Jody Kruskal is a New Yorker who loves his concertina; in fact he lives and breathes it. He is a warm and engaging entertainer, his material ranges from witty to gritty an all of ‘life, love and death’ in between. Being from the other side of the pond does not prevent you from sampling his unique style - he loves to perform over here and makes an extended annual visit, covering many folk clubs.

What started you on this path and when?

My path started the day I was born, perhaps before. I’ve been a singer since infancy. My mother often told this story about my childhood days…  if she was wondering where little Jody had gotten himself to, she would just stop and listen for the singing to locate me. She often had her chamber music club over to practice. I would make a nice comfy nest under the baby grand piano and drift off to sleep, humming along to the strains of Schubert’s Trout Quintet. My mother and I would play “guess the composer” at breakfast, listening to WFMT, our local classical music radio station.

My early music education was through singing with the Chicago Children’s Choir for twelve formative years as a kid. We were perfectionists, performing spirituals and gospel, hymns and carols, classical, opera and gems of 20th century modern choral music. I was a 2nd alto. That’s the bass voice in a four part treble choir. Without question, my youthful work with this excellent choir fostered an early instinctive harmonic sense and an ability to hear chord changes in my head, all through singing the bass lines and root notes of a wide-ranging repertoire of master works.

As the youngest of three brothers, I also soaked up the music my siblings loved… Broadway classics, Gilbert and Sullivan, pop, rock, folk and the morris dance tunes my brother Tom played on the Anglo concertina. As a young composer and music student in college, on a whim... I gave Tom’s concertina a go and was instantly smitten by the power of the bellows driven expressions that tumbled out and the responsive dynamics of his cute little squeezebox. It played loud, it played soft and everything in-between, all driven by the merest impulse and gesture. I was hooked, and had to have one of those squeezy things for my very own. My first tune was Shepard’s Hey.

Where do you hail from?
I grew up in Chicago but I’ve lived in Brooklyn, NY for 30 years.
Describe yourself in 5 words.
Compose, Perform, Produce, Teach, Learn
Where are you on the journey?
At 60, I’ve had a rather unconventional and creative music carrier. It has not been a single straight path but rather multiple ways that sometimes converge or cross-pollinate or double back on themselves.
My first professional music gig out of college was to write and perform original songs and tunes for a puppet troupe, the Mettawee River Company. That led to my work with numerous theatre and dance productions as a composer, player and musical director. I began inventing, building and playing strange and unusual musical instruments for some of these shows and formed my own “Public Works” orchestra of invented new instruments. That led to decades of work performing for children, teaching workshops on instrument building, acoustics and composing at grade schools and family camps as a visiting teaching artist.
While I was developing that teaching and performing carrier I began writing and performing concert works for an Indonesian gamelan called Son Of Lion and also a players and instrument builders collective called Music For Homemade Instruments. Many gigs and CD recordings later, I’m still working with these same people.
The whole time this was happening, I never gave up my interest and fascination with traditional music and the Anglo concertina. I began playing tunes with friends, then joined a Morris side, a sword team and a contra dance band. The world of traditional dance music revealed itself to me, tune by tune and now, I’ve played for thousands of dance events in a variety of genres and styles.

What is your greatest achievement, thus far?

For decades, I had been searching for the right songs to sing for an adult audience… old songs that I thought worthy of reminder, repetition and revival.
This was a problem because I’m very picky. As a composer, I suppose I could have written my own songs, but the ones that really speak to me as a solo performer on the concertina are American old time, rags, country blues and songs from the early days of recorded music, novelty and camp songs, tin pan alley, hokum and music hall, songs with choruses… vintage songs that tell timeless old stories with vivid characters, spicy language and compelling images, songs that tickle my funny bone and delight my ear.
My big achievement in the past ten years is the discovery, development, performance and recording of a repertoire of rare old concertina songs that please myself and my audience.
Why do you do it?
In 2006, I started to tour the UK, performing these songs in folk clubs and festivals and I’ve returned every year since. The English model of a singers club where the guest performer leads the audience in group singing… this is rare in the US. So I keep coming over to the UK where folks seem to enjoy what I enjoy, a good sing and a fine old song that tells a story and has a chorus.
Who are your influences and idols?

The Skillet Lickers and Bruce Molsky, Harry Partch and John Cage, the Beatles and Bob Dylan, The Watersons and Coppers, Billings, Beethoven, Frank Zappa and the Playford Collections… to name a semi-random few.
Meet The Folk...

Jody Kruskal

Issue 113
April/May 2016