Saturday, May 8

Beloved Tucson folklorist and banjo player "Big Jim" Griffith was surrounded Saturday by musicians well-known in local folk-music circles—but his command of traditional music was matched only by Tucson gospel icon Sister Dorothy Reid, Southside's music director and the founder of the Tucson Mass Choir.

Sister Dorothy gave a goose-bump-inducing a cappella performance of "A Charge to Keep I Have" in the moaning gospel style of her childhood church. It was part of a too-short monologue in which she related her upbringing as a preacher's granddaughter in Alabama.

Griffith showed his banjo mastery in a peculiar, intricate piece called "Rambling Hobo." A down-home humorist, he introduced the tune as unsuitable for any other instrument, and suggested that the banjo might be too "disreputable" to play in church.

The concert also showcased the soulful and lyrical voices of Mark Gordon Allen, who organized and emceed the event to honor his father; and Ellen Murphy, daughter of Travis Edmonson. Tenor and guitarist Mark Rein'l-Bautista rounded out the Appalachian-style harmonies, in which Allen provided the high, lonesome flourishes, and Griffith contributed deep bass.

Highlights of the program were Allen's solo parts in the traditional "Where Will I Shelter My Sheep Tonight," which he dedicated to Southside's work with migrants; "A Vision of Mother," a nod to Mother's Day; and the encore's celebratory performance of Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light."

Closing the first set, Sister Dorothy's memorable piano-playing on "Uncloudy Day" brought broad smiles to the faces of her fellow performers, who probably have not been accompanied by piano very often. Their music relies on the highly portable instrumentation—fiddle, banjo, guitar—that allowed its migration from Ireland and England to the Appalachian region, and then across the United States.

Mandolin player Dave Firestine plays regularly at contra-dance gatherings as part of Round the House. Guitarist Greg Morton, who performed a brief, solo instrumental set in the second half, has won three Tucson Area Music Awards as Best Acoustic Guitarist. Their contributions to Saturday's concert, along with those of bassist Jerry Ray Weinert, seemed to transform Southside's sanctuary—built in the style of a Native American kiva—into a lantern-lit barn party in another era and another culture.


More by Linda Ray


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