Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Paul LeMay remembrance from Tim Wolf

I originally just published this as a comment, but it deserves a full post. From Tim Wolf:

I've been filtering through numerous memories and reflections about Paul. They are all steeped in gratitude. Like so many, I was lousy about expressing that gratitude while Paul was alive. So the least I can do is share a handful of recollections and history from the early days of Peace Train. Excuse any mistakes (this is from memory).

Paul was originally from Windsor I believe (perhaps more specifically Poquonock). He married and had two sons, Paul Michael and Jimmy, then divorced. Early on he worked as a shoe salesman, then was employed in the office at the Plimptons office supply warehouse. It was while working there I believe that Peace Train was hatched as a concept.

After buying the infamous school bus, Paul found a patron in Jack Dollard, an architect hired by the Knox Foundation to help it spend its money to revitalize Hartford. Jack granted Paul a modest sum to help convert the bus into a caboose. Jack may have even sketched out a blueprint for the "conversion". (Was this perhaps around 1973 or 1974?)

Paul's girlfriend/partner/collaborator through the 1970s was Pam Ring. Pam was cooking at Picnic, the Union Place vegetarian restaurant run by Judith Elliot. Picnic, and Union Place, was a hub of creative, groovy, hippie commerce and energy. Paul did much of his honey selling and acordian playing in front of Picnic to raise money for Peace Train and the first Fiddle Contest. Some of the early musicians associated with Peace Train may well have been connections made on Union Place, where Shanti School (a public alternative high school located inside the train station) had faculty and students such as Nick Duke, Dan Schultz, and others who played Bluegrass. There was also a Trinity College contingent, many of whom lived on Kenyon Street that became Peace Train regulars: Bill Ferns, Peter Garnick, Joe Cohen. Additionally there was Will Welling and Bill Wallach.

In 1975, I was a sixteen-year-old from West Hartford into the art of kite-making and flying. I had an idea for having a kite festival in Bushnell Park, and like Paul received funds from the Knox Foundation (thanks to Jack Dollard and Tim Keating) to produce my first public event, Kite Day, on May 5 of that year. Paul was there with the Peace Train and a few musicians, Judith Elliot carried over a pot of soup from Picnic to feed the kite flyers. A good time was had by all, and Paul and I made our connection.

Over the next four years or more, Paul was my mentor. That spring and summer I became part of the Peace Train family, hanging out regularly with Paul and Pam (and dog Zenobia) at their little house on Skitchewaug Street in Wilson. Despite my young age, or perhaps because of it, Paul was always running his unstoppable litany of ideas by me. I always gave him my honest opinion, "bad idea," "won't work," "maybe," "that sounds workable," "give me a break". He always respected my opinion and often took my advice. This played no small part in a sixteen-year-old's ability to develop self-confidence.

I tagged along to the numerous parades (everyone wanted that caboose in their parade), fiddle contests and concerts as helper/crew-member on the "Train". That summer ('75) during the West Indian Day Parade Paul was getting a little tipsy while driving the Train through the streets of the North End blasting Calypso from the loud speakers when he turned the driving over to me. I had never driven a standard, and certainly never a school bus/caboose, but he put it in neutral and coasted at a slow speed--in the parade--as I took the driver's seat. Paul said, "I'll put it in second gear, that's all you need." From that day on I became a backup driver. I drove that bus until 1984, well past it's retirement and replacement.

The Plimtptons warehouse formed one base of the recruitment center for the technical production of Peace Train's activity. U. of H. graduate David Budries worked there and had started Mantra Sound with Stephen Washburn from Glastonbury. Mantra provided all the sound for the first several Fiddle Contests as well as neighborhood and park concerts for years. Two other Plimptons guys, Doug Eldridge and Floyd (can't remember his last name) had a lighting company and provided the illumination for all manner of after-dark events that Peace Train produced. Much of the sound and lighting equipment was eventually bought by Peace Train as it became bigger and began to sell its services as a concert production company to other presenters, such as the annual fiddle festival at the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation in Katonah, NY, the Hartford's San Juan Festival, the West Indian Celebration and more. There is a lineage of sound and lighting equipment and sound engineers and lightning technicians that still provide those services to Hartford concerts and events that can trace their roots to Paul and Peace Train.

The bus Paul built was the Peace Train mascot and it turned heads everywhere it went. Once we moved our friend Elliot Porter in the Train from Hartford down to an apartment on Bleeker Street in Manhattan. After unloading Elliot's furniture we drove uptown so I could try to do some kite flying in Central Park. Instead, we were ushered into the Puerto Rican Day Parade that happened to be taking place that day. The NYPD thought we were late to the parade and opened up the barricades to let us in. Paul got on the mic (attached to a gooseneck that swiveled in front of the driver's seat) and invited flag-waving parade watchers on board. Someone provided a cassette of Salsa music and Paul popped it into the tape player and belted it out of roof-mounted loudspeakers. That was some party.

