Nina Yankowitz Recalls Woodstock’s Group 212

December 30th, 2010
Oh Say Can You See

A 1968 Draped Painting by Nina Yankowitz: "Oh Say Can you See?"

The Woodstock Festival of 1969 was officially named the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. According to Michael Lang in Roots of the 1969 Woodstock Festival, the inclusion of “art” in the festival name was a nod to Woodstock, NY’s status as an art colony—beginning in the early 1900s with Byrdcliffe and the Maverick Festivals, and later with organizations like Group 212.

Recently I spoke by phone with Nina Yankowitz of nyartprojects about her days at Group 212. A 1969 Fine Arts graduate of the School of Visual Arts, Yankowitz doesn’t recall where she first heard about the fusion collective, but she says that word about it was on the street in NYC’s Greenwich Village. Nina loved Group 212’s fearless collaborative spirit, and remembers that she first installed her draped paintings on the trees in the surrounding Group 212 landscape. She says that Group 212’s propulsive and adventurous style of mixing music, painting, sculpture, photography, electronic sounds, poetry, and performance art opened her up to embrace new technologies and emerging artistic disciplines. For example, she met Ken Werner, a musician, at 212 in the summer of 1968, and she recalls their collaboration. Werner made an audio rendition to realize Nina’s desire to include sound that would mimic the musical score, Oh Say Can You See, on her draped canvas. This embodied the concept of hearing and seeing sounds as they unfolded from her draped paintings. The installation was exhibited later that year at Kornblee Gallery in New York City.

Nina Yankowitz Dancing at Group 212

Nina Yankowitz (in Foreground) Dancing at Group 212

Yankowitz remembers running to catch the bus to Greenwich Village from South Orange Junior High School in New Jersey. She would sneak out of school to attend performances by Dylan and Hugh Romney at the Cafe Wha in the Village, returning without her delinquency having been discovered. Her later Woodstock experience put her in touch with many new and exciting musicians and artistic collaborators. She met people like Sunny Murray, Dave Burrell, and Chuck Santon—an artist who spent most of his time at Robert Wilson‘s Byrdcliffe, devoted to experimental workshops/productions. She also met musician Juma Sultan, and it was he who encouraged Nina and a friend to dance while Juma, Archie Shepp, Sunny Murray, and Dave Burrell were jamming. She remembers the music director wanting to “pull the cane around our necks!” Juma also took her to Byrdcliffe to meet Bob Dylan, and they, with others from the community, attended a Sound-Out at Pan Copeland’s farm. Yankowitz recalls people jumping through the fences, lying on the grass and watching acts like Tim Hardin and Ritchie Havens.

One detail eludes Nina about her time at Group 212. She remembers a friend there who created marvelous performances based upon the myth of Icarus. He also made beautiful photographs with his box camera, and she wonders what happened to the fellow who created and played this bird-man role. Can anyone help her out on that?

~Weston Blelock

Woodstock and Camp Woodland

October 19th, 2010

A Woodstock Playhouse program cover from August 1960, courtesy of Joe Hickerson

The Historical Society of Woodstock’s Folk Songs of the Catskills: The Spirit of Camp Woodland exhibit and related events drew hundreds of attendees this past summer. For example, on August 14 nearly 100 people attended the presentation/folk concert with Sue Rosenberg, Pat Lamanna, Joe Hickerson, Mickey Vandow and Eric Weissberg.

During the exhibit people asked about the linkage between Camp Woodland (near Phoenicia, NY) and Woodstock. As it happens, there are innumerable links. Herb Haufrecht, one of the authors of Folk Songs of the Catskills, and a Camp Woodland music counselor, lived in Shady, NY, a hamlet of Woodstock. Another connection was through Barbara Moncure, a local folk singer. She and Alf Evers (for many years the Woodstock Town Historian, and author of Woodstock: History of an American Town) used to venture over to Camp Woodland for the annual festivals. Barbara performed at them, and eventually recorded an album of Catskill Mountain songs for Folkways. In 1959, Alf organized the First Annual Catskill Mountain Folk Music Festival at the Colony Arts Center. Several Catskill Mountain folk singers like “Squire” Elwyn Davis and Harry Siemson, who had previously appeared at Camp Woodland, performed at that festival. Another instance of Camp Woodland/Woodstock linkage occurred in August 1960 when Joe Hickerson, a counselor at the camp, headlined a concert with Carolyn Hester at the Woodstock Playhouse.

