Hugh Birdsall needed to come up with an idea.
In 2014, then-60-year-old Birdsall was approached by the New London Homeless Hospitality Center to organize a musical fundraiser in the city.
Birdsall, a founding member of New London rock band the Reducers, had been plugged in to the city’s music scene since his teen years. He was concerned that a fundraiser featuring several musical acts, however, would mean several long stage changeovers between each musician. If the changeovers made the concert too long, the performers could lose the audience.
Then, inspiration struck.
“I had this idea: What if we all played the same guitar and no one brought any equipment,” he said. “You can still have a lot of acts. And they would just pass the guitar off to the next performer.”
The annual “Pass the Guitar” event benefiting the Homeless Hospitality Center was born. For the past eight years, the event, along with its COVID-inspired iteration “Don’t Pass the Guitar,” has raised close to $24,000 for the homeless center.
This is just one example of a long list of ways music in New London has been used as a force for communal well-being, philanthropic outreach and economic stimulation. The musical community is deployed in all manner of events, including community gatherings, charity endeavors and inauguration ceremonies, throughout the year. The relationship between the city’s musicians and its populace is a catalyst for community advancement, allowing the public, musicians and organizations to come together in search of a shared musical experience.
In fact, music is so ingrained in the city’s fabric, almost no event is without some musical accompaniment.
Birdsall, now 68 and a resident of Clinton, has been there through it all. He started the Hoot for Hunger, an open-mic event to raise money for the New London Community Meal Center, 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 some music, it’s great,” Birdsall said during a recent Zoom interview. “That’s priceless to me. I love having that impact on people. It’s so much better than getting paid for music.”
His passion for philanthropic efforts is an embodiment of a greater commitment by the community to enact progress through music. Residents throughout the area encourage and attend musical events that strive to implement social, environmental and racial justice.
One of those events is known as Friday Night Folk. Led by a core group of six committed members, the organization hosts between eight and nine folk concerts each year at Jay Street’s All Souls Unitarian Church. Concerts focus on tackling social justice issues.
According to its website, the group strives to “joyfully support social and environmental justice by bringing live traditional, contemporary and multicultural folk music to the larger community in a welcoming and accessible performance space.”
Katrina Bercaw and Nick Evento, both members of Friday Night Folk’s committee, said in a recent Zoom interview that their efforts are to diversify the music scene and create change through their concerts.
“My favorite folk music are the groups that have a social justice component,” Bercaw said, referencing folk legends such as John Denver and Pete Seeger.
Evento added, “Folk music used to be very much male-dominated, but we’ve tried to be aware and bring in women and people of color. Folk music has grown.”
Evento said the organization now has an even split of male and female performers. Friday Night Folk also has 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 concerts are just that: concerts. The musicians are compensated, and often the concerts focus on a specific issue. The causes may be local or global, ranging from issues such as immigration to environmental preservation. Friday Night Folk also hosts a large annual concert fundraiser in support of a local activist cause, where the vast majority of money raised is given to a local charity. According to Evento, the group has raised money in the past for Save The Sound, the Immigrant Bail Fund, and most recently Start Fresh, a refugee resettlement program based in New London.
It’s become a popular attraction in the community, sometimes drawing more than 250 attendees and filling its performance space. The concert fundraisers often bring in between $2,500 and $3,000, according to Evento and Bercaw.
“There’s a real energy when you come to our concerts of, ‘something’s happening,’” Evento said. “It’s a good feeling. We’ve got a good thing going.”
‘Raise a lot of money for a good cause’
Many musicians in the area often donate their talents in pursuit of a greater good.
Musicians “get asked all the time to give their music away for free,” said Annah Perch, development manager at the Homeless Hospitality Center. “These musicians are taxed. They often give out their music for free, and everyone thinks they have the best cause.”
Birdsall agreed but said he’s content to have the opportunity to give back to his community.
“I’ve learned that you can’t make any money as a musician anyway,” he said. “But if you pool your efforts, you can raise a lot of money for a good cause.”
Perch also said musicians play 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 all across the city who play their music for free. Birdsall said he plays for those at the homeless center during Make Music Day.
In the middle of every “Pass the Guitar” event, a guitar is auctioned off courtesy of Spindrift Guitars at 300 State St. Corey Williams, the general manager at Spindrift, said the guitar store is happy to support a meaningful cause while also celebrating music.
“With events like that, it’s a really good mesh between what we like 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 does not expect anything in return, and is content with simply fostering a strong musical experience in New London.
Spindrift’s philosophy is emblematic of the tight-knit musical community and the relationships it has nurtured in the city.
“(Birdsall) supports us, I want to support him,” Williams said. “You just feel good that you were asked to be a part of it. I always tell people, it’s about your bank of goodwill. There’s no money in it, it’s just treating people right and having good relationships. I think that’s what every small business is trying to do.”
During the pandemic, Friday Night Folk gave all proceeds from its virtual concerts to the musicians themselves, as a way to show support for the art form, especially as musicians struggled. And the audience — who never left their homes to listen — still donated.
For Bercaw, it was an example of what music can do.
“It still felt like people were donating to a good cause, which is live music,” she said.