From the first few Fiddle Contests in the early/mid-seventies through Paul being ousted by the Peace Train board over the hot-air balloon debacle in 1981, Paul had built Peace Train into a nationally-recognized non-profit performing arts presenting organization. In it's hey-day Peace Train had a couple dozen employees (thanks to the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, or CETA) and was producing well over 100 free concerts, large and small, in a season. To many people Paul's legacy was the New England Fiddle Contest, but his legacy is much deeper than that. Peace Train employed hundreds of local musicians to play free concerts in nursing homes, senior centers, block parties, virtually every housing project and public park in Hartford, as well as New Haven and other cities and towns in Connecticut and beyond. I said "employed", he paid artists to play free concerts accesable to all. It wasn't just fiddle and folk music, but Gospel, jazz, blues, rock, bluegrass, country, funk and much more. Does anyone remember Hubert Powel & the Gospel Truth, Wood Brass and Steel, Last Fair Deal, Blues Train, the Hartford Morris Men, Jacob's Reunion, Spiral, to name a few?

Paul also brought nationally-known artists to the city for free concerts: Taj Mahal, Leone Redbone, Maria Muldaur, Pat Metheney, The Paul Winter Consort, Elizabeth Cotton and more. He started Hartford's first free outdoor dance series, Summerdance, presenting Pilobolus, the Alvin Ailey Repertory Company, Hartford Ballet, Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble and more.

After Paul's ouster from Peace Train, I was hired to be its technical director, then served as co-director (with Jack McNair) and finally held the position of interim director, not wanting the permanent position of director. I left Peace Train in 1984 and it folded as the diverse presenting organization it had become a couple years later. During that period Paul and I remained friends. I may have been to only person still involved with Peace Train still on good terms with him in the year or two following his firing.

Playing off Paul's tradition of taking all types of performing art into all communities, for free, Jack and I developed programs on the other end of the spectrum from the Fiddle Contest, including a series of breakdancing contests across the state that developed into a traveling school program introducing Hip Hop culture to suburban and rural audiences. This was 1982 and 1983! We still ran the Fiddle Contest, but it was no longer the big money maker it had become for Peace Train after the city forced us out of Bushnell Park. Yes, for a time the Contest was able to largely pay for itself and turn a profit through t-shirt sales and rental of vendor space.

After Peace Train, Paul ran a competing fiddle contest in Massachusetts for one or two years, got into the hot air balloon thing (briefly), and even ran his own competing arts-presenting organization for a couple of years. The Downtown Council was so keen not to take sides in the Peace Train vs. Paul aftermath that it divided up the contract for a series of summer street music programs between Peace Train, Paul's group, and another presenter, TAPCO.

After I left Peace Train Paul let me apply for some grants through his new organization to present a one-day world music festival in Bushnell Park in 1984. The event was rained out of Bushnell Park and Paul invited us to put on the program at Mad Murphy's on Union Place where he was then booking the bands. It was all last minute, chaotic, hot and crazy, but truly unforgettable when the headliner, Sun Ra and his Arkestra took the tiny stage at Murphy's. Paul helped me make that happen. That event was the seed of another nonprofit I started with my wife, Linda Pagani, in 1990. The International Performing Arts Festival had a nice run of four years in the free concert tradition of Peace Train before the funding climate and shrinking audiences forced us to shut down.

I dealt with Paul professionally a little more in the eighties when he would book my band, The Hibachi Brothers, into Mad Murphy's. In the nineties, Paul tried to recruit me on numerous occasions to get involved in the reincarnated Peace Train and Fiddle Contest. I politely declined each time having decided to focus my energies in other areas after the demise of my own organization. At that time Paul had been making a living as a spreadsheet master, working as a contractor for CIGNA in Bloomfield. Paul was a gadget guy, so it was never a surprise to me that he totally embraced some aspect of the personal computer boom. I recall he was also was quite good at accounting.

In the last decade or so, I could expect an annual phone call from Paul to either try again to recruit me or simply to run another idea by me, like Bob Dylan in Bushnell Park. Once I declined or wished him luck on the latest unhatched plan, we would talk about his two sons and catch each other up on old acquaintances. I enjoyed getting to know his son Paul as an adult after he returned from India with our mutual interests as fellow Buddhists. The last e-mail I think I got from Paul Sr., several years ago, was a photo of his then new grandson, Paul Jr.'s son Henry.

Paul didn't single handedly set me on my life's course, but he was a really important and large influence. The job I have today, and have had for the past 21 years, I can trace back to Paul.

This has been a long and indulgent reminiscence, but these are memories that deserve to be shared. We never know when our time will come, and so I put these thoughts down at this time for those who knew, appreciated and loved Paul.


pontiff alex said...

Great story on the man that created the Fiddle Fest (and his Peace Train org)!! I FONDLY FONDLY remember, as a teenager and you adult, going to Hartford, from out in Marlborough where we lived. The Fests were a BLAST!! Floks from all around, having a good ol' time. THANKS for the memory, and THANKS to Paul Lemay for everything. Be Well, Alex Voog /

Anonymous said...

Tim Wolf, you may not remember me, but I remember you from Shanti High School. Just googled you and came up with this site. Hope you're doing well.
Chris Carpenter