Pete Seeger, a big influence at the camp, was connected to Woodstock via his wife, Toshi, who grew up in the town. Pete played at a Woodstock Playhouse concert in 1962. Funds from that concert partially financed the Woodstock Folk Festival at the Woodstock Estates in 1962. Bob Dylan arrived in town around 1963 and John Herald, a former camper, came up to Woodstock in 1965. John Cohen, a former camp counselor, played the Sound-Outs with his band the New Lost City Ramblers.

Many of these interconnections are spelled out in Roots of the 1969 Woodstock Festival, published last year by WoodstockArts.

From Camp Woodland to the Woodstock Music Festival

September 8th, 2010

 Raising Reds Author to Give Talk and Sign Books

Raising Reds: Young Pioneers, Radical Summer Camps, and Communist Political Culture

Woodstock, NY—On Sunday, September 12, from 2 to 4 p.m., Paul C. Mishler, author of Raising Reds: Young Pioneers, Radical Summer Camps, and Communist Political Culture, will give a talk at the Eames House, 20 Comeau Drive in Woodstock. Mishler’s presentation will be titled, “From Camp Woodland to the Woodstock Festival and Beyond.” Camp Woodland was located near Phoenicia from 1939 to 1962 and it helped to spark a revival in Catskill Mountain roots music. This event marks the final day of the Historical Society’s current retrospective exhibit on Camp Woodland.

In Raising Reds, Mishler focuses on the era of 1920 to 1950. During this time the Communist Party was able to make significant inroads into American society. Communists were active in labor unions and universities, and they published their articles in popular newspapers. These activities were undermined and demonized in the early 1950s due to McCarthyism and the advent of the Cold War. However, Mishler contends that the Communist radicalism of the 1930s re-emerged in the New Left’s activism of the 1960s.

Further, in his book Mishler explores how, during the Great Depression, some Americans believed that the music of the people was being forced underground due to the rise of larger, more impersonal instituions of social, commerical and industrial development. Therefore, during the 1930s, the Communists and their allies sought to discover/construct/create an alternative America grounded in the roots of the country’s culture. Camp Woodland set in motion an experiment to bring this alternative democratic model into being. The camp’s organizers felt that the most important way for Woodland to establish new ground was via a celebration of folk music and early American folk values, and that this could be made the basis for societal change. Mishler contends that these same beliefs led to the activism of the 1960s, to the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival, and beyond.

Paul Mishler is an Associate Professor of Labor Studies at Indiana University. Raising Reds is published by Columbia University Press. Mishler will be on hand to answer questions and sign books. Refreshments will be served and the event is free. For more information call 845.246.3436 or log onto www.campwoodland.org.

Folk Songs of the Catskills—the Spirit of Camp Woodland

July 23rd, 2010

New Exhibit at the Historical Society of Woodstock Examines the Renaissance of Catskill Roots Music

Pete Seeger at Camp Woodland—near Phoenicia, NY—in the 1940s (Photo reproduced courtesy of the M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives, University at Albany Libraries.)

Woodstock, NY—On Saturday, July 31, 2010, a retrospective exhibit on Camp Woodland opens with a reception from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Eames House, 20 Comeau Drive in Woodstock. The Camp Woodland story, its influence and legacy, is told through film, music, artifacts, images and archives culled from the collections of former campers, the Norman Studer Papers (University at Albany), and from the Historical Society of Woodstock.

 Camp Woodland (1939–1962) was founded near Phoenicia, NY, by Norman Studer, a former Ph.D. student of John Dewey’s and an educator at the Elizabeth Irwin School in New York City. Studer sought to bring America’s democratic roots alive to his students. His vision embraced cultural diversity and a multidisciplinary approach. He brought city kids up to the country and put them in touch with old-time Catskill Mountain folks—like Aaron Van De Bogart from Woodstock. Not only did Woodland Campers hear stories from the hill people, but they were put to work collecting and preserving hundreds of folk songs for posterity.

 The camp was an annual destination for Pete and Toshi Seeger and they proved to be an incalculable influence. Pete performed for each division of campers, for the camp as a whole, and—when the campers had gone to bed—for the counselors. In 1954, a 15-year-old camper named John Herald saw Seeger sing and decided to become a musician. The camp’s multi-cultural population was a fertile incubating ground for Seeger. One counselor, Hector Angulo, introduced him to a Cuban song, “Guantanamera,” which became hit for Pete in 1961. Another time Pete wrote three verses based on a Russian folk tune and left it with counselor Joe Hickerson. Joe worked with a group of campers on the rhythm and personally wrote two more verses. This song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” charted on Billboard for The Kingston Trio as a “B” side in 1961.

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