Hugh Birdsall had to come up with an idea.
In 2014 Birdsall, then 60, was approached by the New London Homeless Hospitality Center to organize a music fundraiser in the city.
Birdsall, a founding member of New London rock band The Reducers, had been plugged into the city’s music scene since he was a teenager. He worried that a fundraiser featuring multiple musical acts, however, would mean several lengthy scene changes between each musician. If the changes made the concert too long, the performers could lose the audience.
Then, inspiration struck.
“I had this idea: what if we all play the same guitar and no one brings any gear,” he said. “You can still have a lot of acts. And they would just pass the guitar to the next performer.
The annual “Pass the Guitar” event benefiting the Homeless Hospitality Center was born. Over the past eight years, the event, along with its COVID-inspired iteration “Don’t Pass the Guitar,” has raised nearly $24,000 for the homeless center.
This is just one example of a long list of ways in which music in New London has been used as a force for community welfare, philanthropic outreach and economic stimulation. The music community is deployed in all kinds of events, including community gatherings, charitable efforts, and ribbon-cutting ceremonies, throughout the year. The relationship between the city’s musicians and its people is a catalyst for community advancement, enabling audiences, musicians and organizations to come together in search of a shared musical experience.
In fact, music is so ingrained in the fabric of the city that almost no event is without musical accompaniment.
Birdsall, now 68 and a resident of Clinton, has been there through it all. He launched the Hoot for Hunger, an open-mic event to raise funds for the New London Community Meal Centre, before ‘Pass the Guitar’ began. His dedication to these events comes from a love of music and its power to enliven people.
“The joy you see on people’s faces just from hearing music, it’s awesome,” Birdsall said in a recent interview with Zoom. “It is priceless to me. I love having that impact on people. It’s so much better than getting paid for music.
His passion for philanthropic endeavors is the epitome of a greater community commitment to advancing progress through music. Residents throughout the region encourage and attend musical events that strive to implement social, environmental and racial justice.
One of these events is known as Friday Night Folk. Led by a core of six committed members, the organization holds between eight and nine folk concerts each year at All Souls Unity Church on Jay Street. The concerts focus on addressing social justice issues.
According to its website, the band strives to “joyfully support social and environmental justice by bringing traditional, contemporary and multicultural folk music to the whole community in a welcoming and accessible performance space.”
Friday Night Folk board members Katrina Bercaw and Nick Evento said in a recent Zoom interview that their efforts are aimed at diversifying the music scene and creating change through their concerts.
“My favorite folk music are bands that have a social justice component,” Bercaw said, referencing folk legends like John Denver and Pete Seeger.
Evento added, “Folk music was very male dominated, but we tried to be aware and bring in women and people of color. Folk music has grown.
Evento said the organization now has an equal split of male and female performers. Friday Night Folk also spotlighted musicians of color such as Los Angeles-based singer Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton and Vance Gilbert, a national folk singer who has performed with Aretha Franklin and Anita Baker.
The majority of Friday Night Folk gigs are just that: gigs. The musicians are paid, and often the concerts focus on a specific issue. The causes can be local or global, ranging from issues such as immigration to environmental conservation. Friday Night Folk also hosts a large annual fundraising concert to support a local activist cause, where the vast majority of the money raised is donated to a local charity. According to Evento, the group has previously raised funds for Save The Sound, Immigrant Bail Fund and, most recently, Start Fresh, a refugee resettlement program based in New London.
It became a popular attraction in the community, sometimes attracting over 250 attendees and filling its performance space. Concert fundraisers often raise between $2,500 and $3,000, according to Evento and Bercaw.
“There’s a real energy when you come to our ‘something’s happening’ concerts,” Evento said. “It’s a good feeling. We have a good thing going.
“Raise a lot of money for a good cause”
Many local musicians often donate their talents in pursuit of a greater good.
Musicians “get asked all the time to give away their music for free,” said Annah Perch, development manager at the Homeless Hospitality Center. “These musicians are taxed. They often give away their music for free, and everyone thinks they have the best cause.”
Birdsall agreed but said he was glad to have the opportunity to give back to his community.
“I learned that you can’t make money as a musician anyway,” he said. “But if you combine your efforts, you can raise a lot of money for a good cause.”
Perch also said musicians were playing to help kick off the homeless center’s annual Walk to End Homelessness. A fairly recent New London tradition called Make Music Day in June features musicians from across the city playing their music for free. Birdsall said he played for people at the homeless center on Music Day.
In the middle of each “Pass the Guitar” event, a guitar is auctioned off courtesy of Spindrift Guitars at 300 State St. Corey Williams, general manager of Spindrift, said the guitar store is pleased to support a meaningful cause while celebrating music. .
“With events like this, it’s a really good mesh between what we love to do and something that helps the community,” Williams said. “It increases the sustainability of the ecosystem.”
Williams said Spindrift has supported “Pass the Guitar” for more than five years. The store expects nothing in return and is content to foster a strong musical experience in New London.
Spindrift’s ethos is emblematic of the tight-knit musical community and the relationships it has forged in the city.
“(Birdsall) is supporting us, I want to support him,” Williams said. “You feel good that you were asked to be part of it. I always tell people that this is your goodwill bank. There’s no money in it, it’s It’s just about treating people well and having good relationships, I think that’s what all small businesses try to do.
During the pandemic, Friday Night Folk donated all proceeds from its virtual concerts to the musicians themselves, to show support for the art form, especially when musicians were struggling. And the audience – who never left their house to listen – donated anyway.
For Bercaw, it was an example of what music can do.
“It always felt like people were donating for a good cause, which is live music,” she said.