Long before television, video games, Jell-O wrestling, speed dating, the Internet, paintball and the vile scourge of karaoke, there existed a form of entertainment so pure, simple and selfless that - like most pure, simple and selfless things - it didn't last long.
People from different walks of life would gather at a common meeting place, break out their instruments and make music together - maybe not always beautiful music, but that wasn't the point.
This pastime went by various names - jam, sing-along, hoedown, group sing - but none more silly than the one used by those who gathered, once upon a time, to play folk music: "Hootenanny," they called it.
And, some still do.
In the back room at Hogan's Alley - a South Baltimore tavern formerly called Cox's - they meet every other Sunday: Dave brings his mandolin, Chris his guitar. Tom works his upright bass through the tavern door at an angle. Will unpacks his tambourine. And Kelly breaks out her egg shakers.
There, joined by a handful of others - generally outnumbering the audience - they play, sing and drink bottles of beer brought out by the bucketful, usually starting about 4 p.m.
They play mostly folk music, but they aren't purists about song selection - or anything else. Along with more traditional folk songs, some Beatles, Beach Boys and Elvis sneak in as they make music well into the night. Some of it is original, some new and some old, but all of it reminiscent of a day when music wasn't just something you listened to; it was something you made.
Keeping tradition alive
"We've become passive consumers of music," said Lou Linden, who has been bringing his guitar to the hootenanny for nearly a year. "Part of the reason is technology. With recorded music, with radio, people lacked the motivation to play. I like to think that, in some way, what we do here keeps alive that tradition of making music."
Linden, an attorney who switched to restoring ships for a living, said the spirit of the hootenanny is best summed up by a remark he heard from Pete Seeger, whom Linden's jug band once got the chance to open for. "Music," the folk legend told him, "is much too important to leave to the professionals."
While the core members of the biweekly gathering did recently perform, as the South Baltimore Sheiks, at a D.C. club in exchange for a case of beer, they don't consider themselves professionals - at least not professional musicians.
David Israel is a NASA engineer; Chris Beck is a Capitol Hill staffer; Kelly Lane is an artist; Will Priest is a special education teacher. There's Gil Moore, the water taxi captain, and "Fireman Mike" - not to be confused with "Banjo Mike." And many others have come and gone as the group continues to revolve and evolve.
How they all came together, Israel said, goes back to the blizzard of '03.
Israel works at the Goddard Space Flight Center and was in charge of an experiment on the Space Shuttle Columbia. When the experiment was successfully completed, he scheduled a party for Feb. 16, 2003, at his neighborhood bar, then called Cox's, to celebrate.
Two weeks before the party was to take place, the shuttle met with disaster, disintegrating over Texas during its re-entry into the earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1, and killing all seven crew members.
Israel considered canceling the party, at which he and Beck planned to perform, but co-workers urged him to go ahead with it.
When the day came, though, a blizzard hit, and none of their work mates could get there. So, Israel and Beck began encouraging friends in the neighborhood and any others who wandered into the bar during the snowstorm to go home and get their instruments.
Wendy King, the bartender at Cox's, began urging customers to do the same.
"People were just kind of popping into the bar because of the snow and wondering what was going on," recalled Beck. "They see us and they're like, 'I have a banjo at home.' And we're, like, 'Well, go get it.' "
"It went on for 12 hours," Israel said. "It got incredibly crowded. The room was just packed, and we just kept playing and everybody was singing along. It was a real magical day."
Israel thinks the combination of the snow and tensions about heightened terrorist alerts may have served to bring people together.
As the night progressed, participants were making up new words to old songs.
"She'll be coming around the mountain," became "We'll be duct taping our rooms when she comes." At the end of the night, Beck said, "we were all talking about how awesome it was and how we should get together and do it again. And everybody was saying, 'Yeah, cool,' like you do when you're drunk and happy.
"But even after everyone was sober, it still sounded like a good idea."
It was Israel who decided to call the regular gathering a hootenanny, because, he said, "I just like the word."
Hootenanny was originally another word for "thingamajig."
It wasn't until about 1940 that the word was used to refer to "an informal session or concert of folk music and singing," according to Takeourword.com, a word-origin Webzine.
It was in the late 1940s in Seattle that folk singers Seeger and Woody Guthrie first stumbled across the term.
"We liked the sound of the word," Seeger is quoted as saying in the book Washington Songs and Lore. "I inquired as to its origins and was told hootenanny came from Indiana, that it was an old country word for 'party.' ... Woody and I took the word 'hootenanny' back to New York with us and used it for our rent parties."
After World War II, Seeger helped organize People's Songs, a folk music organization and magazine that featured political and labor songs. The group held hootenannies to raise money for the magazine and in support of labor groups.
In the 1950s, the term became more common as the folk music movement burgeoned, said Mark Moss, executive director of Sing Out, the earlier magazine's successor, still published in Pennsylvania. Today, he said, it is considered outdated.
