Another problem with the “Brooklynization of Hudson River Valley” thesis that I discussed in my last post is that the music in these parts isn’t very hip.  That’s not a judgment, just a statement of fact if by “hip” we mean the product or embrace of 20-something hipsters who disproportionately reside in Brooklyn.

However, the Hudson Valley does have a musical soundtrack, if you will—a distinct set of styles, artists, and local events that are used to musically represent the region to the world at large.  Separately, there’s some noteworthy musical creativity going on in the region.  That these two scales of activity don’t coincide in the same way that we think of, say, Brooklyn indie rock or New Orleans jazz tells you something about how music contributes the cultural geography of the Hudson Valley.

Maybe I’ve overgeneralize in this post too much.  I’d be eager to hear others provide counterevidence to this thesis.  But first, let’s look at the music and musical lifestyles currently found in the Hudson River Valley.



To begin, let me acknowledge that despite the fact I’ve lived in this area for 12 years and have always been curious about the music created here, I’m still no expert.  In part that’s because this is a big, six-county region, and a comprehensive, balanced view of its musical geography isn’t easy to access.  But also, my investigations in local music are significantly directed by my tastes, which tend toward new and exciting stuff out of the rock tradition broadly speaking, e.g., indie, electronic, dance, punk, metal, and so on.  If I’m a modernist in expecting music to innovate and move forward, I can also be historical and sentimental in my musical tastes—one reason I have oldies and classic rock on the radio a lot.  In truth, I’ll go see almost any live performance if it fits my working dad hours (which tends to keep me from seeing 75% of the decent concerts around here) and is reasonably close to where I live (which takes out another 22%).


Indie rock
Since I’ve been talking about the Brooklynization of the Hudson Valley, I’ll begin here by noting that indie rock, the sound of Brooklyn today, is conspicuously underrepresented in this region.  None of the big nightclubs, theaters, or commercial performance venues specializes in it; no “alternative” or independent commercial radio stations play it.  Occasionally one of the bigger acts of this genre come to one of the area’s bigger concert venues, usually only if they have some sort of crossover appeal with an older demographic who can pay higher prices for tickets.  For instance, Bright Eyes and Dr. Dog are coming to Poughkeepsie’s Mid-Hudson Civic Center, a 3000-seated venue, in September; tickets are well into the $40 range once service charges are added, and unless the area’s college kids find about it (few live here when school is out), I suspect the show will be undersold.  The draw would probably be larger if the show were in the southern part of the Hudson Valley, like Peekskill in Putnam County, but then a lot of touring bands are prevented from playing here by the 100-mile radius restriction in their concert contracts with NYC venues.

The oases in the indie-rock desert around here are the area’s colleges.  I know the three four-year liberal arts colleges in Dutchess County best: Vassar, Bard, and Marist.  The first two are (to put it crudely) notorious hipster colleges, and not surprisingly they’ve graduated a number of indie-rock musicians.  In the past decade, bands like Beach House, Throw Me The Statue, and the Bravery came from Vassar.  Bard College has gone so far as to officially inventory all the bands that ever formed at Vassar, the most famous being Steely Dan (who recall the college in Annandale-on-Hudson scathingly in “My Old School”).

The other big college in the area—the biggest, in fact, with about 8,000 students—is SUNY New Paltz in Ulster County.  The town of New Paltz itself is probably the only real college town of note in the Hudson Valley.  Located next to the Shawangunk Ridge, a Northeastern destination for serious rock climbers, the town draws an outdoorsy constituency across age brackets, and I’ve always thought of SUNY New Paltz as having an appropriate musical aesthetic: jam bands, roots reggae, and folksingers.  However, a Vassar student described it to me as also “something of a folk-punk mecca” that draws touring DIY performers like Paul Baribeau, so I stand corrected.

Significantly, few bands of any note actually formed while college students in the Hudson Valley.  From Vassar, I know so far of three exceptions: Alan Licht’s early 90s post-punk group Love Child, their lo-fi contemporaries the Sweet Things, and mid-’00s post-metal iconoclasts Genghis Tron.  Otherwise, the general pattern is for musicians to move away after graduation and form bands elsewhere, usually in the big cities; they may continue to collaborate with fellow alumni (again, see Steely Dan), but more often they’ll find musicians along lines other college alma mater.  Here as in other regards (recall my last post), this is a region that characteristically exports people once they hit the post-college age bracket.


