In 1959, guitarist John Fahey was pumping gas at the Esso station on the edge of Takoma Park at University and New Hampshire avenues. Fahey was into something new, explorations of the harmonics of six and twelve-string guitars, but like most musicians, he was kept from starvation by the "outside" job. As he pumped gas, he baffled customers with his idiot-grin and his half-sung but utterly heartfelt "Happy motoring!" fugue.
Fahey moved to California in the early '60s and has since become one of the country's best-known acoustic guitarists. But before he left, he became something of a pioneer when he had RCA custom-press 300 copies of a record he had made; local record stores had no idea what to do with his "independent" release and it took three years to sell the 300 copies. The label name was a bit unusual, too. "Takoma." Whoever heard of a label named after a community? And Takoma Park, at that? Forty albums and a continent later, Fahey still uses the name for his label.
In the 21 years since, Takoma Park has become a haven, a rest stop, home and hearth, source and recourse to hundreds of musicians. Artists of all persuasions live there, but it's the musicians who give the town its pulse. Larry Robinson, a 10-year resident, is a librarian at the National Education Association. He also plays in the Great American Banjo Band . . . and in the Israeli bluegrass band called Gush Egozan . . . and the Fabrangen Fiddlers . . . and a new Dixieland swing band.
"There are TONS of musicians here," he says. "Any style, any instrument you want, you can find it here. And it doesn't look like a . . . a burb!"
Developed in 1883 as a "sylvan suburb" built around a railroad station, Takoma Park has spent nearly a century developing an insulated small-town aesthetic. Located at the northeastern edge of the city between Silver Spring and Langley Park, Takoma Park is an archetypical small-town -- old-fashioned, rambling Victorian houses with wrap-around porches, '20s-style bungalows, quiet azalea-lined and tree-shaded streets. In a region of bedroom communities, Takoma Park is a living-room community.
Tomorrow, 150 musicians, cloggers, storytellers and craftspeople will move out of their homes and gather together for the Third Annual Takoma Park Folk Festival, which last year drew 4,000. Running from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Takoma Park Junior High School Field, the event is free. In essence, the musicians are celebrating themselves.
Sam Abbott is the mayor of Takoma Park. Seventy years young, he's earned a reputation over the years as a Washington activist/gadflky (depending which side he was on). Best known for leading the fight to stop construction of the Three Sisters Bridge in Virginia, he has also led successful fights to keep freeways out of the town he's lived in for 40 years.
He remembers bringing Woody Guthrie there in the early '40s, remembers the FBI taking down license plate numbers of the scraggly crew of 40 who showed up to hear the "subversive" folk singers. "And now everybody sings Guthrie's 'This Land Is Your Land,'" Abbott points out. "My motto is 'preserve it or lose it.'" Many of the performers in the Folk Festival also supported Abbott in his election drive this year.
Everyone mentions the trees in Takoma Park. ("Largest stand of hardwoods east of the Rockies" boasts Mayor Abbott.) In the '60s, when the influx of musicians started because of the community's lower housing prices, Takoma Park was one of the few municipalities open to group or multi-family housing. It became a rare mix of economic, social and racial elements, including headquarters for the Seventh Day Adventist Church. It's a Norman Rockwell kind of town, with a population that hasn't changed much over the past decade, residents like to think.
And while some musicians work at their craft full-time (the Double Decker String Band's been the top old-timey band at the Deer Creek Fiddler's Convention the past three years), they mostly double as meat-cutters, ride-on bus drivers, teachers, lawyers, cabinet makers, writers.
Rudy Arrendondo moved here from Texas in 1978 to work with the National Association of Farmworker Organizations. A farmworker himself from the age of 5 through high school, Arredondo and his group perform both traditional and original Mexican music with a strong social message. "It's beautiful here, we know our neighbors," he says.
The edge of tradition in Arredondo's music is reflected in many of the Folk Festival's other performers, from the Andean roots of Rumisonko to the Irish flights of Celtic Thunder to the old-timey medleys that Double Decker, Hambone Sweets and Hobotoe punch out for the dozen of cloggers and square dancers who live in Takoma Park.
"Some of these houses are like farmhouses," says four-year resident Jesse Winch, a member of Celtic Thunder. "It's an older area that attracted people who value tradition. It's natural that there should be so much traditional music."
The Takoma Tap Room has two successful nights based on traditional music. Organized in 1979 by Bruce Hutton of Double Decker, Monday nights there are set aside for a folk hoot, while Wednesdays bring Old-Timey Night, with local and visiting string bands and agitated cloggers cavorting before a totally packed room.
"There's a very identifiable sense of camaraderie and community," says the room's owner, Paul Amtower.
In fact, camaraderie can have Serious Consequences. Jazz guitarist Donnie McGowan moved to Takoma Park less than a year ago after having lived in Seattle, Wash., all his life. Staying with friends in various parts of town, he finally chose Takoma because "people were open to me, it was green and laid back, people in general were receptive to music."
When he started to put a band together, someone mentioned a good vocalist. "I asked where she lived. When they said 'Across the street' I couldn't believe it." Lady Avis, who had moved here from Dallas a year ago to further her career, now sings in McGowan's group, Intuition. She and the guitarist are also about to get married. Takoma Park loves harmony.
The notorious Root Boy Slim ("The Shah Is Gone") lives in Takoma Park. Exactly where was shown in Washingtonian magazine's recent "Homes of the Stars" issue. Soon after, the Root was awakened by middle-of-the-night hammering at the door. In marched "two rather large girls," he recounts. "And there were four more downstairs. They wanted an autograph, but they also insisted that we go eat at the Jack in the Box. I don't want to malign the Redskins, but I think they missed the boat on these ones."
Root Boy is probably the most famous musician living in Takoma Park, though Nils Lofgren once lived there, as did Mike Seeger and Elizabeth Cotton; either Brewer or Shipley and a member of Canned Heat known as "Larry the Mole" grew up there. Fame's qualities are more elusive than familiar, and of no particular concern to most Takoma Park's musical residents. Root Boy Slim can bear the burden of notoriety.
"Music is a way for people to unleash themselves and their energies," says a fiesty Sammie Abbott. Abbott may sit out some of the dances on Sunday, but not too many. He wouldn't want to lose any votes from the music block.