Big Beards, Ratty Old Hats, and Vintage Vests



excerpt from Hailey Eber (

Old-time folk music captures a hip new crowd in Brooklyn

In a small room in a 19th-century building, three students diligently pluck away at their banjos as an instructor calls out chord changes and sings a Charlie Poole tune from the early 1900s.

“If the river was whiskey and I was a duck I’d dive to the bottom and I’d never come up”

It’s the sort of scene that conjures up the rural South decades ago, but the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel is just a couple blocks away. The strumming fingers are painted with teal nail polish, and the toes tapping along with the music are clad in Converse All-Stars and pink Superga sneakers. When the pretty blond instructor, Hilary Hawke, a 29-year-old Williamsburg resident, plays a song first for reference, the three students — 20- and 30-something creative professionals — all whip out their iPhones to record it.

“Last session with this fingerpicking was all hipsters,” says Hawke. “It’s bizarre to me.”

Old-time music is experiencing a resurgence in Brooklyn, as the sort of people who might once have dabbled in a punk band or indie rock affair instead opt for banjo lessons and ukulele concerts.

“It’s a crescendo — it’s just really starting,” says Geoff Wiley, 43, who, along with wife Lynette, 39, owns the Jalopy Theatre in Red Hook, the site of the aforementioned banjo class and the de facto center of the Brooklyn folk scene. “It’s amazing how many people are wanting to play the banjo in Brooklyn.”

Nearly six years ago, the Wileys opened the Jalopy on a remote corner, where the space’s cozy exposed-brick walls, pew seating for 74 and red velvet curtain warm a desolate block near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The Jalopy hosts concerts most nights, offers lessons in traditional music and dance, and sells the occasional old instrument.

“We can’t even keep banjos on the walls,” says Lynette. “It’s bizarre. When we opened, it was ukuleles.”

In April, the venue expanded to a pub next door, where the hockey on a flatscreen TV is one of the few signs of modernity amid the beers poured into Mason jars and an Appalachian-style crowd that favors big beards, ratty old hats and vintage vests.


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