Hip hop
The Hudson Valley is comprised of swelling suburbs (particularly in its southern half along the main parkways and thruways), historic towns and villages, quite rural hamlets, and a handful of cities.  Of its six counties, only half of them have municipalities registered officially as “cities”, and of these there are only seven: Middletown, Newburgh and Port Jervis (of Orange County), Beacon and Poughkeepsie (of Dutchess County), Kingston (of Ulster County), and Hudson (of Columbia County).  Generally, these cities reveal the history of rustbelt industrialization, as river, canal and railroad made them well-placed locations between NYC and its hinterlands to the north, east and (via the canals) midwest.  Demographically, the cities were built upon the waves of ethnic immigrations associated with NYC, including substantial numbers of Irish, German, Italian, and African-American groups through the WWII era, and continuing in recent decades with West Indian, South Asian, and Latino residents.  And as is the norm for ethnic hierarchies in the Northeast, white ethnics largely moved on to the Hudson Valley’s towns and villages while blacks and Latinos remain disproportionately concentrated in cities still struggling to emerge from the post-WWII urban crisis.

This, as you might expect, is a fertile geography for hip hop to bloom in, and it’s probably not a stretch to say that hip hop is the go-to music among the cities’ African American and Puerto Rican youth, maybe West Indian youth as well (particularly in its dancehall hybrids).  Of course, hip hop is the favorite music for many white kids in the suburbs and colleges as well, but I’m not sure how many venture into the cities’ clubs where hip hop plays on the speakers.  While hip hop performers will play to fanatical student audiences in the colleges, theirs is a different environment for hip hop than the inner cities that many youth of color would recognize in Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, Hudson and Kingston.  Ghetto realism and hedonistic materialism are the themes of the clubs, while high school students might find older rappers teaching consciousness in hiphop-oriented school programs and community organizations.

So who are the Hudson Valley rappers?  I’m out of my area of expertise here, but I imagine an enterprising visitor to the area’s hip hop clubs could walk away with dozens of mixtapes and CD-Rs.  (Whether they’re good enough to interest non-locals, I couldn’t say.)  Yet it seems very few MCs or DJs of wide regard have come from the region.  My Vassar colleague Hua Hsu thinks the most important one is probably J Rock from Newburgh, whose 1991 album Streetwise is a minor classic of ghetto reportage.  In the early 90s, a 20-year-old redhead MC going by the name of Sarai dropped a major-label debut album and gathered a lot of hype as a “female Eminem.”  (Am I correct in recalling she made the cover of Hudson Valley Magazine as well?)  Now she goes by the name Miss Eighty 6 and works the TV/film soundtrack angle.

J Rock with a Porsche in Poughkeepsie (1991)

It may be that the Hudson Valley’s hip hop scene is overshadowed geographically and musically by New York City to the south.  Cities like Newburgh and Poughkeepsie often appear in NYC hip hop narratives as satellites of “the City” and its urban hustle.  With its entrenched gang violence, Newburgh is sometimes called the “sixth borough” of NYC, while Poughkeepsie (at the end of the commuter rail) is commemorated in “’98 Thug Paradise” by Tragedy, Capone and Infinity as a place for NYC’s drug dealers go to cool out:

Capone bag the keys
Let’s move like a gypsy
It’s hot out here
Relocate to Poughkeepsie


Reggae and Latin music
There are two very different genres, but their similarity appears in the regional context.  Namely, the Hudson Valley’s West Indian and Latino populations have expanded sufficiently to support concerts featuring acts from the West Indies and Latin America.  These events are rarely announced in the cultural calendars and concert listings that most white residents peruse.  But go to the ethnic stores, and you’ll find the slickly printed color flyers announcing the latest dates.
Contemporary Jamaican acts with dancehall riddims and lyrical slackness play the Hudson Valley’s urban nightclubs around (I’m estimating) 5-10 times a year.  Vintage roots reggae performers like the Mighty Diamonds, Burning Spear, and Culture might also play these venues, although they also have a significant constituency in the bucolic hippie/jam-band stronghold of Woodstock—hence the Woodstock Reggae Festival.  I couldn’t tell you how much audience crossover there is along lines of race and age across reggae’s “murrrdah!”/”one love divide,” but it’s an interesting question to investigate.

The Hudson Valley’s immigrant Latino population has boomed in just the last 10 years, another small milestone in the new immigration outside the U.S. Southwest.  In cities like Poughkeepsie, the new Latino presence has significantly revitalized a downtown once known for its vacant storefronts.  Mexican tiendas and restaurants play corridas on the jukeboxes and cable TV; now, performers from that genre are touring the area.  (There’s a smaller but growing Central American population in the Hudson Valley, but so far I haven’t detected a corresponding musical presence.)

