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Music hall to celebrate belated news of freedom

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Soon it will be Juneteenth.

You won't find the date on an ordinary calendar, but the third Juneteenth Freedom Music Festival will be held at the Brooklyn-Queens Conservatory of Music in Flushing on June 16 from noon until 4 p.m.

The holiday, with its curious name, represents a curious chapter in American history, and is a reminder of the dearth of mass communication, and the ubiquitousness of mendacity, in the days just after the Civil War.

It was "Juneteenth," June 19, 1865, when slaves, mostly from Texas, finally got the word that they were no longer required to work for free - two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect.

"I'm from Flushing, and I thought we needed to celebrate in ways that were community related and community based," said Cicily Wilson, who is, among other things, director of administration and marketing for the Conservatory. ("We're non-profit so everyone has about 10 jobs!" she laughed.)

Taught by her father about Juneteenth, Wilson set about to present the holiday musically, but also educationally, so along with the concerts, pamphlets and other literature on Juneteenth will be offered. "The turnout is really doing well," Wilson said, "and people ask me about [the festival]. It's nice to know that people look forward to it and remember it. "

The festival takes a few months to put together, though the regular performers already know what they're going to play. One of them is musician Bill Sims, Jr., who happens to be Wilson's father and was the subject of a PBS series, "An American Love Story" a few years back. "I've always known about Juneteenth," he said. "I learned about it by word of mouth. Where I grew up there were a lot of black Southerners and there were a lot of parties on Juneteenth. And traveling around in south Texas made me aware of it as a young man. A lot of young black people don't know about it. But I think it's becoming more and more popular. You're reading more and more about it."

"My role is to try to play some music from Emancipation," he continued. "I'm a blues musician and it was only after Emancipation that blues became popular, because before that the music was all about work. After Emancipation black people could look around them, they could talk about their love lives, what they wanted out of life, what they couldn't do in life. But before that it was all about the work, so I play some work songs, field hollers."

One of these is "Ol' Hannah," a field holler popularized by Leadbelly that beseeches the sun, called "Hannah," not to shine so hot on the laborers. Sims, who works with the American Acoustic Roots Orchestra and the Cold Blooded Blues Band, will also perform some gospel songs. "I try to wear period clothes, from the '40s and '50s," he said. "I always wear a hat. A bluesman must always wear his hat!" After his set, which is to last about 45 minutes, Sims said he will "enjoy the other acts and enjoy the day. There are a lot of good acts from the Conservatory, like the young people's jazz band [The BQC Teen Jazz Ensemble]. And if there's a chance to sit in with other bands, I will!"

Also scheduled to appear at the festival are storyteller Joy Kelly, and the Conservatory's West African drum troupe K.A.D.E. The conservatory is at 42-76 Main St. in Flushing. Call (718) 461-8910 for information. Admission is free.

By the way, free music and voice lessons will be given, so bring an instrument and your voice.

Reach Qguide writer Arlene McKanic by e-mail at timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 139.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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