; and Sarah Lee’s daughters, Olivia and Sophia. Most of them attend the local public schools of the Becket/Washington district.
Nathan Hanford, an artist now living in London who grew up in Becket with the Guthries, says: “In the early seventies, the Guthrie family was an example of living close to nature, holding family close, cherishing friendships ... and beyond that, having a greater respect for it all. The family had a strong identity; even the car they drove stood out from the rest. It was this awesome old vintage thing, I think a Ford or Chevrolet. In a time when my folks let go of farming and slipped a little towards the whole ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ culture, the Guthries still held strong to their identity as creators, a family, and as people.”
Kate Barber, whose parents are both artists and who comes from something of a legendary Berkshire family herself (her grandmother was Stephanie Barber of Music Inn fame, and her uncle is Benjamin Barber, the renowned political theorist), remembers the Guthries as “modest, down-to-earth, and delighted in the Berkshire mountains. They were absolutely as average-Joe, albeit with famous lineage, as the rest of us. It was a refreshing slice of childhood innocence that our classmates never cared who they were. I don’t remember when I realized that Annie and Sarah’s dad was famous. I don’t remember it occurring to me that my friends’ grandfather was the legend my own dad listened to and spoke of endlessly.”
It’s precisely this anti-celebrity culture that keeps the Guthries rooted here. “The hilltowns keep me grounded and down to earth,” Sarah Lee says. “I was just in Denver, for example, last Friday, and we were getting ready for the show, when I got a call from the Becket General Store letting me know that my Berkshire Mountain Bread was in. That’s one of the reasons we actually moved back here after living in Columbia, South Carolina, for seven years. We do so much traveling and meet so many people and are so drenched in popular culture that it is really nice to come home and get down to the basics, the things that really matter: good food from the garden, good milk and meat from the farm, and good friends at the Dream Away. Oh yes, and, of course, the family. It’s really important for us to have that balance; it reminds us of what we are here for, of what’s important.”
The only Guthrie child not currently living within a shout or a short drive from her childhood home is Cathy, whom the other siblings are trying to woo back from Austin, Texas. “I bug her almost every day. I know she’d like to be here; it’s only a matter of when,” Sarah Lee attests. “Cathy’s had her eye on a certain place here for a while,” Arlo reiterates.
Raising a family in this rural oasis also made it easier for Arlo to instill his forebears’ musical traditions in his children. Annie chuckles at the memory. “We had music here every single day, but our parents never told us what we kids were going to be. Music would be a part of our lives regardless of who we would become.” Annie originally wanted to be a dancer. Cathy, the self-described black sheep of the family, went to college and studied business management. Abe was a musician from the start, but as Annie tells the story, Arlo never wanted to push music on any of them as a career, to the point that he would only teach them the hardest songs, “the ones that hurt your fingers the most and were the most difficult,” to test how badly they really wanted to learn.
One by one, each child came to music on his or her own. All four have full-fledged music careers of their own now in addition to playing together. Sarah Lee often plays as a duo with her husband, Johnny Irion, and Cathy plays with Amy Nelson, daughter of Willie Nelson, in the duo Folk Uke.
Their children, Arlo’s grandchildren, however, have had a different experience. Says Sarah Lee, “My kids have both grown up on the road with us and are very involved in our music career. Olivia has actually helped us write and record our most recent album, Go Waggaloo.”
Annie took her children out of school for a year so that they all could tour together with the Guthrie Family Rides Again Tour. “The kids are really happy that they got to go out and sing every night and be a part of the tour and spend time with each other,” Annie says. “Playing music together is completely different than playing by the pool.” This, she says, was Woody’s ultimate dream, that he would create a huge family that would play music together. “We’ve done it,” Annie says. “And we actually like each other. Even after spending a year, seventeen of us, on a forty-five-foot bus together.”
