The Catskills: Music of the mountains

The Catskills, just two hours from New York, have inspired many artistic types Thoreau and Dylan included. Alex Hannaford can see why

We're sitting on the edge of a damned-off section of the Coxkill River a tiny tributary that eventually flows into Long Island Sound and onwards to the Atlantic. It's a beautiful place that has long attracted musicians in search of peace and creativity. But what's really impressive is that just two hours ago we were negotiating the traffic in downtown Manhattan.

The Catskill mountains are a welcome respite from the Big Apple's clamour. My guides are Justin Russo and Shannon Fields from the orchestral alt-rock band The Silent League. Justin grew up in nearby Hopewell Junction, just across the Hudson River, and he comes from a long line of musicians and artists who have been inspired by the majesty of these mountains.

In the late Sixties, Bob Dylan headed for the Catskills, holing up in a house in the town of Saugerties with his then backing act The Band. Dylan's Basement Tapes album emerged from that session, as did The Band's Music from Big Pink. In the Nineties, local band Mercury Rev recorded Deserter's Songs, which name-checked the Catskills and brought global acclaim to the band. The Silent League are continuing this musical mountain legacy.

To get to the Shawangunk mountain ridge near the Coxkill River, known round here as "The Gunks", you need to drive up the mountain from New Paltz, a little college town in the foothills. The main street slopes down a hill to a small metal bridge that straddles a river. Beyond are miles and miles of corn fields, and looming in the distance are the Catskills.

Your ears pop as you drive up the mountain road, past rugged, rocky terrain blanketed by dense forest. Here you'll find places such as Sparkling Ridge and Frog Hollow, and a large number with "kill" in the name: Wallkill, Fishkill, Platterkill, Dwaarkill and Catskill. Kill, it turns out, is the Dutch word for stream.

We find a lay-by at the top of the mountain and pull over. The view out over the Catskills is breathtaking. The mountains are part of the Appalachian range, and the musical tradition of Appalachian folk music is equally apparent here as it is further south. It draws on English folk, Irish traditional, and African-American community and worship songs.

"You had colonists, settlers, people coming here to rediscover and re-invent themselves," Shannon says. "But they also needed to keep pieces of their old life, their old civilisation and their old music. These people were isolated in these small mountain communities so there are these unique forms of music up here."

Before he formed The Silent League, Justin made music with his brother, Jason, in the pretty country town of Poughkeepsie, just across the Hudson river. "That's how we got to meet the Mercury Rev guys," he says. "Everyone was making music around there. When we were growing up we heard a lot of stuff from The Band and stuff coming out of Bearsville Studio, near Bethel, and it was a major inspiration."

Bearsville Studios was opened in 1969 by Bob Dylan's manager Albert Grossman. The Band, Janis Joplin and Todd Rundgren, and most of his artists recorded there. "We felt like we were carrying on a legacy rather than starting a new scene," Justin says. "And a lot of that music was reflecting what they were seeing all that pastoral scenery came out in the music, such as The Band's 'Whispering Pines' or 'I Shall Be Released'. There's something really spiritual about these places.

"Growing up, New York City was only two hours away, so there was this dichotomy between this calming, beautiful atmosphere up here, and a lot of opportunity in the city. I always knew I'd have to make a choice eventually. The boys in Mercury Rev ended up going in the opposite direction they went further north. I moved to the city, but these are my roots."

One of Mercury Rev's songs (and a top-40 hit in the UK in 1999) was "Opus 40", named after a sculpture garden in Saugerties. A man named Harvey Fite spent 37 years of his life building this vast, peculiar work of art, until his tragic death in 1976 when his mechanical digger stuck in gear and toppled over the edge of his six-acre quarry. Today, Fite's stepson Tad Richards maintains the land, and runs a gift shop. Tad says that Fite bought the quarry so that he would have a never-ending source of material to work with. But soon after he started excavating, he realised he could carve a much more impressive sculpture from the land itself.

We get back in the car and head into the mountains again. Justin and Shannon are about to record a new Silent League song called "Piles of Fire" that refers to Mohonk Mountain House, our next destination (pictured above). Perched at the top of the Shawangunk ridge, the hotel is extraordinary a huge Victorian castle above Lake Mohonk in the Hudson Valley. It was built by the Quaker twins Albert and Alfred Smiley in 1869, and remains in the same family today.

I take a rowing boat out on to the lake. The natural beauty explains why the Catskills have inspired generations of artists, musicians and writers. The author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote his greatest work, Walden, here; Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School of Painters, often hiked around the Catskills. The area was also the setting for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, in which Ichabod Crane is pursued by the Headless Horseman. Irving's Rip Van Winkle was also set here.

On our last night we paid homage to what was undoubtedly the boldest musical statement in these parts: the 1969 Woodstock Festival (which took place in nearby Bethel). In 1996, the cable-television magnate Alan Gerry bought the original festival and built the Bethel Woods Centre for the Arts, together with a further 1,700 acres. It's a sprawling complex complete with manicured lawns, newly planted trees, and the obligatory food and drink kiosks. At its centre is a huge stage.

It just doesn't feel right. This was Woodstock, the embodiment of the hippie dream. Now it just feels... corporate. So we leave, pick up Route 17, and head back into the beauty of the Catskill mountains.

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

The writer flew to New York JFK with BA (0870 850 9850; ba.com) from Heathrow. A wide range of airlines flies from the UK to JFK and Newark.

Hertz (08708 448 844; www.hertz.com) offers one week's car hire from 161.

STAYING THERE

Villa Roma Resort, Callicoon (001 845 887 4880; www.villaroma.com). Doubles start at $144 (72).

Winwood Inn, Windham (001 518 734 3000; www.winwoodinn.com). Doubles start at $113 (56).

Mohonk Mountain House, New Paltz (001 800 772 6646; www.mohonk.com). Doubles start at $512 (256), full board.



VISITING THERE

Opus 40 and the Quarryman's Museum, Saugerties (001 845 246 3400; www.opus40.org). Open weekends 11.30am-6pm. Call in advance. $10 (5).

Bethel Woods Centre for the Arts (001 845 295 2443; www.bethelwoodslive.org).



MORE INFORMATION:

www.nylovesu.co.uk; 020-7629 6891 http://www.nylovesu.co.uk

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