For reggae and Latin music, I don’t see local performers performing these styles at a significant scale (i.e., beyond the sound systems and DJs for hire).  Maybe that’s the point: these are non-U.S. acts performing for an immigrant audience.  As West Indian and Latino families put their kids in local schools, another interesting question is whether they’ll give up the taste for reggae and corrida for “native” music like hip hop and rock, much like they do the traditional foods their parents want them to send them to school with.  Alternately, maybe they’ll be drawn to the urban genres that fuse the old and new worlds: reggaeton, merengue, and other sounds easily heard on the streets of NYC.


Rock and heavy metal
One of my favorite deep cuts from Blue Öyster Cult is “Dominance and Submission” from the 1981 album Extraterrestrial Live.  This particular track was recorded live in Poughkeepsie, and about 2:30 minutes in, the band vamps as Eric Bloom addresses the crowd:

“Here we are in Poughkeepsie, New York!”  [audience cheers] ” Yeah, I see we are sold out to the maximum!” [audience cheers louder]  “You know, we like coming up here once or twice a year because—we like coming up here from New York City because we know Poughkeepsie is SERIOUS about rock and roll!!”  [audience goes nuts]

And so it goes.  With its white blue-collar base, the Hudson Valley (like all of upstate New York) is a natural stronghold for rock.  Classic and alternative rock abounds on the radio and in the bars.  The biggest annual fair around these parts (in Dutchess County) draws graying stadium rockers like Foreigner and REO Speedwagon.  And the concert venues draws B-list and C-list reunions and classic-rock bills that can’t quite sell out NYC venues.  (Boston Legends All Star Concert, anyone?)  Age and/or upscale the act a little more, maybe broaden the parameters of “rock” to include blues, vintage new wave and R&B, and you get a sense of the acts that play nice theaters like Poughkeepsie’s Bardavon or Kingston’s UPAC: Ray Davies, the Temptations, David Byrne, Pat Benatar, Los Lobos, Patti Smith, et al.  Demographically, it’s not a mystery what’s going on here.  With its aging population, there’s a sizable market in the region for rock and pop of the baby boom and its Gen X successors.

But what about the kids who just wanna rock?  Young bands playing metal, emo, metalcore, and guitar-heavy “alternative” can be found at busy venues like the Poughkeepsie Chance Theater or (just north of the Hudson Valley, past Albany) the Northern Lights venue.  This is a real meat-and-potatoes rock circuit, and, importantly, here you find a lot of local bands.  Replace the flyers with myspace pages, and it feels like a smaller version of the hair-metal scene found in most major American cities in the late 80s.  So far as I can tell, no bands of this ilk have “made it”  in a big way.  Maybe that’s because none is any good, or because this scene seems rather tied to the conventional record-and-tour model of a rock music industry that’s increasingly difficult to bust out of.

Some of you may recall that I have a special place in my heart for crazy black and death metal.  It’s not for everyone, but its intrinsically esoteric, extreme nature offers a useful perspective to evaluate the metal scene in the Hudson Valley.  Occasionally I find myself browsing the local concert calendars looking for bands of this nature, and generally I find nothing.  A couple of years back I did go see Skeletonwitch, Toxic Holocaust and Trap Them at the Chance Theater.  It was a great show, and the first two bands in particular excelled in the unexpected retro-thrash sub-genre that brings 80s hold-outs like myself together with younger metal fans.  But that’s just it: the bill satisfied both connoisseuring sensibilities and rather mainstream contemporary tastes in metal, but it was probably the latter that brought most of the kids out, and it’s the latter that the local bands traffic in.  Until I find the real crazy stuff that tries to push the metal envelope forward in a serious way, that’s my hypothesis about the Hudson Valley metal scene.

One final note: around 2006, when Genghis Tron were still Vassar College students, I recall that a Time Out New York listing for one of their NYC shows indicated they were “from Poughkeepsie.”  This is a very rare regional identification for a Vassar College, but it makes sense in a metal context.  For one thing, most metal bands don’t go around announcing they’re kids; given the genre’s proletarian aesthetics, that’s quite likely a kiss of death.  (Google “hipster metal” for similarly scathing backlash.)  But also Poughkeepsie’s hard-on-its-luck reputation provides a special aesthetic grain for post-metal groups trying to urbanize a genre typically associated with oppressive suburbs and Scandinavian forests.