And that, as much as anything, accounts for why the Guthries are America’s First Family of Folk. [NOV/DEC 2010]
Juliane Hiam is a freelance writer in Pittsfield, Mass. This is her first story for Berkshire Living
VISUAL ARTS: A Brush with Life
Written by Alison McGee
Art and activism share intimate space on Gabrielle Senza's canvas
Sitting at a small table nestled in the back of the bustling Fuel Coffee Shop in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, artist/activist Gabrielle Senza’s short hair—currently a deep, vibrant auburn—complements her lightly flushed cheeks and burnt-rose-tinted lips. Her dark blue nail polish matches the ink of her pen as she alternates between doodling and carefully illustrating components of her past and upcoming art projects while she talks about her life. She runs the pen back over the lines of an upside-down bud shape she drew moments before, a shape she says originated with her son, Matteo, describing how it made its way into her series of Survival Drawings and that it will be at the heart of a new series of sculptures she is working on now.
At just forty-three years old, Senza has already had a life full of experiences: a widely popular gallery, a successful painting career, and two intimate activism projects, but at the moment she’s slowing down to make more time for her art. Senza’s roster of projects is as lengthy as it is passionate.
Needing to find balance, a few months ago she decided to reinvigorate the passion that started it all: art-making. In December, Senza closed the doors of her popular Great Barrington gallery/performance/studio space, the Berkshire Art Kitchen (BAK), with a concert performance by her band, 8 Foot River. She’s moving into what she describes as a “very raw” live-work space in Great Barrington, but it’s a space of her own, where once again she intends to focus more closely on her painting and sculpture.
Though she’s been making art since childhood, Senza began concentrating on it fully once she moved to the Berkshires in 1985 from her home state of New Hampshire, after travelling for about a year in Europe and Central America. While employed as a decorative painter she learned how to work with the medium in nontraditional ways, to combine more skillfully the physical materials with her artistic vision.
In 1991 Senza embarked on a road trip through industrial America, collecting photographs of the contrasting landscape as well as physical remnants of various industries such as rundown buildings, lone water towers, and distant power lines. Once back in the Berkshires, she wiped all color from her photographs and referred to them as she began painting the industrial terrain in her own color schemes. With acid-yellow skies behind looming structures and desolate train tracks, Senza transposed these images onto scrap metal gathered during her journey. This became her first major series, which was exhibited at the SoHo gallery OK Harris before being spotted—and purchased—by art collectors from across the country.
“We were immediately enchanted,” says OK Harris associate director Ethan Karp, adding that when Senza brought her art to the gallery in the early 1990s, he saw merit in it immediately. “It was pastoral and industrial at the same time,” he says. Senza’s juxtaposition of the poetry of the scene with the rawness of the material was impressive.
“I always go to nature for comfort,” Senza muses as she describes how the manufactured elements were eventually phased out of her industrial landscapes, leading her into a new phase of painting. “I think I was recognizing that the landscape does speak to me,” Senza says of that transition, “and I wanted to honor that.”
In those industrial landscapes, which depict what Senza perceived as the demise of each town, scrap metal is the surface for the paintings. “I was too intimidated by the plain white canvas,” she asserts. As Senza shifted to more placid landscapes, however, she opted for wood or canvas washed in yellow. Hazy and glowing with golden hues and soft tree lines, these landscapes have been immensely popular with both galleries and collectors. Though she first began painting them in 1994, she gradually stopped producing them several years later despite demand. “I go through these periods where I actually can’t paint them,” she says, revealing a deep, emotional connection with her art. After the death of her mother in 2004, Senza said she returned to landscapes—though now she only works on them (chipping away at a waiting list) intermittently.
Barbara O’Brien, now curator at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, first met Senza at Spazi Contemporary Art, a Housatonic, Massachusetts, gallery Senza co-owned from 1989 to 1997 with her then-husband, Richard Britell. “She’s very aware of her time and place,” O’Brien states, adding that changes in direction are crucial for Senza, “not a ninety-degree change, but a slight change.” O’Brien also notes that Senza could have had a “Gabrielle Senza style,” defined by her early industrial art, “but she’s not complacent in that way.”
Senza closed Spazi after nearly ten years, and, having divorced, she retreated to Rome. “I just went there to paint,” Senza reflects. She intended to hang out for just a couple of months, but ended up staying for about a year. During her time in Italy, Senza once again strayed from her previous artistic themes. After completing a few more landscapes, she began some extremely introspective projects, including a series of nine-by-twelve-inch oil paintings on tracing paper called Seeing Red. She describes them as acting as a journal or sketchbook (though she notes she’s never been a fan of sketchbooks in general). The vivid red paint saturates the delicate tracing paper, bringing an energy to Senza’s observations and thoughts about Italy, Rome, love, hate, and the cruelty that often can be found in love. Incorporating imaginative objects and images tinged with words, like the sweeping partial silhouette of a cello with the words, “you are my violincello,” or a deep-red hand that melts away to the bottom of the page, these paintings differed vastly from Senza’s previous works, serving more as landscapes of her inner self.
