I like to say my life as a singer began on my nightly walks with my father. We’d walk up Tioga Street in my native, Johnstown, PA, heading for the two little stores at the top of the hill. My Dad would buy his daily cigar at the Tioga Street Market and then we’d stop next door at Jake’s where I’d get an ice cream cone. My Dad had a nice voice and though he was too shy to sing in public, he was happy to share his limited repertoire with me. So we’d stroll along to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “Oh Susannah” and the like. This routine probably began as soon as I was old enough to walk that far and continued until I reached my teens when walking down the street with a parent for pleasure was just too embarrassing. My older brother, by seven years, brought home the first Joan Baez album when I was in 6th grade and there began my lifelong love affair with folk and acoustic music. Although my own family’s roots stretched back to the Jewish ghettos of Eastern Europe, we were living in Appalachia and the musical tradition of the mountains, old-timey and bluegrass, seeped into my unconscious and seeded my native affinity for the sound of mountain music.
When I moved to Boston after college in the mid 1970’s, I had already begun performing traditional Appalachian and topical music. A little investigation and a lot of luck brought me quickly into contact with some local women musicians (Marcia Deihl, Kendall Hale, Lannie Liggera, Pat Ouellette and Katie Tolles) who wanted to sing not only traditional songs, but also songs that spoke to our own emerging social and political awareness. We quickly formed a string band, calling ourselves “New Harmony Sisterhood” and spend the next six years performing all around Boston and beyond for women’s events, union organizing actions and folk audiences. It was a time of tremendous hopefulness and energy which inspired me to delve more and more deeply into my own songwriting and most of these songs found their way into the New Harmony repertoire. Eventually we were approached by Barbara Dane and Irwin Silber of Paredon Records to record an album and in 197? we released And Ain’t I a Woman on the Paredon label. Paredon was eventually absorbed into the Folkways catalogue and Folkways eventually entered the Smithsonian collection of American Folk Music which is where New Harmony’s lone album can be found today, representing its role in the history of authentic American folk music. Listen to a live reunion concert at Paine Hall from March 28, 1981 (down at the bottom of the page).
After New Harmony disbanded in 1980, I joined forces with some mainstay members of the Boston bluegrass scene, Eric Levenson, Paul Silvius, Howie Tarnower and Steve Watt and we began performing around Boston as Fire on the Mountain. My songwriting continued and when Fire on the Mountain members went their separate ways, I began concentrating my efforts on a solo singer-songwriter career through the mid-late 80’s. While still strongly bluegrass influenced, my repertoire expanded to include a more varied range of acoustic styles. With the support and encouragement of Eric and Howie, I recorded a solo album of original compositions, Around the Next Bend, which was picked up on the Flying Fish Label and nominated for Folk Album of the Year in the 1988 Boston Music Awards.
As is true for artists of all genre, I came up hard against the inevitable contradictions of wanting a home, family, children and making a dependable living to support these desires. Around this time I made the difficult decision to prioritize a career as a psychotherapist. I got married, began to raise my two daughters and my music moved to the rear of the family-career train. But good fortune crossed my path and in the early 90’s I joined forces with three other local women singers (Rebecca (Brown) Pugh; Anne Goodwin and Gail (Rundlett) Finnie and we formed an a capella quart, Taproot. I began writing songs again and many found their way into the Taproot repertoire. Taproot’s first stint lasted for 9 years and during that time we recorded two albums: If You Build It in 1997; and Grand Design, in 2001.
Toward the end of the first Taproot chapter, I began to take my longtime desire, to try my hand at painting, seriously. While I had always been crafty with fabric, I considered painting to be out of my league. But, letting desire be my guide, I took up with watercolors and found myself diving into a whole new creative journey. When Taproot retired in 2004, I devoted myself to visual art, painting primarily in watercolors, and then gradually working into mixed media.
My temporary vacation from the music scene unintentionally stretched into years. Eventually I found myself with children off to college, a deepening longing to be making music again, and the disconcerting feeling that my music train had left the station, my seat on it long since filled by others. How to get back on? It almost seemed impossible.
The Boston area may indeed be the center of the acoustic music universe with its thriving options of Open Mic venues. One of the oldest and most venerable of these is at the Cantab Lounge in Central Square, Cambridge. Musician and host, bar none, is the esteemed Geoff Bartley. Geoff knew me from way back when and offered me a featured performer spot at his long-running Monday night Singer-Songwriter night. I pulled out my old standards and pulled together several of my old performing buddies. When a full house of longtime members of my old music community turned out for my Monday night, 10pm set, I knew there was no turning back for me. And so began the latest chapter in my music career. I’ve always preferred singing with others to standing on the stage alone… the harmonies, the blend of instruments, the camaraderie, it’s a joy unlike any other. Another incredible stroke of good fortune, abetted by some serious ‘putting the intention out there’ on my part, led me to cross paths with local Boston musician, Eric Wells. Aside from a brief foray into folk music in his early years, Eric cut his musical teeth in the Boston rock and blues scene, playing electric guitar and touring over the years with many different bands. We were an unlikely duo, but he liked what I wrote and decided to dust off his old Martin and toss it into the ring with me. Slowly we’ve worked up a repertoire composed of both my old and lots of brand new compositions.
Over the next few years Deborah and Eric Wells invited some additional musicians to perform with them ultimatly forming the Band of Eric; currently featuring Eric Wells on guitar and harmony vocals, Eric Levinson on acoustic base, and Art Schatz on fiddle.
So, as with all of life’s true journeys, mine with music has been a long and twisting and winding road thankfully continues to be a work in process. Welcome aboard!