Todd Crowley


One of the most talked about exhibits at last year's Summerfolk was Todd Crowley's Musical Petting Zoo.

Festival patrons were really enamored with Crowley's collection of musical instruments. In and around a tent more than 100 were on display, set up on tables and on tarps.

Representing the musical alphabet from accordion to zither, the Musical Petting Zoo is a fully interactive and hands-on activity. Not only can you examine how the instruments are made, but you are encouraged to play them.

When it came time to determine which performers should be invited to our 35th anniversary festival, there was no question -- Crowley and the Musical Petting Zoo had to return.

At the zoo, there are stringed instruments like the kantele, cuatro, bouzouki, charango, dulcimer and harp; odd musical gizmos like saws and limberjacks; percussion instruments like the udu, djembes and other drums; flutes of all description; the didgeridoo and yidaki . . . plus oodles of more familiar instruments such as guitars, banjos, fiddles and autoharps.

Participants of all ages are welcome to pick up an instrument, often for the first time, and "pet" it. Some instruments are strummed or plucked, others bowed. Some you beat or strike, some you blow into. It is about the magic of discovery that a crafted work of wood and strings can make beautiful harmony or disharmony, and that a drum from West Africa can sound much like a Native American drum.


This spirit of discovery is the inspiration of the zookeeper -- Crowley is a patient, caring man with a true love for folk music. "My belief about folk music is that it isn't just music to listen to from a seat in the audience. Folk music is about making music of our own, on all levels, and then passing it on to the next generation.”

"The instruments have a common DNA" says Crowley, "just like all human beings, from a primitive mouth bow to a Celtic harp, from a Puerto Rican Cuatro to an African Kora. The Musical Petting Zoo, with a choice of instruments from around the world, is a vivid and tangible display that we are all interconnected.”

"Often I have found the Musical Petting Zoo attracts the artists as often as it attracts novices and children. At the Folk Alliance in Memphis recently I watched an accomplished professional steel guitar/harmonica player toy with an Anglo concertina for over an hour. He became a child again rediscovering the joy of making sounds on an instrument totally unfamiliar to him. By the time he walked away playing Mary Had a Little Lamb you might have thought he'd have just won a Grammy."

Crowley was first attracted to folk music as a youngster, listening and singing along to his sister's LP records of people like The Chad Mitchell Trio, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

"Early on, I also connected with the politics of folk music and the way it often brings dignity to the stories of the poor and dispossessed. Whether a Civil Rights Era Phil Ochs song or an old Irish ballad about resisting English oppression, folk songs tell a history not often found in the history books. As a folk singer I want to be part of the oral tradition that gives voice to the sacrifices men and women have made to promote peace and justice."

In 1981, Crowley lived with autoharp performer Bryan Bowers. Crowley was then the assistant coach for Bowers' son's varsity basketball team. At the end of their year together, Bowers gave Crowley his first autoharp lesson and presented him with his first single key G 'harp. In the years since, Todd has collected dozens of autoharps from nearly every major builder.

"I have found the diatonic autoharp to be the perfect accompanying instrument for the songs I sing,” says Crowley. "The autoharp lets me keep the instrumental part of the song simple, so the words in story and poetry can take centre stage."

"I am not a rocker or blues-man or singer-songwriter. I sing and play folk songs, old and new,” Crowley says of his musical career.

He believes a folk instrument is part of the folk tradition, where the sharing of one's love and knowledge of the music, song and stories of the past help to keep the traditions alive. The instruments in the zoo tell a story of their own each time a child connects to the folk tradition by trying an instrument for the first time or an adult rediscovers the joy of making music.

Crowley is in the process of opening a year-round home for his collection of instruments. Todd's Musical Petting Zoo and Folk Life Center in North East, Pa., will be open during the school year for free field trips, after school drop-ins, lessons, evening jams, concerts, open mics, etc. He is hoping it becomes not just a regional attraction, but a nationally recognized folk music centre.

Adapted from an article for the Owen Sound Sun Times
by Richard Knechtel, Summerfolk Artistic Director

Check Schedule for Petting Zoo Tours

Call Todd at (703) 999-4972





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