Folk, blues and jazz
Here’s another disparate set of genres united by local context. Go to any open-mic night at one of the Hudson Valley’s many coffeeshops, and you won’t have to wait very long before you hear folk music played, particularly in the Dylan/Laurel Canyon singer/songwriter traditions.  Turn on “Poughkeepsie Live!,” the public access TV show featuring regional musicians, and it’s a good bet you’ll catch a guitarist wailing on the blues.  Go to a nice restaurant on a late weekend evening, and if there’s live music, it’s most likely going to be jazz.  Folk, blues and jazz are the default soundtrack for the amenity settings and quality-of-life districts of the Hudson Valley.  And, as I argued in my last post, these destinations characteristically serve an older, 45-and-up clientele; even if the musicians themselves don’t come from that bracket, that’s the audience their music reaches.  In short, it’s lifestyle background music, by no means unique to the Hudson Valley, but certainly redolent of the rural getaways and intimate “third places” with which this region attracts baby boomers and well-to-do urban migrants.

Of course, the Hudson Valley is home to some serious practioners of these genres.  Folk legend Pete Seeger has lived in Beacon since 1941.  Jazz saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Joe Lovano live in Dutchess and Putnam Counties, respectively.  It’s a separate question whether artists such as these can be considered local musicians—not simply local residents, but contributors to a local music scene.  A strong case could be made for Pete Seeger, whose presence in the region’s various post-WWII left-wing camps and chataquas and whose activism on behalf of the Hudson River’s health have created lasting local legacies.  This could be parsing an unhelpful distinction, but perhaps Seeger’s local contribution as a folksinger has been political more than musical—at least, that’s a hypothesis.

By contrast, the case is more straightforward for Sonny Rollins and Joe Lovano.  Nominally associated with the NYC jazz scene, these are clearly artists of an international caliber for whom the Hudson Valley is essentially just a home base.  Their careers are so developed, they don’t need NYC’s jazz scene to get gigs and make a living.   Whether they desire the collaborations made possible by living and working among other jazz musicians is another question altogether, but I suspect there’s a lot of musicians who would drop whatever they’re doing for an invitation to jam at the Hudson Valley home of Sonny Rollins or Joe Lovano.



Now we get to the more famous musical associations, histories, and symbolic geographies of the Hudson River Valley.  In contrast to the hard work and promotional hustle that characterizes most of the artists I’ve talked about so far, at this level the musical “economy” is far more developed and successful.  A key reason is because the underlying demand for the musical representations of the Hudson Valley is national and even international in scope.  But let’s be clear here: the demand isn’t for musical recordings and performances, but for regional aesthetics and lifestyles made meaningful in some part by their association with music.


Second homes and the quality-of-life district
Pete Seeger, Sonny Rollins and Joe Lovano are hardly the only musicians living in the Hudson Valley.  A load of popular musicians have homes in the area: off the top of my head, I can think of Natalie Merchant, David Bowie, Chris Stein of Blondie, Levon Helms of the Band, and Graham Parker.  Aside from these famous names, there’s probably as many successful session musicians, technicians, promoters, agents and music industry executives.

What characterizes these musicians’ relationship to the Hudson Valley is choicemade possible by their success.  Many of them are in states of semi-retirement; some pursue their non-musical passions for writing, painting, entrepreneurialism (the B-52s’ Kate Pierson runs a rather curious B&B in the old Catskill resort area), and other elective avocations, just like many non-musician Hudson Valley migrants of their career success do.  Although they may live rather private lives in rustic idylls—you don’t really see David Bowie and Imani picking up vegan burritos in Woodstock, do you?—their proximity to the entertainment industry center of NYC is a key asset.  Through industry contacts, fellow musicians, and major airports in the city, they can shift their activity into higher gear for a recording session, long tour or even just a rare concert guest appearance.  It’s in this sense that their Hudson Valley location isn’t really local.  Whether their residence here is actually a second (or third, fourth, etc.) home or not, this region serves as an exurban residential enclave for artists with significant autonomy over the substance, schedule and location of their work.

In this way, these musicians are perhaps no different than your garden variety doctor or publishing executive who’s bought a home in the Hudson Valley: all move here to consume the region’s scenic amenities, residential/outdoor opportunities, and local quality of life as a private experience.  Or so it might seem.  In fact, the major difference between musicians and other quality-of-life migrants is that we don’t hear about the famous medical history or publishing history of the Hudson Valley.  Yet we hear about the musical history of the region—specifically, of one place, Woodstock—all the time, and that cultural discourse precedes and heavily informs these musicians’ relationship to this area.  Indeed, in some way it informs every Hudson Valley resident’s relationship to the area.


