Ten Years of the Jalopy Theatre

The décor is part exposed brick, part beat-up banjos for sale. The seating is church pews, moveable in the event of square dancing. And the decorative lights above the stage have gathered dust of an endearing kind. Tucked away down Columbia Street in Red Hook, near the juncture of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the BQE, the Jalopy Theatre certainly looks the part of a timeless temple of folk music. Which is why it’s hard to believe it’s only a decade old.

Jalopy Theatre. Photo: Brian Geltner.

It’s even harder to believe given what Jalopy has accomplished in that time. Begun as a humble experiment in community building by a mechanic and non-profit worker with a weak spot for Pete Seeger, Jalopy is now the spiritual hub of the city’s folk music scene. “It’s like a revival of the New York City Folklore Center in the 21st century,” said photographer and longtime Jalopy patron Jack Hirschorn, referring to the Greenwich Village haunt where Bob Dylan met Dave Van Ronk.

In addition to the seventy-something-seat theater, which hosts everything from old-time string bands to klezmer and kora music, it also offers a school, where students can learn clawhammer banjo or explore the Smithsonian Anthology of American Folk Music; discounted instrument sales, rentals, and repairs; a recently resuscitated record label; an occasional radio station; and, two doors down, the Jalopy Tavern, where reasonably priced pints facilitate discussing it all.

What all of these ventures amount to is a home-grown folk infrastructure—built where there was none before—that has both championed the music and created the community needed to sustain it. And in a remarkable feat for perennially hip Brooklyn, where appeals to an older, rural America are so often precious or dangerously nostalgic, Jalopy has managed to be something else entirely: fun.

For founders Lynette and Geoff Wiley, the creation of a community was always the goal. Before moving to New York, the couple lived in Chicago, where they spent hours each week with other artists working on creative projects in a communal garage. After losing the lease, they began envisioning what their version of such a space might look like, and where it might work best. Portland, Maine; Portland, Oregon; New Orleans; and Lisbon were in the mix, but Brooklyn was a quick sell.

“We rented a car, drove to the base of Red Hook, and started driving circles through the neighborhood,” Lynette Wiley said of their first time in the borough. “We bought the building that Jalopy’s in that same day.”

During the initial renovations, which the Wileys did themselves, they hung out at the nearby, now-closed dive Lillie’s, where they met many of the artists who would comprise their first audience. Performances began soon after, as did classes at the school. “The idea,” Lynette Wiley said, “was [to have] a place for artists to perform but also teach, make some money, and then share folk music the way that we envisioned it being shared, which is learning in community, learning at your grandfather’s knee.” One of Jalopy’s banjo teachers paid her way through grad school with money made at the school.

For Eli Smith, co-founder of the Brooklyn Folk Festival and Jalopy’s longest-serving teacher, the classes are at the heart of Jalopy because of the way they emphasize spontaneous learning in community, an idea inseparable from folk music itself.

“It’s a place where you can educate yourself and learn a lot just by being there,” he said. “It shouldn’t be intimidating. It should be social. It should be a social activity that is part of one’s life. It doesn’t have to be premeditated. You can just kind of show up.”

Another essential part of the Jalopy identity came from an unlikely source: the back room of a now defunct Thai restaurant on MacDougal Street called the Village Ma. Until 2008, guitarist Feral Foster had hosted his weekly Roots n’ Ruckus show there, showcasing a motley blend of balladeers amid the faux bamboo walls and treacly drinks. When Geoff Wiley offered Foster a weekly spot at Jalopy, he jumped at the chance, and the Ruckus relocated. It continues, cover-free, every Wednesday, to this day.

To Jalopy’s school and stage ventures, it recently added Jalopy Records, which sold out of its recent pressing of Lost Train Blues, a collection of unreleased field recordings from the American Folklife Center, and recently began a subscription series featuring recordings of blues and old-time music notables. There is also the Brooklyn Folk Festival, co-produced by Smith and Jalopy and in its ninth iteration, which has expanded each year to accommodate growing audiences.

For Wiley, all of these disparate parts resemble the music proper. The name says it all. “Folk music is sort of put together like an old car. It’s not Carnegie Hall music. It’s music of the people. It’s an old car that has a lot of pieces attached. [The name Jalopy] makes sense.”

Those pieces also serve a greater purpose: providing myriad ways people can connect through music, and, through the music, to collective history. “We’re profoundly disconnected from any collective past or collective anything,” said Smith. “The neoliberal model we’ve been living with for decades has been bent on destroying public space and destroying history and destroying people’s connections to their or any historic cultures. It’s real, unfortunately. So we’re trying to offer some alternative to that, as crazy as it sounds.”

In Red Hook, where Civil War-era warehouses are being reimagined as tech campuses by developers such as Est4te Four, and where post-Hurricane Sandy flood prevention will contribute to a transformed waterfront, the symbolic importance of Jalopy’s commitment to the collective past will surely grow. For now, however, Jalopy remains New York’s scuffed-floor folk sanctuary, where bands with names like the Down Hill Strugglers take home 100 percent of the door, and the bartender next door does the graphic design.

“It’s a grassroots place that’s trying to create something on a human scale so that people can relate to one another in some authentic way,” said Smith. Fortunately, the busted-up car metaphor only goes so far. “It’s working,” Wiley said, “and that’s hugely rewarding for my husband and I.”

Contributor

Robert Jackson Wood

ROBERT JACKSON WOOD is a freelance writer and musician living in Brooklyn.

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