SPENCERTOWN, N.Y. — In 1928, German bookbinder Theodor Trampler traveled to the United States to craft his skills in New York City. He left behind his wife and two daughters in Leipzig, and wrote hundreds of lengthy letters to his family about everyday experiences and observations of the bustling metropolis.
He sent money back home with the hopes of bringing them over to join him, but his wife was afraid to travel to a foreign country. Homesick, Trampler returned to Germany in 1929.
Almost a century later, his grandson, German music producer Ulrich Balß, found and assembled a book of selected letters alongside photographs his grandfather took while riding a bicycle around Manhattan.
In “Sidewalks of New York: An Evening of Original and Vintage Songs About New York City,” presented on April 22 at Spencertown Academy as part of the Roots & Shoots Concerts Series, singer-songwriters and veteran musicians Rachelle Garniez and Erik Della Penna will perform popular songs of the 1920s that Trampler might have heard during his 15-month stay in America, titles such as “Talking Picture,” “Bye Bye Blackbird” and the enduring “Sidewalks of New York.”
The duo will also share their own New York-themed compositions in a multimedia program that includes projected images of Trampler’s photographs plus readings of some of his letters.
New York City-based Garniez and Penna met in 2015 while both were part of the international band Hazmat Modine, where Penna still plays. Collectively and individually they have performed extensively with various groups in New York City, the United States, Europe and Asia.
Multi-instrumentalist Garniez is a frequent visitor to the Berkshires. Among her credits she harmonizes songs by Tom Waits in the all-women trio VickiKristinaBarcelona; and she wrote the music for Taylor Mac’s Obie Award-winning 2009 musical “The Lily's Revenge.” This is her second visit to Spencertown Academy.
Making his debut at the venue, classically-trained guitarist Penna has worked over the years with celebrated musicians from Joan Baez to Joan Osborne. In 2019 he performed alongside his longtime collaborator Natalie Merchant at the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington. He records extensively and also writes musicals and music for documentaries.
Since 2019, they have presented this project in a number of German-speaking countries.
“When Uli’s [Ulrich Balß] mother died, he found a perfectly bound book of letters he never knew existed,” Garniez said. “He made a book of these letters and photos, and asked me and Erik to come up with a program of music that would complement showing them.
“We had a good singing harmony and mutual interest in that period of time. We are both familiar with a lot of that late 1920s, early 1930s pop music of America repertoire.”
Penna described the musical styles as Tin Pan Alley, ballads, folky, American Songbook.
“Primitive, urban American, early 20th century folk, it’s very much geared to our eccentricities,” he said.
With their own songs about New York City, the program is really a mix, Garniez said. “The period pieces are meshed with the photos, but the original songs don’t necessarily land in that time zone.”
At Spencertown Academy, Garniez will play “accordion, a bit of piano, some harmonica and kazoo — very sophisticated.” Both musicians will perform on guitar and banjo and sing.
Growing up, Penna would hear his grandparents talk about the Depression and being in New York, and listen to old recordings.
"When Leon Redbone was musical guest on ‘Saturday Night Live,' he revived that style of crooner and played guitar in a very simple, straightforward way," Penna said. "I was about 10 or 11, and thought that was just great. And I’m a big Marx Brothers fan, so I always had a quirky interest in that period.
“My parents were late adopters of Hippie culture, so I got a lot of first-hand Dylan and David Bromberg, and that period of folk revival."
With a classical pianist mother who ran a chamber music program at Mannes College of Music, Garniez grew up around a lot of classical music. “But I just wasn’t made for it,” she said, “I was really drawn to my little AM-FM transistor radio, and listened to everything, oldies, all the stuff that was forbidden and looked at as not cultured.”
She added, “My mother always had a fair amount of cool LPs. I loved Stravinsky. I listened to Duke Ellington records, Bulgarian voices, music from India, then mixed that in with pop culture. I even loved the Lawrence Welk Show and vaudeville.” Like Penna, she greatly admired The Marx Brothers; “the music in that is incredible.”
Over the years, both musicians have written “tons of songs about New York and about historical New York,” Penna said, “so it’s very integrated into our lives together and separately. It’s in our portfolio of musical projects.”
Originally scheduled for May 2020, this concert is part of a postponed album tour for the eponymous CD of the show. The recording was one of three released by Garniez in early 2020.
“It was like being shot out of a canon into a brick wall,” Garniez said of the pandemic-halted experience.
She added, “This show has the feel of a relaxed yet entertaining conversation. There’s a nice range between super-poignant and lyrical beauty, verging into the territory of the ridiculous as well.”
“We sing separately and together,” Penna said. “The photos are the star.”
IF YOU GO
What: Roots & Shoots Concerts Series presents “Sidewalks of New York: An Evening of Original and Vintage Songs About New York City” with Rachelle Garniez and Erik Della Penna
Where: Spencertown Academy Arts Center, 790 State Route 203, Spencertown, N.Y.
When: 8 p.m. April 22
Cost: $25, general admission; $20, members.
Information and tickets: 518-392-3693, spencertownacademy.org