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The life of former state folklorist Claude Stephenson was steeped in music

Vaseline 3 months ago

April 21—For years, one of the most intriguing and entertaining musical events in New Mexico was a potluck party in Claude Stephenson and Zoe Economou’s South Valley garden.

Zoë, Claude’s wife, called the gatherings, held in late July, soirees. They lasted from the early 1980s until 2018.

You didn’t have to play a musical instrument to attend, but since Claude himself was a diverse and talented musician, the host of music programs on KUNM radio and served as New Mexico’s state folklorist, many of his friends do play.

They would show up at Claude and Zoe’s house, just west of the Rio Grande, with not only salads, casseroles, cakes and pies, but also guitars, mandolins, violins, stand-up basses and banjos.

“Those soirees were great,” said Gray Howell, 69, Corrales banjo and fiddle player. “It was like going to a family reunion in a summer party atmosphere. There was lots of food and drinks, and we played music for hours. And we talked when we needed to.”

“Those parties were legendary,” said Bruce Thomson, 74, a guitar and violinist with the Albuquerque-based Adobe Brothers band. “There was a group that played bluegrass, another that played Irish music and another that played old time music. It was a lot of fun. People from all over the state came to those soirees.”

The soirees ended after Claude suffered a mini-stroke and other medical complications in the fall of 2018. Claude battled through his health problems and resumed playing mandolin, guitar and other instruments in which he was skilled, but the soirees were not revived. And last August, Claude died at the age of 70.

Now Zoe has decided that another soiree deserves to give Claude the kind of send-off he would have truly appreciated. Friends, many with musical instruments, will gather in the large garden by the river on April 28 to celebrate his life.

Musical rootsZoe said Claude grew up in many places because his father was in the Air Force, and he came to New Mexico when his father was stationed in Alamogordo.

She said the musical roots run deep in his family.

“His maternal great-grandfather was on the radio in Pennsylvania with some sort of barn dance show,” she said. “One of the Boyd brothers (of Bill Boyd and his Cowboy Ramblers) married into Claude’s family on his father’s side.”

Zoe said that when Claude was a teenager, he ran away from home to Philadelphia and got a job with the vocal soul group Laddie Burke and the Showstoppers, best known for the 1967 hit “Ain’t Nothing But a Houseparty.”

Claude started on drums, but became best known for playing strings: mandolin and other instruments from the mandolin family, violin, acoustic and electric guitar and some banjo. Zoe said Claude always traveled with an instrument, usually the mandolin.

The two met in 1977 at an Albuquerque lounge where Zoe worked. She was trying to teach herself to play the mandolin, and Claude was recommended as someone who could help her.

“He tried to teach me, but I learned pretty quickly that my left hand wasn’t up to the task,” Zoe said. “Plus, it’s pretty hard to play for someone who’s really good.”

However, other things did work out. Claude and Zoe met in January and were a couple by March.

In addition, Claude earned a bachelor’s degree in university studies from the University of New Mexico in 1985, a master’s degree in business administration from UNM in 1987, and a doctorate in American studies from UNM in 2001.

He wrote his dissertation on the music of the Matachines dance groups in New Mexico, a subject in which he was well trained. Claude played violin with a Matachines group in Bernalillo.

“He was a great musician,” Thomson said. “He could play in so many styles and genres. His main genre was bluegrass, but he was a great Irish musician, played old time music, played some swing, played some jazz and traditional New Mexico music.”

Howell currently plays with a bluegrass band called the Duke City Swampcoolers, but over the years he has been in bands like the Clear Ditch Ramblers, Big River Boys and others.

He met Claude in 1974 when they played for several bands at the Golden Inn near Golden, New Mexico.

“That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted more than 50 years,” he said. “I learned a lot from Claude. He had a tremendous knowledge of music. The man knew every song, every tune you could throw at him.

“I played gigs with him, duos and sometimes trios. When I started playing violin, I would sit with him when he played at Alfalfa’s (a former music club in Albuquerque).”

Claude played solo gigs at Albuquerque clubs such as Alfalfa’s, Uncle Nasty’s and Ned’s, and was with bands such as the Big River Boys, Elliott’s Ramblers and the Sons of Rodan.

Karl Stalnaker, an Albuquerque musician and until recently host of KUNM’s long-running music program “The Home of Happy Feet,” often performed with Claude.

“I played with him in different bands,” the 76-year-old Stalnaker said. “I played a lot of pickup gigs with him. We had an Irish band. We had a band – Dos Equis – with just the two of us. We played a variety of music, from rock ‘n’ roll to folk music to country music .We worked regularly at a bar in Central, across from UNM.”

Stalnaker said there really was no one else like Claude.

“He was a very good musician, an extraordinary mandolin player,” he said. “But he could play anything he liked if he wanted to. And he was over-the-top, just full of personality.”

Stalnaker remembers when Claude was playing drums for a popular New Mexico act when the bass drum pedal broke.

“Most drummers probably would have just left the stage and gone outside to smoke,” Stalnaker said. ‘But not Claude. The show must go on. He never missed a beat. He got down on his knees and hit the bass with one hand and the snare and cymbals with the other.

“Claude was never interested in being the coolest guy in the room. He didn’t worry about his image that way. He would do unusual things when he had to.”

A wonderful life From the late 1970s Claude worked on KUNM radio programs such as ‘Only the Radio’, ‘Live Variety Show’ and from 1983 ‘Folk Routes’. Zoe remembers driving through a snowstorm from Santa Fe to get to the UNM campus in time to go on the air at 9 a.m.

“He wanted to get local live music on the radio,” she said. “That was where his heart was.”

Claude served as New Mexico’s Folklorist from 1991 to 2014, traveling throughout the state attending bluegrass festivals, cowboy gatherings, Native American ceremonies, Matachines dances and more.

“He loved that job,” Zoe said. “He was really proud of a lot of things he did. He developed folk scouts, a way for people to do folklore research in their own culture, do their own history.”

“He played a very big role as a state folklorist,” Stalnaker said. “He made a big difference by giving people grants to do projects.”

Thomson said Claude became a great mentor to young musicians in his later years.

“His first contribution was as a musician and bandleader,” he said. ‘But later he became a mentor and folklorist. He lived a beautiful life. He was a treasure.’