Another side of Chartock
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, May 9, 2002) – Alan Chartock is perhaps best known in these parts for his work as a radio and TV commentator on politics and the media, and for his weekly column in the Eagle. But there is another Alan Chartock that few are familiar with – the folksinging, banjo-playing Chartock.

The origins of Chartock’s public persona – as well as his politics -- may well have been shaped by his youthful passion for folk and bluegrass music. It’s a passion he still feels and gives voice to with the Berkshire Ramblers, a folk group he belongs to along with his wife, Roselle, and bandmates Joe Browdy, Bob Salzman and Octavio Hernandez. The Berkshire Ramblers play a rare hometown gig at Club Helsinki on Sunday at 3. For tickets call 528-3394.

Coming of age in New York City in the late-1950s and early-’60s, Chartock was situated at ground zero of the folk revival. “Folk music and Pete Seeger were always my life,” he said recently. “I’ve been playing the banjo since I was fourteen, and I loved the participatory-style music where Pete got everyone singing. I put myself to sleep listening to the Weavers almost every night. I drove my parents crazy with my trumpet and banjo music.”

Chartock was a music counselor at Bronx House Emanuel summer camp, a job held earlier by bandmate Browdy, who lives in Hillsdale, N.Y. At Hunter College, Chartock produced hootenannies, as folk jam sessions were called back then, as well as concerts featuring the likes of famed folk musician and radio host Oscar Brand.

“Artie and Happy Traum and Winnie Winston say that I put them in their first professional concerts,” said Chartock.

Chartock had a band called the Satilights, whose motto was “For Music Out of This World,” and a singing group called the Sandpipers, before the more famous group usurped the name.

“We played in nursing homes and anywhere else we could,” said Chartock.

The Berkshire Ramblers continue in that vein, mostly performing in folk coffeehouses and for charitable causes like Hospice of the Berkshires, Arrowhead and Summerfest. The group’s repertoire consists of a few bluegrass tunes but mostly classic folk songs like “Salty Dog,” “Down by the Riverside,” “I’m My Own Grandpaw” and “So Soon In the Morning.”

The Berkshire Ramblers, who recently played to a sold-out crowd at the Rosendale Café in Rosendale, N.Y., are a talented, accomplished lot. In addition to radio executive Chartock, whose principal occupation is college professor, and Browdy, a retired attorney, the group boasts author and college professor Roselle Chartock, Spanish translator Hernandez, and school music director Salzman. The Chartock’s adult children, Jonas and Sarah, perform with the band when they are in town.

Chartock sees a strong connection between his folk music roots and his work as a political analyst. “The music we play quite often has political content,” he said. “The folk songs of the Sixties were certainly part of our politics. ‘We Shall Overcome,’ for example, was a pretty powerful song.

“There are days when I’m on the air that I’d like to pull out my banjo to make a point. I once actually did do it on TV.”

While Chartock says he never seriously considered a career in music, performing does provide him with something that no amount of teaching, writing, fund-raising, radio or TV work can ever bring.

Performing, says Chartock, provides “an out of body experience. All my other problems disappear.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 10, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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