Mary Cliff wasn’t the only WAMU-FM presenter who got the boot in last week’s purge — Chris Teskey, Echo Propp and Jen Hitt did, too — but she is certainly the most revered among Washington folk music fans. Mary had been hosting her radio show, “Traditions,” pretty much forever, starting at WETA in 1973 before moving to WAMU in 2007.
J.J. Yore, WAMU’s general manager, said that as he and his staff planned for the station’s future they decided to cut costs and focus the programming on its low-powered sister station 105.5 FM more on bluegrass, “a tradition that also has a very long-standing history in the Washington, D.C., area,” he said. “Unfortunately, it meant that Mary Cliff, along with a few other weekly shows, were eliminated. . . . We feel great that we were able to bring her to the public for a number of years, and we wish her well.”
“It was not my choice,” Mary told me, adding that she hopes to find another home somewhere for her long-running show.
“She has been the leading light regarding folk music on the air for decades here in this market, not only espousing nationally and internationally known artists, but being extremely supportive of local and regional artists, too,” said Michael Jaworek, promoter at Alexandria’s Birchmere. “When she was on the air on a powerful station, we could feel the difference here in terms of ticket sales.”
Of course, when you name a radio program “Traditions,” you are pretty much announcing that it will concern itself with the old-timey. Maybe old-timey just doesn’t sell in new-timey times. Are the emotions explored in folk songs obsolete?
“Folk music is not emotions,” Mary said. “It tells stories. That’s what folk music is: It tells the stories of culture.”
Well maybe, I suggested, we don’t care about those stories anymore.
“I think lots of people do, or would if they had the opportunity to hear them,” Mary said, “but because they don’t have the quick, money-making ability of the loud stuff that’s on most outlets now, the powers that be don’t deal with them.”
Mary grew up with music, tuning into Arlington’s WARL as a child. “They were playing hillbilly music: Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, older stuff,” she said. “And Sons of the Pioneers. That harmony still haunts me.”
As an adult, Mary experienced what she calls the “folk scare” of the late 1950s, when groups such as the Kingston Trio were all the rage. She was a fixture at the Cellar Door’s hootenannies, learned radio at the elbow of famed local folk figure Dick Cerri and performed around town in a duo called Chip and Mary.
Mary said she feels her job has always been to put music together with audiences and audiences together with music. On “Traditions,” that was most obvious when she’d read out the long list of upcoming area concerts, from the smallest venues to the largest.
Such validation is crucial to new artists, she said. “I always remember Mary Chapin Carpenter,” Mary said. “The first time she heard one of her cuts on the show, she nearly drove off the road. When a young performer is played in that kind of forum, there’s a confirmation to them. It might be the difference between ‘I’m going to go on’ and ‘I’m not going to go on.’ ”
Mary isn’t sure where today’s folk musicians find such support and where audiences find their community.
“If you say ‘on the Internet,’ well, people don’t know where to look,” she said. “But while ‘Traditions’ was on, they did know where to look. They knew it was somewhere in this neck of the woods. It was in Takoma Park, not Tacoma, Washington. The Internet is all fine and good. I just find it very useful and severely divisive as a cultural force.”
Maybe a folk music radio show in the age of the Internet is an anachronism. Maybe, I suggested, it’s time for her to retire.
“If someone were doing what I’ve been doing — if the community were represented somewhere — I could do that,” she said. “I don’t see that.”
I was curious about where Mary went to high school. Immaculate Conception Academy, she told me, which once stood at 24th and K streets NW.
“They tore it down,” Mary said. “I have a brick from it, thanks to Tom Rush.”
Mary was taking the folk singer to an interview when she gestured toward the pile of rubble they were passing on K Street.
“I said I was tempted to come up some night and grab a brick for my memory,” Mary said. “He calmly got out of the car and walked over and picked one up and said, ‘Will this do?’ ”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.