SARATOGA SPRINGS Dan Berggren watched the open mic crowd thin down and wondered if, by the time his name was called, there would be anyone left to hear him sing.
His first performance at Caffe Lena started humbly enough, signing up for the last slot available on open mic night, an audition of sorts for a paying gig at the famed folk venue.
“I went on and did my 15 minutes and, afterward, Lena (Spencer, the late founder of the legendary coffeehouse) said to me, ‘That was great, we’d love to have you back,’” Berggren recalled.
And so began a long legacy that will be celebrated with Berggren’s 30th anniversary concert Sunday night.
‘A special sound’
Berggren grew up in Olmsteadville, exploring the woods and singing in choirs.
“It was my older brother John, who went away to college and came home knowing how to play guitar that got me started,” he said.
“Maybe it’s true for a lot of families that whatever your older siblings get into, you do too,” Berggren said.
His brother taught him a few chords and expanded his musical horizons.
“While I was listening to rock ‘n’ roll, I was also listening to what John brought home on vinyl from the public library,” he said — including folk music.
During his time as a student at St. Lawrence University, folk was popular, setting his college years to the soundtrack of coffeehouse acts and guest musicians who visited the campus.
Years later, after he returned home from serving in the Army, Berggren discovered Adirondack folk music, through an extensive collected at the SUNY Plattsburgh library compiled by late Essex County historian Marjorie Lansing Porter.
Lansing Porter in the 1940s and ‘50s traveled the back roads of the region, recording the folk music being performed in small towns like Minerva.
“She’s the reason we know folk songs like ‘Goodnight Irene’ or in 1950, the Kingston Trio singing ‘Hang Down Your Head’,” Berggren said.
“If it wasn’t for folk collectors, those songs might have evaporated into thin air,” he marveled.
John “Yankee John” Galusha was said to know hundreds of songs, many of which Lansing Porter recorded at his house.
“They were songs learned from parents, songs that came from the old country, England and Ireland, some he learned from lumberjacks and the large body of Adirondack music,” Berggren said. “If anyone asked me what was so special, what makes it unique, is the blend of French Canadian and Irish immigrants, when their two musics came together in the lumber camps, it gave it a special sound.”
Many of the songs weren’t original to the Adirondacks, but were adapted with the change of a name.
“In 1975, I was 26 years old and discovering for the first time there was such thing as an Adirondack folk music,” Berggren said. “So I thought, ‘If I’m going to sing any kind of music, why not music from my land here?”
Adirondack folk is, according Caffe Lena executive director Sarah Craig, a way of talking about what life is like in the North Country.
Berggren’s music does that particularly well, said Adirondack folk musician Alex Smith, Berggren’s protege.
“The thing I think makes quality folk music is the simultaneous maintenance of a regional identity and universal themes,” Smith said. “It’s Adirondack, place-based folk, but it’s, at its roots, music about home and love and struggle, things people everywhere deal with.”
Craig said that’s what makes Berggren’s music so accessible.
“It has themes universal to a lot of people — parenting, falling in love, losing somebody, losing your home, these big life events people everywhere go through, but set in the context of cultural history in the area,” she said.
That’s not to say the region isn’t featured prominently in Berggren’s songs.
“Dan’s music is tied to the actual environment of the Adirondacks, so the names of places we really love filter into his songs, whether it’s the High Peaks region or the lakes and rivers,” Craig said. “I think his music tends to remind people of the beauty of the region.”
The Long Lake-based Smith has listened to Berggren’s music since he was an infant, he said, so its sound is a big influence on Smith’s songwriting.
“Perhaps most importantly, Dan proved ... there truly is something worth writing about here in the mountains, that our stories are worthwhile and interesting, even to those outside the park,” Smith said.
Dan Berggren sat around a TV set with his friends his junior year at St. Lawrence University and knew what was about to happen would forever change the course of his life.
“We watched our numbers drawn from a fishbowl,” he said, “and knew that would determine our future.”
It did, but not the way Berggren envisioned.
By the time he enlisted in the Army, the war way winding down. He went into broadcasting, an assignment that eventually led to his 27-year teaching career at SUNY Fredonia.
“It’s funny how things happen,” he said. “I mentioned that night in the dorm with my buddies watching our futures being determined by chance, and it was like the darkest thing on the horizon, looming there for three semesters and yet, by getting accepted into that defense information school and becoming a broadcaster, when I got out of the Army and into grad school, it was considered professional experience, so I got a graduate assistantship, then got a job at Fredonia because of the teaching experience.”
Being a college professor granted him summers free to roam the Adirondacks, at first using his parents’ house as home base and, after they passed away, living out of his car. He would perform shows throughout the region, canoe on his days off and be inspired by his surroundings.
“How often do we think about turning points?” he asked, reflecting on the few moments that define a life.
His draft number being called was an obvious one, but Berggren credits the direction of his life as much to a lesson from his uncle, Van Wilson, years earlier.
Wilson was a hunter safety instructor who tried to teach his 14-year-old nephew his passion.
“He tried to teach a teenager to be quiet in the woods,” Berggren said. “It was that lesson about being quiet, listening, blending in, being observant, he was really teaching me to be in the moment.
“I never became a hunter, but it served me in two significant ways: As a songwriter, I try to pay attention to the world around me,” he said. “It’s as important if I talk to a farmer about something and end up writing a song about farming as it is listening to leaves on the trees making different sounds, the leaves on a poplar making a different sound than the wind coming through a maple.”
As a teacher, he was able to convey the importance of listening to sound and audio students.
“I told my students, ‘Listening is how you will become good producers, good interviewers,’ “ he said.
The future of folk
Berggren laments the state of the music industry where, he said, unless propelled by a big promotional machine, music is likely to go unnoticed.
“There are some great folk musicians who just don’t get the exposure in the mainstream media,” he said.
Even regional venues for folk are sometimes forgotten, Berggren said, noting an aging audience.
“I see them graying, just as I am,” he said. “It’s a challenge to involve young people.”
But what Craig, of Caffe Lena, sees as one of Berggren’s enduring strengths is how he reaches across genres.
“I think a lot of people preach to the choir and that’s not what Dan does,” she said. “He preaches to everybody; they’re all his people.”
Most notably, Craig said, is giving folk music to the next generation.
“You also have to make peace with the fact it’s a living tradition and there’s no one right way to capture the story of Adirondack life,” she said. “The song and the instrumentation may change, the themes may change, but the important thing is to keep telling the stories of the region.”
Smith said he’s keeping the art form Berggren nurtured for years alive by doing just that.
“I think it boils down to continually progressing with the actual music side of it — new melodies, new harmonies, interesting instrumentation and rhythms,” Smith said. “The stories never seem to lose relevance, but the music needs to continually evolve.”