I can’t believe that as I write, today is the 42nd anniversary of the Woodstock Festival.  There’s so much to be said about Woodstock, and I can hardly do it justice here.  I would contend that like Hollywood, Woodstock can be understood as a place, an industry, and a sensibility; and only in a very narrow slice of a Venn diagram do these three definitions overlap.

  • The place is the town in Ulster County.  It wasn’t the site of the 1969 festival (that was Bethel, in neighboring Sullivan County), but that hasn’t deterred a continual stream of visitors to Woodstock the town.  (Bob Dylan did have his motorcycle accident here, however.)
  • The industry is the industry of history, memorabilia, and nostalgia associated with the famous music festival and its cultural import.  The Museum at Bethel Woods is an official gatekeeper of this memory (“The Story of the Sixties and Woodstock”, its main exhibit promises), but a hundred books, a hundred documentaries, and a thousand and one bootleg t-shirts (preferably tie-dyed) also keep the flame alight.
  • The sensibility is… well, do I have to spell it out?  A reverence and optimism for the dream of 1960s peace, love and freedom embodied by the festival, perhaps, and an aptitude for tuning in and turning on this dream, through drugs or other forms of consciousness heightening.

Woodstock is a place-based musical sensibility if there ever was one.  It can be discerned in the jam-band festival and the “one love” roots reggae ethos, but it skews heavily toward the 1960s and 70s rock baby boom demographic enamoured of classic rock and related 60s genres (particularly folk and blues).  Every summer weekend, people come to Woodstock the place by the hundreds and patronize Woodstock the industry in order to partake of this Woodstock sensibility.  It seems alive in the town’s mountains, streams, and architectural landmarks; it feels sustained within the bookstores, record stores, health food restaurants, galleries, art-house cinema, flea markets, benches, and patches of grass of the town.

I don’t want to suggest this is merely the simplistic, commodified Woodstock sensibility that you can buy on a PBS pledge drive.  If David Bowie, hardly the pop-culture symbol of natural living and spiritual authenticity, can find himself drawn to the symbolic geography and lifestyle zone of Woodstock, then it’s clear we’re talking about a complex, multivalent discourse that can withstand diverse interpretations and critical artistic/intellectual gestures.  Even cynical indie-rockers are negotiating their peace with Woodstock’s symbolic geography, as illustrated in the recent indie-rock music festivals, All Tomorrow’s Parties and the Truck Festival US, that were scheduled (and in the latter case cancelled) nearby.  Understanding what Woodstock means and how it sustains a creative life isn’t a simple, commodifiable experience.  It can be a worthwhile, long-term project, and it’s one that has drawn many people, musicians and others.

If it’s not clear by now, there’s really no current music scene in Woodstock to speak of.  The town has some great performance venues, and musicians still record in various studios in and around the area.  Occasionally a “Woodstock native” will play locally, the most famous being Levon Helms’ monthly Midnight Ramble.   Usually, just the local knowledge that famous musicians have long lived, and still do live, here or nearby is enough to sustain the enchantment of the region’s musical geography, even if it’s not something you can hear on a recording or take home with you.

Probably Woodstock’s most important musical export nowadays is the independently-owned radio station, WDST.  With a playlist combining the contemporary and vintage sounds of jam bands, alternative, blues, singer-songwriters rock, and reggae, it’s become a model of “adult alternative” radio that’s rarely heard outside of subscription-based satellite radio.  Locally, WDST fills the airwaves with what must feel like the living sound of Woodstock and the Hudson Valley more broadly to anyone who travels to the area.  The region’s other radio stations with bigger market shares provide functionalless, place accompaniments to everyday life.  By contrast, WDST enables consumption of a distinct sense of place.  No doubt its random discovery of the car radio dial has tipped the scales toward moving to the Hudson Valley for more than one migrant.

If Woodstock is the chief metonym for the musical representations of the Hudson Valley, its global recognition underscores how almost no Hudson Valley musician or genre today can carve out a successful, global profile under its shadow.  Woodstock continually evokes the past, thereby eclipsing most anything musically exciting in the present.  It’s the sound of baby boom dreams that lull residents and newcomers into privatized, domestic lives in quaint villages and rural idylls—and compels everyone else in the Hudson Valley to live with the burden of that market demand.  No, the Hudson Valley is not becoming the next Brooklyn.  Rather, Woodstock is absorbing aging Brooklynites, wherever it is that they actually come from.