From her own living room, Deb McWethy keeps folk music alive, one house concert at a time.
McWethy’s Harrisville home was custom built by her son Jason in 2005. In the back left corner from the front door on the first floor, the near-trapezoid living room opens up in the spring and fall for Deb’s House Concerts, part of the broader mission of Peterborough Folk Music.
If Deb’s House Concerts are the embers of New England’s top folk music, then the shows at public venues by Peterborough Folk Music are more like bonfires, all of which McWethy maintains at the helm as if she were a bellows-bearing octopus.
The biggest concerts are at Peterborough Players, which seats around 230 while smaller ones of around 100 are held
at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture’s Bass
Hall in Peterborough. The Bass Hall shows are perhaps the most important for keeping the legacy of folk music vibrant, McWethy says, because they’re the most accessible to younger musicians.
“The benefit of Bass Hall is that I can work with the younger musicians, which is what we really need to do,” McWethy said on a sweltering June afternoon over a cup of Earl Grey tea. “They’re not as well-known, and we need to build them.”
Most of her living room shows and the Peterborough Players venues draw an audience where the median ages won’t dip below the 50s and 60s, according to McWethy.
While millennial and gen-z concertgoers find out about shows through social media and keep up with new releases on YouTube and streaming platforms, McWethy’s clientele comes from word-of-mouth and a highly coveted email list.
Big name bookings like Tom Rush will draw not just from New England, but from other hemispheres; McWethy once found out that an Australian woman rearranged her entire U.S. trip when she found out Rush would be playing in Peterborough.
But the true draw of her shows, McWethy notes, is the intimacy, particularly with Deb’s House Concerts.
“It’s up close and personal,” she said. “It’s really about the intimacy. People are so appreciative that we have concerts right here in Peterborough and Harrisville. They really appreciate the work that goes into booking these shows, because it’s a lot. It’s almost like a full-time job. I’m working on it every day.”
Beyond the time McWethy puts into the shows, the other costs behind the living room concerts are hard to notice.
The living room is immaculately clean, but upon a closer look, small nicks in the floor and brief black streaks on the walls reveal trails of all of the chairs and equipment required to pull it all off — not to mention revelers bumping into things during a jam.
McWethy’s labor of love has its origins in The Folkway, which ran from 1975 until 1996. Similar to Deb’s House Concerts, The Folkway was run by Jonathan and Widdie Hall in a renovated barn on Grove Street in Peterborough, where community members could gather to eat and hear live music.
From then on, McWethy was tethered to the communal bond of folk music, and in an era of ever busy schedules and eyes downcast upon screens, Deb’s Home Concerts and the other Peterborough Folk Music shows are an oasis for community contact.
“You’re able to really hear the words, and the songs and relate to (the performers),” McWethy said. “They’re sharing their emotions, they’re sharing their stories, but they’re also sharing world issues, and, you know, at one time, folk music — I think people think folk music has gone — because it was during the Vietnam War days that people sang about something that affected all of us.”
McWethy’s only other budgeting experience came in 1993 as the business manager for the Dublin School, which she says helped her build the skillset she deploys running Peterborough Folk Music.
But given the intergenerational and ethereal nature of her work, perhaps one of the closest professions to compare McWethy’s to would be a bonsai master.
At age 70, McWethy has donated most of her life to fueling the vibrancy of folk music, and the true fruits of her labor — which could be any of the early-20-somethings she’s booked at Bass Hall for what she calls a “risk show” — will continue to bear out over the decades.
Much like a delicate bonsai tree purchased at an auction that required three or four generations of bonsai masters to cultivate, the future of folk music in the Monadnock Region will not only come from McWethy, but also her predecessors in the Halls and the Folkway, and perhaps the concertgoer under 50 who shows up to a home concert through word of mouth.
“And people say, ‘oh,’ you know, ‘what’s going to happen (to folk music)?’” McWethy said as a scrapbook of concert photos sat in front of her. “But the people who are raising children today are all going to get older and come to the shows, too.”