Having known Senza for nearly twenty years now, and seeing the numerous transitions in her work, O’Brien describes these changes as variations on Senza’s life as a whole, a visual autobiography. “She lets the activities and experiences of her life be refracted through her art.”
In 2001, Senza’s artistic activism revealed a personal struggle. A few years earlier she had come to terms with childhood sexual abuse and, fearing for her family, revealed her long-kept secret to them. Later, a group discussion led her to realize it was an issue more prevalent than she’d thought, and from that came the beginning of a provocative and ongoing new work. A local artists’ exhibit at the meeting house in New Marlborough, Massachusetts, gave Senza the space she needed. She displayed a collection of pieces there, including an installation of five thousand eggs spread across the wood floor—one of them painted vibrant red. On the wall behind these she stretched a scroll with the words, “I must be invisible,” repeated along its length. A third component, with which she struggled greatly, was a second scroll, which was set on a table with a pen. On it, Senza wrote out her personal secret as well as instructions inviting others to share their own.
“The practice of her art is very socially engaged,” O’Brien says. Indeed, her identity as a citizen and an artist are intertwined.
“The scroll made me realize how grateful people were for being able to share that information,” Senza notes. She laughs quietly at her initial hesitancy—and almost restraint—about revealing her secret on the scroll. Now, the Collaborative Revelations Scroll stretches approximately eight feet, flooded with the handwritten burdens released by countless others. The piece has transitioned into its own initiative, the Red Collaborative, which Senza has exhibited around the country, including at a V-Day (Eve Ensler’s initiative to end violence against women and girls) anniversary rally and the Amnesty International Human Rights Arts Festival.
“The important thing is that the dialogue happens,” Senza asserts. Even more proactive is Senza’s other major cause, Walk Unafraid, which she began in 2003. “It’s not particularly fun, but I’m really passionate about it,” she says of the somber theme of the organization, which raises awareness about human rights. Walk Unafraid invites communities to take part in the creation of public-art installations comprised of visually compelling, re-created crime scenes, where body outlines and caution tape pay tribute to victims, offering solutions and empowering phrases. Ultimately, viewers share experiences to help others recognize and prevent physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
“It’s really important for people to be engaged,” Senza notes. “It’s so much more meaningful.” Recently she has been working on getting Walk Unafraid kits to schools, just another way of reaching out and gathering people together in the community.
In February 2010, Senza, a cellist and keyboardist, teamed up with singer-songwriters Glenn Geiger and Steve Dietmann and drummer-bassist Steve Praus to form 8 Foot River, which blends folk, rock, jazz, and improvisation into melodious original compositions. The band has been performing monthly gigs around the area—including the final performance at the Berkshire Art Kitchen.
“It was not something I expected,” she says of shuttering BAK, which she ran for two years. She estimates that she had been devoting almost 80 percent of her time to BAK, promoting local artists by showing their work, offering workshops, and consulting—which left little time for her own art. She plans to continue reaching out to artists and musicians through consultation and mentorship as well as continuing to curate and write. “It could be anywhere,” she notes of the adaptability of the concept.
“All of the aspects of her life—her art, her activism, her family—are these intersecting circles of activity,” O’Brien reflects. “She’s never satisfied, always challenging her practice.”
“It’s time to create a less-public life,” Senza ponders, running her blue pen over her napkin art again. She intends to focus more closely on Matteo, 12, whom she describes as an inspiration—creative, perceptive, and with a keen aesthetic sense. He’ll also be teaching her to skateboard, she says, laughing youthfully. “I’m just going to go into life,” she muses, explaining that she’s never shied away from new things, always exploring and studying the unfamiliar. Despite retreating to a more private studio, Senza’s free spirit still shines.
“Everyone seems to think there are set ways to do things,” Senza reflects. “I kind of always go alternate routes.” [FEB/MAR 2011]
Alison McGee took sculpture and metalworking classes in high school and painting courses in college, but most recently has been focusing her camera lens.