While you may have thought that the days of the posse were long gone in Calaveras County, one still meets on Main Street in Angels Camp every second and fourth Saturday evening of the month.
But instead of gathering with weapons and chasing down criminals, the Song Posse arrives wielding guitars and other acoustic instruments to kick out the jams.
At 6 p.m. on Feb. 22, several musicians filed into Manzanita Arts Emporium with their instruments of choice. They sat in chairs placed in a circle, surrounded by paintings from local artists which covered the walls.
The event was organized by Chrys Mollett, the proprietor of the Aeolian Harp, a local music store that has been in business for more than 30 years. Mollett opened the store at the east end of Main Street in Murphys in the late 1980s, but later relocated to downtown Angels Camp. About two years ago, Mollett moved the store into the Manzanita Arts Emporium building, where she is now on the board of directors.
The Manzanita Arts Emporium is the home of Manzanita Writers Press, “a literary and arts center featuring local and regional writers, artists, and musicians, with support for their art forms and for people who enjoy participating in the arts,” according to its website. “We bring writers, readers and artists together through workshops, anthologies, book publishing, classes, lectures and events in the Mother Lode region of California.”
Guitarist Sandy Rogers led the first song of the evening, a country blues number. She stomped her cowboy boots on the carpet and soulfully strummed and sang as the rest of the group joined in.
“Love gonna fade away,” she sang. “Nothing you can do ’bout that.”
Afterwards, the other musicians clapped and gave words of encouragement. The next musician in the circle, Barry Sander, took a turn, playing “Cluck Old Hen” on banjo.
“You’ve been practicing!” Rogers said afterwards.
Andrew Camm, who does work for Manzanita Arts Emporium, decided to join in the fun for the first time. He played “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” followed by “I’ll Fly Away.” The whole group joined in for the second song.
“That was lovely,” Mollett said.
Katie Lee Gonzales and David “Driftwood Dave” Axelrod walked in the door to a warm greeting from the group.
The pair, who often play together as “The Yosemitones,” sat down and began a blues song. Gonzales played clarinet, while Axelrod joined in with guitar and harmonica.
“It’s based on a blues by John Lennon called ‘One After 909,’” Axelrod said.
“Like 910?” Rogers said, laughing. “David, how old are you?”
“Old enough to know not to mess with you,” Axelrod replied. “We could do a song we all actually know now, but that would be too easy.”
Clarinet, guitar and harmonica kicked off another song, with other members of the group joining in after one time through.
“That was great,” Rogers said.
The next musician in the circle, Garey Hillman, played a couple of original songs.
“I’ve got a new song and I’d like you guys to sing along with me,” he said. “It’s called ‘We Are Waking Up.’”
Hillman began strumming from A minor to E minor.
“We are waking up/To the love light/We are waking up/From illusion,” he sang. “Into our hearts we go/Feeling the love that never dies.”
The whole group joined in, lending their voices to the harmony.
Next, Doug and Joan Johnson shared an original song of their own. Doug explained that it had been written during the power shutoffs last summer.
“We drove up to Sutter Creek and had a wonderful time up there,” he said. “There was only one store open. It was a coffee shop up there next to the theater, and they were serving coffee on a Coleman stove. So, we went down the street, and you know where the little bridge goes across the stream there in town, we were up there, and we saw this crane. So that moment was like a zen moment for us, and we tried to do a song from it.”
The two began playing, with Doug on guitar and Joan on lap dulcimer.
“We came upon a quiet crane/His motion slow and sleek,” they sang. “In the afternoon sunshine/On the shores of Sutter Creek.”
“That was beautiful,” Mollett said.
Next, Mollett moved over to the piano and led a couple of Bob Dylan songs, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” and “I Shall Be Released.” Afterwards, she grabbed her accordion and played a traditional song called “Scarborough Settler’s Lament.”
The rest of the group applauded and gave words of encouragement. At 8:30 p.m., some musicians began to leave, while others lingered and played a little longer.
Mollett said that the gathering began as an open mic at the Angels Camp Mercantile over eight years ago.
“Every Saturday night a guy named Jim Lanier was doing it,” she said.
Over the years, the group gathered at various places in Angels Camp until finding a stable home at the Manzanita Arts Emporium.
“Two years ago, I moved in here and became part of Manzanita,” Mollett said. “We would call ourselves an open mic up until then. And we decided that that wasn’t going to be our focus, it was going to be acoustic music. So, we sat at the table, laughed and had a wonderful time, and that’s when we came up with ‘Song Posse.’”
Doug Johnson said that he and his wife always enjoy the event, even though it requires a substantial drive from their home in Twain Harte.
“The thing that we like about it is you don’t have to be practiced, you can just come, and you’re always accepted,” he said. “It’s a really loving crowd, and it’s what music really should be about.”
For more information on the Song Posse, Manzanita Arts Emporium and Manzanita Writers Press, visit manzapress.com.