"1975 was the year Billboard magazine declared folk music officially dead. So it was an auspicious year to start a folk trio," says singer-songwriter Steve Romanoff. "But we've never let the facts deter us."
And a good thing, too.
Schooner Fare, the Portland, Maine, trio Romanoff formed with his older brother Chuck and Tom Rowe is doing just fine at the moment. Virtually unknown outside New England just a few years ago, the group has dramatically expanded its audience up and down the East Coast. Nowhere is that more evident than in the Washington area, where, with the help of radio personality and folk music booster Dick Cerri, the group's performances invariably attract large and enthusiastic crowds.
Tonight and tomorrow night, for instance, the trio will record a live album at the Birchmere before what is sure to be a packed house.
The brothers Romanoff, who switch off playing guitar and banjo, and Rowe, a multi-instrumentalist who prefers the electric bass, are devoted to a folk music tradition that extends back to, and beyond, the folk revivalism of the '60s. Much of their music is buoyantly entertaining -- unabashedly old fashioned in its wholesomeness, reminiscent of, say, the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters and, especially when the harmonies grow robust, the Clancy Brothers.
But to Steve Romanoff, who grew up in the '60s listening to Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, Schooner Fare's music offers more than just good times. He cites one of his new songs, "Powder Monkey," as an example of how the trio can inject a serious subject among its boisterous sea chanteys, traditional ballads and tongue-twisting tall tales.
The inspiration for "Powder Monkey" came last summer when Romanoff learned from a sailor that "powder monkey" was the name given orphan kids enlisted off the streets of port cities to carry buckets of gunpowder from the magazines on the warships to the gun decks.
"These kids were expendable and usually anonymous," says Romanoff. "It struck me as analogous . . . We still rely upon the youth, the innocent of the world, to solve, often violently, the problems left unsolved by a supposedly older and wiser generation."
Although Romanoff was originally attracted to folk music with a message, it was his brother who taught him that the idiom encompasses more than protest songs, convincing him that an older generation of folk musicians had something to offer as well -- namely, the freedom to enjoy themselves on stage and the wisdom to place things in perspective.
"The Pete Seegers and the Lee Hayeses understood where the music was coming from," says Romanoff. "They were the ones who were able to have a good time with folk music and still appeal to the intelligence of their audience. If you go back and listen to an old Weavers album or an old Limeliters album -- these guys could reach you on six or seven different levels. They just had command of the entire range of the genre."
Even so, Romanoff concedes the influence of younger singers and songwriters such as Dylan (whom he still regards as a "prodigy, a reluctant genius") and Ochs (whose suicide in 1975 inspired him to write a song called "Don't Stop to Rest") was a lasting one.
"It wasn't until the late '60s and early '70s that I think I could sing fun songs for the sheer fun of singing them, without feeling every song I sing has to have a responsible theme," he says.
The Romanoffs have been performing since childhood. They were encouraged to take up instruments early and, since both of their parents were active in barbershop quartets, an appreciation for harmony developed quickly. Working out the arrangements to each song, sometimes spending a few hours selecting just the right chord here or there, remains one of his great pleasures, Romanoff says. "It's a totally democratic process," he adds with a laugh, "which is maybe why it takes so long."
Along with Rowe, whom Romanoff regards as the trio's linchpin -- "a remarkable musician who can create any kind of mood" -- the brothers now spend much of the year away from Portland, touring the East Coast and making occasional forays into the Midwest. Their songs have been recorded by Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy and other Irish artists.
Romanoff says the prospects of making a living as a musician didn't always seem so bright. In fact, it wasn't until a few years ago that he finally got up the nerve to quit his job as a high school and college English teacher, something Chuck Romanoff, a former family and child counselor, and Rowe, a former high school music instructor, had already done.
"The first rule in the arts, regardless of what your medium is, is don't give up your day job," reminds Romanoff. "But we realized as time went by that we were young enough, crazy enough and fortunate enough to have three wives to back us."