"Hootenanny is not a term that's used today, except by 60- and 70-year-olds trying to recapture their youth," Moss said.
Today, the term hootenanny - much like folk music itself - is more likely to be laughed at than romanticized, spoofs like the 2003 movie A Mighty Wind being a perfect example.
In folk music's heyday, though, there was a magazine that, though short-lived, called itself Hootenanny, and a TV show as well.
In 1963, ABC premiered the musical series Hootenanny, though Seeger never appeared on it because he was blacklisted for his political activism and communist beliefs. As a result, the program was boycotted by other folk singers, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul & Mary.
The program was canceled in 1964, a victim of the Beatles, rock 'n' roll and changing tastes. That year, the White House held its first hootenanny, featuring the New Christy Minstrels.
"I love folk music, but the name 'Hootenanny' rather repels me," Lady Bird Johnson wrote in her White House diary.
From time to time someone shows up at the South Baltimore hootenanny who is not blessed with a sense of rhythm, or might sing a tad off-key, but Israel said they are as welcome as anyone.
"Nobody says anything," he said. "That kind of goes against the spirit of it, which is everyone is welcome to join in."
Israel said bluegrass and jazz jam sessions are often more serious - unlike the hootenanny.
"This is more interactive," he said. "The more interactive it is, the more fun it is."
"It would be really easy for this to turn inward, but he [Israel] keeps it inclusive instead of exclusive," Linden said.
Linden, who moved to Baltimore in 1995 to work on the restoration of the Constellation, said he found the hootenanny through an Internet posting he made two years ago, seeking fellow musicians to play with.
"After a while, you get really tired of hearing yourself," he said.
Bass player Tom Balog, one of the original members, saw it and called Linden to invite him to Cox's - one of the few old neighborhood bars left along quickly gentrifying Fort Avenue.
Since then, it has changed hands, but the new owner - while he has removed some of the nautical decorations and installed new flat-screen TVs - is trying to keep the corner bar atmosphere. He is keeping the hootenanny too.
"I'd never been in this place before," said Linden, who lives two blocks from the tavern and plays guitar, harmonica and washboard. "They didn't laugh in my face or throw me out. I've been looking for someone to play music with for years. It's been a real gift."
Sun staff writer Annie Linskey contributed to this article.
Places for a good hootenanny
Open mike nights are a dime a dozen. Karaoke bars are as common as Starbucks.
But if you don't require the spotlight, if you're content being a member of the band or if camaraderie is more important to you than celebrity, consider the hootenanny, jam or sing-along.
Here is a sampling of places (other than churches) where you can make music with strangers:
This bar at the corner of Fort Avenue and Covington Street provides a home for the once-every-two-weeks (more or less) South Baltimore hootenanny. Today's hootenanny will start around 4 p.m. at Riverside Park and move to the bar, organizers said, when it gets dark or "the beer runs out." 410-332-1985.
4 W 5
This coffee house in downtown Wilmington, Del., holds open jams Tuesday and Thursday nights - and sometimes they're attended by guitarist David Bromberg, a Wilmington resident.
Tuesday jams are acoustic, primarily bluegrass; Thursdays are electric, primarily blues.
"We get a huge crowd, 15 or 20 musicians and anywhere from 20 to 80 people just listening," Bromberg said.Appalachian Bluegrass
Every Tuesday, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., this Catonsville music store has an open jam, featuring bluegrass and country music.
Address: 643 Frederick Road, Catonsville. 410- 744-1144 Web site: Appalachianbluegrass.com
If songs of the sea float your boat, you might want to check out one of the three chantey sings held each month by Ship's Company, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of American maritime heritage.
The oldest and largest gathering is held the first Tuesday of every month at the Royal Mile Pub, 2407 Price St. in Wheaton. 301-946-4511. Chantey sings are also held at the Drummer's Lot, in the basement of the Maryland Inn, 16 Church Circle in Annapolis on the third Thursday of every month. 410-263-2641. The last is held at the Wharf Rat, 801 S. Ann St. in Fells Point on the second Wednesday of the month. 410-244-8900.
All are held from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. and feature members of the Chanteymen, the organization's singing group.
Acoustic instruments or instruments that were used by sailors in the 19th century are permitted, said Myron Peterson, business manager for the Chanteymen. And those who want to just sing along are always welcome.
"You can lead the group in song, request one, join in on the chorus, or just sit back and enjoy, Peterson said. "We're not looking for Carnegie Hall quality here, just people willing to sing."
For more information: www.shipscompany.org.
11074 Frederick Road, Ellicott City
"Casual Pick'n Sundays" are held weekly at this Ellicott City Inn, where bluegrass fans gather from 1 to 6 p.m. 410-531-5510.
- John Woestendiek