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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 23, 2011

At the Old Songs Festival|
Kids can learn the ABCs of musical instruments at Todd’s Petting Zoo

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALTAMONT — Todd Crowley has an instrument for each letter of the alphabet in what he calls a musical petting zoo.

It starts with an accordion and ends with a zampolla, an Andean wind instrument made of bamboo.

The letters I and N were the hardest to match, Crowley said — he has an Irish penny whistle and a Native American drum. Crowley and his musical petting zoo will be one of the dozens of performers at this year’s Old Songs Festival, which will be held from this Friday, June 24 to June 26 at the Altamont fairgrounds.

Crowley is a self-proclaimed folkie who raised two classically trained musicians.  He now travels the festival circuit, content in watching what kids instinctually figure out from the instruments in his petting zoo.

It is a joyful cacophony, he says.

“To me, a folk song, like a good piece of writing, is a living organism with breath, a pulse, and something even more ineffable we can only call a soul,” Crowley wrote, describing his relationship to music.

James Agee’s 1957 novel A Death in the Family is Crowley’s favorite book because it is beautifully written and because of its passages about old time music.

For nearly 35 years, Crowley taught high-school English and he took the approach of learning by doing, he said.  That has carried over into the petting zoo, where kids of all ages are encouraged to experiment with his roughly 100 instruments.  He doesn’t keep count.

At a recent festival in Albuquerque, from which Crowley just returned, another exhibitor, who makes esoteric instruments, donated 10 of them to the petting zoo.  Crowley hasn’t yet figured out what they all are.

His collection began 30 years ago, when his friend Bryan Bowers taught him to play the autoharp, a stringed instrument that has dampers to mute strings outside of the intended chord.  And it has grown, “very gradually over time,” Crowley said.

He was raised largely in Virginia, where he sang folk songs.  “I was very into hootenannies… when I was a boy,” he said.

Initially, the children who come to the petting zoo like instruments from which they can get immediate gratification, like a melodica, which is similar to a harmonica, but has a keyboard on top and a hole on the side to blow into.  “So a kid can immediately plunk out a tune,” Crowley said.  From there, they get interested in other instruments and start asking questions.

“Like human beings, they have DNA,” Crowley said of the evolution of musical instruments, most all of which can be traced back to Africa.  Humans originated there and for thousands of years have been making music.  The kora is a west African harp that predates the Irish harp, Crowley said.

“There’s lots that we don’t know about it,” he concluded of instrumental development.


Many folk musicians, blues bands, and storytellers are among the performers scheduled for the 31st annual Old Songs Festival.  Ticket prices range from $20 for a youth day pass to $120 for an adult all-weekend pass including camping.

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