Purveyor of New Artists Faces the Music

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, January 25, 2007

I n 1967, Mary Cliff was working at the Cellar Door, taking reservations for the legendary Georgetown nightclub, when Dick Cerri heard her voice -- distinctively reedy and earthy -- on the phone.

"I heard that voice and said, 'You should be on the radio,' " recalls Cerri, then and now a leading figure in Washington's acoustic music scene.

Cerri was a folk music deejay in those days, but Cliff was reveling in the new sounds of progressive rock. "She kept on bugging me about this underground music and what a shame it was that no one was playing it on Washington radio," Cerri says. So he gave Cliff an hour each evening on the radio to play the latest album rock. Her first week on the air was the week Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Cliff has been a bedrock of several of Washington's musical subcultures -- folk, blues, bluegrass, Celtic, contemporary chamber music -- ever since. But when WETA, where she has been on the air since the station premiered in 1970, switched to an all-classical format this week, Cliff was told she was out. The final edition of "Traditions," her acoustic music show, airs Saturday.

Despite the stereotype of Washington as a grim city of emotionally frigid careerists, this has been the top market for several strands of acoustic music, including bluegrass, folk and the singer-songwriter school that reached its peak in the 1970s and '80s. But while the blues crowd, traditionalists, Celtic music lovers and country fans generally keep to their own circuits, they all come together on Saturday nights to listen to Cliff, who not only plays the music of any artist who might be performing locally but also reads her self-described "interminable list" of musical events, even including house parties.

"Mary was the only outlet in the whole area for acoustic music," says Cerri, president of the World Folk Music Association. "The folk community has nothing left. Without her, there's no way for listeners to learn about new artists."

"She's the last messenger out there for up-and-coming acts," says Gary Oelze, owner and founder of the Birchmere, the Alexandria music hall that specialized in acoustic artists for most of its four decades. "Acoustic was all we did, and I wish that was what we did now. But we can't hire an artist who isn't well-known; we've got to put people in the seats, and we can't do that unless their records are being played on the radio."

The Internet is a great way for people who are already interested in a genre of music to find one another and learn about events, but concert promoters say the Web has not yet developed efficient ways to reach out to new audiences. That, they say, was Cliff's function.

When Cliff started "Traditions," WETA's eclectic programming included classical concerts, folk performances from the Potter's House in Adams Morgan, political speeches, children's fare and Cliff's progressive rock show (she also handled jazz, opera and news over the years). She has always spread the word about corners of the Washington arts world that never get much play in the big-time media: Cliff records concerts by the Contemporary Music Forum, a band of players who compose and perform chamber music; she organizes Folklore Society volunteers to host musicians who play at the Smithsonian's Folkfest every summer.

She even worked for Major League Baseball's Web site for a time, handling the play-by-play of Baltimore Orioles games on MLB.com's Gameday.

"I have a foot in every camp, which means I'm an octopus," says Cliff, who is evangelical about getting young people involved in acoustic music. A folk singer herself in the '60s -- she was half of a duo that played at hootenannies at the Cellar Door and other clubs -- Cliff seemed more sanguine than bereft after getting the news from her bosses at WETA.

"It's the radio business," she says. "Things come and go."

WETA Vice President Mary Stewart says Cliff's show was dumped because "we felt we had to make a full commitment to classical music. Consistency of format, especially through the weekend, is very important." The area's other public radio station, WAMU, is considering picking up "Traditions," according to station managers.

The day she got the bad news, Cliff considered how to spend her evening -- at one of the dozen or so performances in coffeehouses and churches and little clubs in Falls Church, Hyattsville, Silver Spring or Brookland, or in the houses of people who invite strangers to their living rooms to hear a new band?

And Mary Cliff decided that "I may go to a blues concert. That'd be appropriate."

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