It was an unplanned band, composed of musicians who just liked to play together.
It didn’t even have a name until one member made one up on the spot in response to a reporter’s question.
That group, the Old World Folk Band, has now been playing together for more than 35 years and remains true to a mutual love of klezmer music—or, as it was once known, Jewish music. More accurately, it is the music of Ashkenazi Jews, its name derived from the Hebrew “kli zemer,” or musical instrument.
The band has a uniquely Harrisburg origin story.
In 1982, founder Fred Richmond was attending a conference of the state Department of Welfare when he ran into fellow employee Dale Laninga. Each played an instrument and tossed around the idea of getting together with a few others.
Soon, they started meeting Tuesday evenings in Laninga’s house.
“We had a piano, but had to move all the furniture to the side,” he said.
The impromptu musical gatherings began to attract more and more klezmer fans.
“People kept coming,” Richmond said. “Then, Faye Glick of the Jewish community invited us to the East Side Festival. Suddenly, we had a name and existed as a band.”
The thus-titled Old World Folk Band began practicing in a more professional setting—the Jewish Community Center in Harrisburg. It now holds practices at Temple Ohev Sholom, where it leads Friday night services once a month.
Over the years, the band has performed at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the National Folk Alliance Northeast Regional Conference, the Smithsonian Institution and the State College Arts Festival, among many other places. The band even fronted for the internationally known Klezmatics at Whitaker Center.
Notably, the Old World Folk Band is listed in a book entitled “The Essential Klezmer Music Lovers Guide,” which includes an introduction by renowned folk musician Arlo Guthrie. It also has put out five recordings.
Trained in clarinet and classical music, original band member Jessica Hayden said she loves the “spirited” nature of the music, typified by one night in the recording studio.
“One time, while waiting to record, we stayed up all night and got punchy,” said Hayden, who also is executive director of the Susquehanna Folk Music Society. “It was magical.”
For non-Jewish members of the band, such as Hayden and Laninga, participating has offered more than a musical education.
“I got to know Jewish culture,” Hayden said.
Likewise, for Richmond, the band teaches audiences not only about a certain type of music, but about Judaism.
Band members were also introduced to a different form of Jewish culture when Anatoly Kranshuskiy, a third-generation klezmer player from the Ukraine, and his wife, Dina, a singer, joined the band.
“I took lessons from Anatoly, our lead clarinetist and a great classical player, who added vitality and passion,” said Hayden.
Over the many years, the band has been held together by more than just a love of klezmer music. Members have formed strong friendships, getting to know each other’s families and sharing one another’s milestones. Over the years, some 57 musicians have passed through the group.
“We’ve also treated everyone equally, which is not the way it is in some groups,” said Laninga. “Whatever we make, a tithe goes to the organization and the rest to the musicians—divided equitably, whether they’re professional, classically trained or playing just for fun.”
Slowly, the band has changed its traditional repertoire, adding Beatles songs, the Stones, Motown. A concert is likely to include music from the ‘60s to ‘80s as well as traditional/liturgical Jewish music.
Members also are less likely to take to the road as often as they once did.
“Maybe it’s twice a month,” said Laninga. “Some of us are long in the tooth compared to when we started.”
One thing that hasn’t changed—the group’s bond with its audience.
“We communicate with our listeners,” Richmond said. “When they’re elderly, sometimes they have tears in their eyes, remembering music from their youth. Younger listeners might dance in the aisles.”
Through all the changes in personnel and repertoire, the Old World Folk Band, said Laninga, has another notable achievement.
“We have made a mark on the community,” he said.
For more information on the Old World Folk Band, visit www.oldworldfolkband.org.