Driving along Route 125 in Ripton on the first Saturday night of May, you feel almost as if you're traveling back in time. There, in the center of town -- which is more or less the middle of nowhere -- stands a stately, white, 19th-century community meeting hall. A sandwich board out front cheerfully invites passersby to the town's premiere social event, the Ripton Community Coffeehouse, which begins at 7:30 p.m.
It's not quite 7, but a crowd has already gathered, waiting for the doors to open. People cluster on the front steps and spill into the gravel parking lot, which is rapidly filling with cars. The Coffeehouse -- which features performances by local and nationally touring singer-songwriters -- has been packing this roomy hall on the first Saturday of the month for 10 years. In that time, people have figured out that if you want to be sure to get in, you have to arrive early. None of the $5 tickets is available in advance, and when the show sells out, as it often does, latecomers are turned away.
Tonight's Coffeehouse is especially crowded; well over 100 fans have shown up for this 10th-anniversary celebration. Co-founder Richard Ruane is on the bill, as is Burlington-based folkie Patrick Fitzsimmons, a cappella group named Womensing and Va-et-vient, a Quebecois Quartet.
But this regularly scheduled concert isn't just about the music, Coffeehouse volunteer Joanna Calwell explains during intermission. "To me, this is just the exact opposite of corporate, capitalist entertainment," the dreadlocked emcee asserts. The Coffeehouse's sole source of revenue is the ticket-sale proceeds from the door. "This is not about buying stuff. This is about being with people."
Despite the name, one imagines "community" meant something different -- more austere and less artsy-crunchy -- to the people who built this hall with its high, vaulted ceilings. For one thing, it's in Ripton, a town of just over 550 people. The building looks more like a church than a music venue.
Built in 1864, the building has housed town meetings, contra dances and spaghetti suppers. Ruane claims that at one time, the upstairs balcony extended the length of the hall and contained a library and a gymnasium, where local kids played basketball.
According to the Ripton Community Coffeehouse's website, by 1994, the hall was barely being used at all, and then only for town meetings and the occasional wedding. Ruane and his wife Andrea Chesman were hosting a jam session at their own house when a group of friends came up with the idea of presenting music in the Ripton room. Seeking permission to use it, they approached the town selectboard and won approval.
They launched the series on May 6, 1995, and have hosted well over 100 concerts since. Posters lining the inside walls offer a scrapbook of the many artists featured, including Dana Robinson, Diane Ziegler and Rachel Bissex.
The venue tends to attract musicians you seldom hear on commercial radio, but who nevertheless make a living in the music biz. One-woman band Cosy Sheridan is a regular, for example, while an act like Greg Brown is probably too big. Most of these artists used to play at the Burlington Coffeehouse, before it shut down four-and-a-half years ago. Because of the limitations of scheduling a monthly series, they're only allowed to play Ripton once every three years.
In an interview before the show, Ruane points out that touring artists like to return because of the great acoustics and the loyal audience. Even the volunteers stick around year after year. The Coffeehouse is run by a nonprofit organization, and many of its founders still pitch in and attend the shows. "We don't have a lot of attrition," Ruane quips.
Who wouldn't relish the poetic setting, where Robert Frost once wandered and the rushing East Middlebury River provides background sound? And it's hard not to love a place where the community is authentic -- not just some buzzword or marketing tactic; the shows reliably draw Middlebury College students, tourists and locals. Audience members, seated on metal folding chairs, look as if they range in age from 8 months to 88 years; upstairs, a young boy is lying down on a table, his head resting on a pillow.
But the music is what draws regulars like Francine Roy and Jim Feldhausen, who drive down each month from Milton. They came to the Coffeehouse on their first date four years ago and have been back nearly every month since. "We always sit right up front," says Roy.
Feldhausen enjoys the featured artists, but says he's always impressed by the quality of the open-mike acts that kick off every professional show. "There's a lot of good local talent," he observes. In fact, he identifies the Coffeehouse's quintessential open mike guy, Bob Bernstein, as his favorite musician.
Ruane and friends decided to forgo the open mike for the anniversary show, but they invited Bernstein to start the night with three songs, including Feldhausen's favorite, "Five Nights With a Redhead." As Bernstein launches into his first number, it starts to make sense why he's been performing all these years at the open mikes but hasn't graduated to a feature spot. All three of his songs follow a pattern: a few simple lyrics, repeated several times, in a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time warble.
But Bernstein, a sort of awkward, bespectacled man, has a quirky charm and a lot of heart. After his second song -- chorus: "I'm going back to Bristol / that's where I want to be / Oh Lord I'm going home" -- the audience begs him to play "the redhead song," and he obliges to a volley of cheers.
The song tells of a redheaded woman who broke the singer's heart after only five days, er, nights. Halfway through, the audience joins in. "Five nights with a redhead," Bernstein and his eager listeners belt, "five nights with a redhead / five nights with a redhead / those sure were five fine nights." Whistles and applause erupt at the end, along with the sound of hands pounding a long table that borders a bench that runs down one of the walls.
Next up is Ruane, accompanied by vocalist and volunteer Beth Duquette, with Michael Corn on guitar and Mitch Barron on bass. Ruane wrote the first number after hearing the eerie howls of coyotes outside his home. "Coyote," he asks in a smooth, haunting voice, "why do you sound so blue?" It soothes the crowd. Many close their eyes and nod to the beat.
After Ruane's group finishes, emcee Calwell gets up to tell a few jokes and buy time while the next act sets up. Behind her, guitarist Corn stays on stage where he's joined by the other three members of Va-et-vient. The French-inspired quartet includes vocalists Carol Reed, who also plays guitar, and Suzanne Germain, who doubles as the rhythm section. George Dunne plays flute and an irresistible button-box accordion.
Their first song is a cappella, backed by the insistent beat of Dunne's heavy foot pounding out 4/4 time. Then they launch into a medieval dirge called "Belle." Probably only a few people in the room understand what they're saying -- in French -- but the sadness is so palpable that it almost doesn't matter.
After their set, there's an intermission, during which everyone gets up, stretches their legs, and grabs a few delicious and cheap homemade baked goods, or a 50-cent cup of organic, fair-trade, shade-grown coffee donated by the Vermont Coffee Company. Proceeds from the concessions benefit a different nonprofit every month -- in this case, the Coffeehouse itself.
While the adults linger and chat with old friends, kids burst through the doors and run up and down the stairs. Their noise, and the sound of people talking about everything from politics to music to a fundraising car wash at Mount Abraham Union High School, is music to emcee Joanna Calwell's ears.
Trying to describe what she enjoys so much about this scene, she recalls something singer-songwriter Cosy Sheridan told the audience a month before: "She said, 'Thanks for coming out. A lot of money was spent so you would stay home and watch TV tonight.'"