Since its beginning in 2009, the Central Pennsylvania Ragtime and American Music Festival has grown in stature, if not in size. Originally held in early summer, the event has moved to September (mercifully!) in Orbisonia and Rockhill Furnace, two adjoining small towns in southern Huntingdon County. Rockhill is the home of the East Broad Top Railroad and Rockhill Trolley Museum, so the festival has incorporated both into its schedule. This is one factor that makes it unique among ragtime festivals, and a true slice of rural Americana.
The EBT is the only surviving three-foot gauge railroad east of the Rockies. It was built in the 1870s to service the iron furnaces and coal mines in southern Huntingdon County. Its tracks and rolling stock have recently been upgraded, and further expansion is planned. The trolley museum is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania and offers rides on streetcars from Johnstown, York, and other cities in Pennsylvania and around the world.
The festival format was changed somewhat this year from previous years, which, in my opinion, represents improvements. For one, there is no longer three hours of dead time on Saturday between the morning seminar and the afternoon concert. That slot is now filled with half-hour piano sets on the EBT station platform and optional (not included in the festival ticket price) train rides. This year three non-pianist musicians performed on the train. For those who opted for the Saturday dinner train, dinner was served midway during the ride at a picnic grove rather than at the end of the trip. Live music is provided during dinner. The Sunday ragtime church service has been replaced by a third morning of piano music at the EBT station. All the station sets are free to the public that hopefully will attract locals and railroad visitors to come again for the festival.
Also new this year were free 30-minute street organ performances each afternoon at the station and a free antique phonograph demonstration inside the former baggage room at the station on Friday morning. All the instruments were in working condition and were played. As the owner of a floor model Victrola and an Edison cylinder player, I enjoyed this demonstration.
As happened last year, the first event was a concert at the Huntingdon Arts Center, located in a former church. The hall was nearly filled, a hopeful sign, but alas, it appeared that not many locals made the 20-mile drive to Orby and Rockhill for the events there. But I did notice some all-events attendees were there for the first time, a good omen, since most of these people were from out of the area.
I spent most of each morning at the station listening to a roster of pianists, occasionally accompanied one day by a plectrum banjo player attending the festival. All five pianists on the card (except for festival director Andrew Greene, who had a myriad other duties) played half-hour sets: Frederick Hodges, Bill McNally, Adam Swanson, and Bryan Wright. These four also played Saturday and Sunday mornings, but not always in the same order.
Additionally, there were two non-pianist musicians in attendance: reed man Dan Levinson and multi-instrumentalist T.J. Muller. Both accompanied several pianists, sometimes singly, sometimes together to make a trio. While there had customarily been a drummer at the festival—usually Danny Coots—that was not the case this year. The presence of Dan and T.J. lent a nice variety to the proceedings and brought out the talent these guys have for adapting and innovating. Dan said he had not participated in a ragtime festival in 25 years, so this was his first time here, as it was for T.J.
Pianist Charlie Judkins and his wife of less than two months Miss Maybell (Lauren Sansaricq) had been on the card, but the day before the festival began Charlie tested positive for Covid and they had to withdraw. Fortunately, Charlie’s teacher, none other than the world-famous ragtime authority Terry Waldo, was available and arrived in time for the late Friday afternoon concert and the rest of the weekend.
Charlie and Lauren were replacements for Virginia Tichenor on piano and drums and her husband Marty Eggers on piano and bass. They, along with Frederick Hodges, comprise the Crown Syncopators. Virginia and Marty had to drop out because of a conflict. Perhaps they’ll be invited back next year. In speaking with Andrew, I learned that it’s his intention to vary the lineup each year, as most festivals do. Other well-known musicians who’ve gotten word of this are anxious to be on the invite list. He mentioned a few names that I’m not at liberty to divulge, but I can assure you they are world class.
While Friday afternoon’s first concert at the Orbisonia Presbyterian Church had no particular theme, the second one did: America’s foremost ragtime composers—Joplin, Lamb and Scott, plus a few less well known. At both concerts each pianist played two numbers, or a third if they had an accompanist. This format was repeated on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, but with three tunes apiece.
Three silent movies, with piano accompaniment by Andrew, Adam and Frederick, respectively, provided Friday evening’s entertainment. Andrew remarked that this was the warmest occasion yet for this event. Most people brought their own folding chairs, but several were provided for those who didn’t. The pictures ran about 20 minutes each and were shown on an inflatable screen in the yard next to the train station.
Saturday and Sunday brought almost continuous rain from tropical storm Ophelia that was passing along the East Coast. It did not affect any indoor activities or Saturday’s dinner train (although some people got wet waiting in the dinner line).*
A new addition this year was an after-hours get-together Saturday at a tavern in Mount Union that was temporarily closed for renovations. The owners had catered the train dinner and opened the bar for us. Most of the musicians and about 25 festival-goers made the 12-mile drive. The keyboard that was transported to the picnic was then brought to the bar and was played by the pianists on hand. T.J. Muller was also there with his trumpet. The bar provided free pizzas that were washed down with wine and Yuenglings. Although the after-hours event ended at 10 pm, it was truly after hours for quite a few attendees who do not, or did not, stay up that late.
Sunday’s rain may have diminished the attendance a little, as I saw fewer people at the station listening to the piano sets. The temperature was slightly higher than on Saturday so it was not as unpleasant sitting outside, and everyone was under roof. However, the afternoon concert at the church seemed better attended than Saturday’s. On Sunday afternoon Andrew introduced Roger Kaufman, a grandson of composer Mel Kaufman, who was the subject of the Rivermont CD Step With Pep, with his compositions played by Andrew’s Peacherine Ragtime Society Orchestra. I spoke with Roger after the concert. He did not know his grandfather, who died in 1932, and knew very little of his musical accomplishments until Andrew contacted the family while researching their prolific but largely unknown forebear.
It is my hope that with the addition of more non-pianists, this festival is on the cusp of greater growth. As I have written before, it is a tribute to Andrew Greene and his helpers and festival donors that such top notch talent can be brought to this rural corner of central Pennsylvania.
*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that patrons were not served as part of the East Broad Top Railroad’s Ragtime Dinner Train. All passengers were fed and taken care of during the event.