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Dennis Lichtman and Jerron 'Blind Boy' Paxton bringing 1920s blues, folk music to Spencertown Academy's Roots & Shoots Concert Series

Two men with instruments sit on brick stairs

Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton and Dennis Lichtman bring African American folk and blues to Spencertown Academy Arts Center on March 11 as part of its Roots & Shoots Concert series.

SPENCERTOWN, N.Y. — When multi-instrumentalists Jerron Paxton and Dennis Lichtman go out into the world together, they look to the past for inspiration.

Growing up on opposite coasts — Paxton in Los Angeles, Lichtman near Boston — each developed a love of music that brought them together in New York City, first as friends and colleagues, then as close collaborators.

On March 11, their musical partnership brings them to Spencertown Academy Arts Center with a program of African American folk and blues of the 1920s, enduring musical traditions they play with ease and expertise.

They will perform selections from their eponymous debut album as a duo — acoustic blues and Ragtime, 1920s jazz, popular songs from New York City’s Tin Pan Alley music publishers — plus original music inspired by this era and spirited Appalachian fiddling.

The duo, who live near each other in Queens, N.Y., spoke by phone while Paxton visited family in southern California to escape the cold. Both have played in the Berkshires and upstate New York region, from Mass MoCA to the former Oldtone Roots Music Festival.

“It’s a mixed variety of tunes from just about everywhere,” said Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, so named due to impaired vision since age 16. “We’re eclectic human beings, it keeps everybody entertained, keeps us feeling fresh.”

“Musicians [from those] eras weren’t putting themselves in a box in terms of genres,” Lichtman added. “They just called it music.”

Paxton grew up listening to music that was played around the house. Southern California, he pointed out, was the western end of the Chitlin’ Circuit, a collection of performance venues that welcomed Black entertainers during racial segregation.

“Black musicians have gathered here since the turn of the 20th century,” he said. “Some of the first jazz records were made out here, and the New Orleans way of playing Ragtime.

“I grew up hearing lots of good music on the radio, made for people out here. Whenever I’d hear acoustic blues, there was something magic that just drew me to it. I played fiddle and banjo, learning songs that people liked.”

Paxton later added guitar to the mix, which he will also play at Spencertown.

“I’ll bring everything and the kitchen sink,” he promised.

“We’ll probably play eight or nine instruments between the two of us,” Lichtman said. “Clarinet, mandolin and fiddle, I can throw in guitar and tenor banjo, just about anything with strings on top of that.”

Raised listening to classical music records, Lichtman studied violin and clarinet as a child. Unable to choose between them, “I kept adding more instruments instead,” he said.

Going through a teenage rock and roll phase, “I wanted to play like Jimi Hendrix,” he said. Interested in his hero’s influences, “I read a biography about Hendrix and the blues legends he grew up listening to.”

Lichtman found a treasure trove of albums at his local used record store. “I discovered Django Reinhardt and early jazz, New Orleans style jazz, I loved how the clarinet would weave around all the other instruments.”

He got a mandolin during high school.

“Any instrument with strings on it, I wanted one,” he said. “I discovered bluegrass, and old fiddle tunes. I didn’t know many people my age who were interested in that.”

With limited opportunities to perform in Boston, in 2002 Lichtman moved to New York City. “There’s an incredible concentration of musicians there,” he noted. Since 2007, he has hosted popular weekly traditional jazz jam sessions at Mona’s Bar in Manhattan.

Dennis Lichtman & Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton at Louis Armstrong's House Museum.

Both Paxton and Lichtman found an international community of kindred musicians at Brooklyn’s Jalopy Theatre. “It’s a home for folk music in a very broad sense of the term,” Lichtman said. “You can’t believe you’re in NYC when you’re there.”

“I made a lot friends,” Paxton added. “New York City is a perfect gateway to the rest of the world. Growing up way out west, it’s long way from a lot of places.”

The duo met a decade ago, when Lichtman played a tiny Brooklyn restaurant called Café Moto. “I remember seeing Jerron look in the window, trying to find the door,” Lichtman recalled. “He sat in front and listened so intently, [then] asked if he could play bones with us. Over the years, our friendship and musical partnership developed through playing together with various bands.”

In 2018, Lichtman recorded “Just Cross the River,” an album of original music inspired by jazz legends who lived in Queens. He filmed a music video of the 1928 title song with Paxton at Louis Armstrong House Museum. “We had so much fun, we decided to play more as a duo,” Lichtman said.

While they mostly perform together around the Northeast, in 2021 they toured Israel. “There’s a promoter who brings in artists from [around] the world,” Lichtman explained.

Paxton, who is Jewish, has been to Israel half a dozen times already. “I did 30 concerts over 5 years,” he said. “It’s a good place to play music.”

“We haven’t done any other international touring — yet,” said Lichtman, who also visited China on three occasions. They have plans to perform together this summer at gigs from Cape Cod to California.

Over the years, Paxton played 1920s inspired music at a lot of festivals. “It’s just one of the many genres of music I grew up playing,” he said. “Ragtime, blues, country, together you’ve got something for everybody. This is what musicians have always done, especially here in America. We play everything everybody wants to hear.”

In the mid-2000s, The Carolina Chocolate Drops rekindled interest in African American folk music.

“They brought it back to the foreground,” Paxton said. But there are increasingly fewer venues for all types of folk music, he said.

As popular music becomes over-produced, Lichtman added, “people are really hankering for music that’s as handmade and acoustic as possible. It’s always going to be the minority, but that scene is thriving.”

“Once you experience acoustic music in a room,” Paxton said, “[where] the instruments move the air and shake you, [with] voices and feet and people dancing, you’re kind of hooked.

“I’ve spent time listening to great records, and even when you’re hearing this beautiful clear snapshot, you always think, boy, what would it have been like to have been in the room while that was going on.”

He added, “People get to touch a bit of their spiritual center, something that really grounds them. We need joy and excitement in the world, [so] we’ve got to keep playing.”

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