Preview: Father of folk storytelling has more tales to tell
Ann Arbor is blessed to have many veteran acoustic musicians grown from experiences in the old days via performing at the original Ark Coffeehouse on Hill Street and the late lamented Mr. Flood’s Party. They have lived to give us an overview of pre-technology years and simpler times.
Jay Stielstra, a native of Ludington, is the local founding father of this movement. Borne of the 1960s protest movement and the so-called folk music boom, he has written some one hundred fifty tunes about the life and times of legendary or fictional figures dealing with heartbreak and triumph, and the outdoors lifestyle that is much more rural routed and natural than the digitally produced country music of today. In his eighties, the guitarist and vocalist still has a lot to say based on his experience, his love of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and his longtime affection for Ann Arbor as not only the city of trees, but the beauty that still surrounds the outskirts of our city, untouched by strip mall mentality.
Stielstra’s magnum opus “North Country Opera,” as well as “Tittabawasee Jane,” “Old Man In Love,” “Escanaba,” “America, America,” and “Prodigals” are full-length theatrical musical dialogues that have stood the test of time. So too have songs like “Spikehorn,” about the Harrison, Michigan iconic backwoods coal miner and bear whisperer/preservationist/advocate John “Spikehorn” Meyer, a timely poem for the season titled “Autumn," the poignant “November Love” and “The Most I’m Missing,” a sly spinoff on “Farmers Daughter” titled “Baker’s Daughter,” and locale-driven tunes like the recently penned “Cut River Bridge” and “Manistee Waltz.”
Stielstra’s current ensemble consists of a cadre of admirers, followers, and talented players he has essentially mentored. They include guitarist/vocalist Chris Buhalis, mandolinist Jason Dennie, slap bass expert David Roof, harmonica master Peter “Madcat” Ruth, and rising star songwriter, guitarist and singer in her own right Judy Banker.
We spoke to the veteran musician and award winning playwright /actor from Manchester during a rehearsal session prior to his upcoming Ark show. The former Ann Arbor High/Pioneer and Huron High School football coach, public school teacher, and carpenter is also as humble as a Buffalo nickel, and responds with equally laid back demeanor about his status as an icon and the depiction of his sound as easy-going mosey down music.
Originally influenced by Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, Stielstra also mentions the music of the Washington First Baptist Church. “A lot of my tunes, the patterns and progressions come from those old gospel songs. I’m not a religious person at all, but my parents were during World War II. I loved those tunes and still do. My mother played piano and my four years younger brother Elden Stielstra still is a tremendous trumpet player in Grand Rapids who plays Dixieland and big band music. He was the musician in the family,” he chuckles, “and I was the jock."
“I started singing when my daughters were small,” he continued. “We didn’t have a piano then so I got a guitar and said I’ll see if I can play that and learned to strum a few chords. Then the folk music thing came on - The Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan and Pete Seger. Most all of those tunes were simple. In the seventies there were places to play in town - it just went from there. I was in the schools, then retired from coaching, became a carpenter and did year round what I did every summer.”
Jay got into theater, building sets at the old Tech Center and original Performance Network where the YMCA is now located. This led to the North Country Opera and his one man show Old Man In Love.
But an accident curtailed his performing career: “I stopped playing, had to relearn and retune the guitar, and eventually was fortunate to play for a long time with excellent musicians like mandolin player Kelly Schmidt, bassist Gary Munce, David Menefee, Eric Nyhuis, Judy and John Banker - we had a trio together for four years. We worked with Drew Howard out of Lansing a number of times; Jason whenever we can because he’s a full time musician; and now Madcat - we got together with him last year and will again this year. He’s great.”
As far as a blues component, he added, “Yes, at one time in my life, and I had my heart broken a lot of times. It has influenced a number of songs I have written. Why it happens or how it happens, I have not a clue.”
Amazingly Jay Stielstra has only two recordings to his credit, but a long standing legacy of live shows all over Michigan and other far flung places leads him back to his home and to us, hopefully for many more years to come.
Michael G. Nastos is known as a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is a former music director and current super sub on 88.3 WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, founding member of SEMJA, the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association, Board of Directors member of the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.
Jay Stielstra & Friends play The Ark, 316 S. Main Street, on Thursday, November 17 at 8 pm. For more information call (734) 761-1800 or (734) 761-1818, or visit online at http://theark.org.