Patrick Hosken | Staff Writer
On the front lawn of the Catholic House, five musicians in red vests begin playing an old folk tune as patrons sit on the porch, peering down. Two mandolin players and a 12-string guitarist line up across the front of the group, with a young girl behind them on violin next to an older gentleman on the double bass.
A cartoon sign to the group’s left says it all: “You’re listenin’ to the Summer Strummers!”
Banjoist Joe Prezio began the group about 10 years ago with Ed Harmon and Bob Ivers, both on mandolin. Before long, the Summer Strummers became a full string band that played singalong gigs all around Chautauqua.
Prezio said the group plays about four or five shows per summer, including at the Methodist House, the Pines and on the steps of Smith Memorial Library for Library Day. To encourage their audiences to join them in song, the Summer Strummers pass out song booklets at each show, complete with more than 100 old folk tunes and classic singalongs like “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “This Land is Your Land” and “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain.”
“Everybody over 55 would know ‘I Get the Blues When it Rains,’ and they can sing along with that stuff,” Prezio said. “They remember it from when they were kids and teenagers in college.”
Prezio mans the banjo in the group, though he couldn’t make it to the Catholic House show. Luckily, all the other members were there, helping to round out the sound. Ivers and Harmon plucked their mandolins, Ray Defendorf strummed on the guitar and sang, Ed Paul plucked the bass strings in the back and Kelsey Shea led the melody on violin.
Defendorf joined last year when Prezio asked him to. Paul, who knew Prezio from the Chautauqua Community Band, joined shortly after the group’s inception.
Shea’s story is a bit more unique, however.
One morning, a few years ago, the Summer Strummers were practicing in the Hall of Christ. A woman walked in with her teenage daughter to respond to an ad the group had placed in The Chautauquan Daily seeking mandolin, violin or ukulele players. That girl was Kelsey, who’s been playing violin with the group ever since. In addition, her brother, Nick, also plays violin with the group.
Kelsey now studies chemistry at the University of Virginia.
While he’s not strumming the old 12-string with his friends, Defendorf is a Roman Catholic deacon. Paul, in addition to playing in the Community Band, also runs in the Old First Night Run/Walk/Swim every year. Ivers is an artist who had two pieces featuring in the VACI Open Members Exhibition.
Harmon designed the band’s sign and invented its name, but that’s not all, Prezio said.
“Ed Harmon is a real showman,” Prezio said. “He does ventriloquist acts, and he also plays the musical saw.”
Harmon also creates cartoons that run in The Chautauquan Daily.
In addition to forming the Summer Strummers, Prezio also coordinates the Chautauqua Amateur Musicians Program, created in the late 1990s. The program also includes the popular Thursday Morning Brass band, the Tuba Euphonium Quartet, the Chautauqua Brass Ensemble, the Fairpoint Brass Quintet and the Dixie Lakesiders. Prezio plays banjo, tuba and piano in the various groups.
As the Summer Strummers play their four or five shows, interest in the band grows by inches every year. While setting up the music stands, chairs and microphones for a gig, a member of the Woods Crew named Sam Rieder told Prezio that he plays the guitar. Prezio told him to bring it for their next show.
“So he did! He played with us at the library, so he’s going to join us next year,” Prezio said. “That’s how you pick up people.”
Next season, the Strummers will be more than a decade old, but by adding new members each year, they stay fresh. Old-time folk sing-along fun never goes out of style, especially when it’s played by music-loving strummers who make fun their main priority.
“We’re always looking for anybody that plays a string instrument, No. 1,” Prezio said. “No. 2, violin players in particular, but if a cello player came along and wanted to play, hey, sit down and play! It’s that kind of a group. It’s loose as a goose, and we have a good time with it, and we look forward to it every year. As I say, we don’t do a lot, but we do enough to make it worth it.”