Labor of Love Has Roots in Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals

A labor of love can be sparked by a smile from a legendary blues musician. In Rhode Island, a 20-year-long community music gathering has roots in the Newport jazz and folk festivals.

There’s a dark and a troubled side of life. There’s a bright and sunny side, too…

With singer-songwriter Iris Dement on stage at the 2013 Newport Folk Festival, Newport native Tom Perotti says she’s one artist he’s been trying to book for Common Fence Music. It’s a community concert series he manages and Perotti says it has a mission.

…to feature underexposed but culturally relevant music.  How did you create Common Fence?IrisDementNewportFolk2013

Well, I didn’t create Common Fence. I had a similar aspiration that was getting me up in the middle of the night.

What do you mean?

You know you dream about it first and then it happens. My family was in the drugstore business and I had this notion maybe someday one of those buildings would open up and I could start a little club. The Perottis have always been involved in food and music.

Perotti started young in the family connection to food and music.

My father was a local Kiwanian. The Kiwanis Club of Newport raised money for the community chest by selling food and beer. So they got the contract to do the festivals, so the kids of the Kiwanians would follow their fathers into the festival.

Perotti started following his father into the Newport Jazz Festival soon after it began in 1954 and into the Newport Folk Festival when it began in 1959. Perotti recalls a transformational moment at one of the early folk festivals.

…and there was this one day where I was asked to hand a plate of food to a performer. I didn’t even know who it was at the moment. I just was looking at looking at this amazing person who was smiling back at me and it turned out it was Mississippi John Hurt.

 Blues out on the ocean. Blues all in the air. Can’t stay here no longer, have no steamship fare…

This song by Mississippi John Hurt is from a CD. It’s easy to get his music today on iTunes or see him on YouTube. But the great bluesman wasn’t widely-known when Perotti was a kid at the Newport festivals.

That meant nothing to me at the time, but I’ll never forget that warm smile, it’s an image that I’ve carried through my life.

The little club Perotti dreamed of has turned out to be a 250-seat community hall in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, nor far from Newport.

Ed Nary, who was the president of the Common Fence Point Improvement Association, actually started Common Fence Music back in 1993. I went to the first show. I had just left teaching in Portsmouth and so I signed on. Ed was the musical director and I helped develop the tech side of things and when he left I took over as the chief cook and bottle washer.

Perotti’s 20 years of doing everything from booking musicians to moving tables were mostly volunteer. It’s only during the last few years he’s been given a small stipend from the nonprofit. Perotti says keeping Common Fence Music going gives him a chance to share something that fulfills his own life.

I think in life that ultimately you really do have to follow your heart. You know, as a musician myself, I’m a local hack, I play guitar and mandolin, I’ve come and gone from it, but I realize the older that I get, that I have to have music in my life.

Hey, hey up she rises…hey, hey up she rises…hey, hey up she rises early in the morning.

One of the traditions at Common Fence Music is the annual Gathering of Fiddlers and Fishermen. Musician Kim LaMothe of Tiverton, Rhode Island performed at the gathering in January 2013.

(So what do you think about this venue?) Oh, it’s fabulous, it’s a community, it’s a living organism. (Have you played here before?) Yes, I’ve played here before. (What do you think the value of the venue is? Common Fence?) It’s an avenue for people to get up there and play. (And how about people who don’t play?) They obviously feed off of each other and off of the musicians, and literally, off of the picnic baskets they bring.

Hey, hey, up she rises…hey hey up she rises…early in the morning.

That shared joy of music is what’s come of Tom Perotti’s labor of love – it’s a labor of love created and nourished by an entire community at Common Fence Point.

Rhonda Miller, Johnston, Rhode Island

 

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