A folk hero: Singer Dave Fry has returned to Bethlehem where he helped open Godfrey Daniels
Singer Dave Fry, a local legend who helped open Godfrey Daniels club, has returned and is busy entertaining adults and kids in Bethlehem.
Dave Fry is definitely in his element.
Barefoot on stage at Musikfest's Banana Island, with a sack of shakers, tambourines and wood blocks spilling onto the ground, Fry has a group of children hanging on his every word.
At Fry's command, kids big and small clamber onto the stage to do the motions to "Baby Shark." Using their forefinger and thumb, the kids gleefully follow Fry in making chomping motions as they sing along with the simple lyrics — "Baby shark do do do do do do."
It's through moments like these that Fry has developed a following for his children's concerts.
"He's got a great mix of fun, humor and musical talent that the kids are really drawn to," says Tony Pagliaroli of Bethlehem, father of two preschoolers. "We're big, big fans. In his own lyrics — he's a superstar!"
Fry, 62, is more often called upon to perform for children these days. But he's a folk singer/songwriter who still performs for adults, too.
"Dave is a populist," says Bill George, founder of Bethlehem's Touchstone Theatre. "He's interested in the voice of the people."
He may be best known locally as the man who helped in the 1970s launch Godfrey Daniels, the nationally known folk listening room in Bethlehem.
Last year, Fry returned to Bethlehem after living in Connecticut for 10 years — although he never completely left. He kept an apartment in Bethlehem for his frequent trips back to perform.
It's a busy time for Fry, who is working on his first new children's CD in more than 10 years, And on Thursday he will be honored with a Tribute to the Arts award from Bethlehem Fine Arts Commission.
"He's a really powerful human force for making Bethlehem a better place," says George. "He's an absolute treasure to Bethlehem."
George graduated with Fry from Lehigh University in 1973. He says Fry was one of the artists who inspired him to stay in Bethlehem. "He gave me the courage to do my own arts thing," George says. "The idea that folk and Godfrey Daniels were for everybody appealed to me. It had a sense of the powerful and transformative culture of art."
Fry was a student at Lehigh University in the "hippy, dippy days" of the early 1970s. Although a musician, he took engineering and philosophy because, he says, a teacher told him if he took music theory he would have to march with the band.
Instead he got involved with the university's coffeehouse, Catacombs, in the basement of Packer Chapel, where he got to hear folk greats like Pete Seeger and Doc Watson.
After graduation, Fry felt Bethlehem needed a listening room. When he heard there was a closed doughnut shop on Fourth Street, he and Cindy Dinsmore rented it out and discovered "a whole community of people who wanted to volunteer."
The storefront opened in 1976 as a folk music coffeehouse called "Godfrey Daniels" after an expression used by W. C. Fields (used in place of god damn.)
"Word got out in New York City that there was a listening room out in the country where they would feed and put up musicians," says Fry, who booked acts and hosted concerts for the venue for nearly 30 years.
Godfrey's became a stop on the national folk circuit and attracted big names like Stan Rogers, Grammy-winner Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Townes Van Zandt and Tom Paxton.
In the early 1980s, Fry worked with the newly founded Touchstone Theatre, performing in children's theater productions such as "Yellow Moon Jamboree," "Peace Train" and "Comic Book Kid." "Touchstone introduced me to playing in schools and taught me street theater," he says.
In 1987, Fry played on the main stage of the famed Philadelphia Folk Festival. "For a folk musician, that's about as cool as it gets," he says.
But it also was a defining moment for Fry in another way.
"When I was on the stage and they turned the lights on, I couldn't see the audience," he says. "I realized how important the audience is for me. It helps define my creativity."
Fry soon embarked on a new adventure — "RockRoots." Fry and three other musicians present the history of American pop music in the school assembly program.
"It's six months of curriculum in 45 minutes," Fry says. "The guys in the band love it. We get to play Delta blues, Motown, Muddy Waters and Jimmy Hendrix."
The program has been a hit in New Jersey schools for 20 years, and Fry has performed in front of thousands of students. The program never got a foothold in Pennsylvania schools.
Fry released an adult CD, "Pearls," as well as his first kid's CD, "I Like Peanut Butter," in 1998. Two years later, he followed up with another kid's CD, "Shake It."
As the field of children's music grew, Fry found himself doing more and more concerts for kids.
"It's kind of the Tom Chapin curse," Fry says, referring to the songwriter better known for his children's than his adult material. "You accept it but you can't be defined by it."
He says doing programs for south Bethlehem preschoolers "really shaped" what he does. "You get tremendous feedback from kids. The 2-year-olds had their hands all over my guitar, and that's when I bought the bag of instruments. The 2-year-olds made me think outside the box."
He takes the instruments with him to concerts, and all ages can participate.
"When we play music together, it keeps me and the audience in the moment," he says. "That's where true learning happens. I've come to view all my gigs as my laboratory. I am constantly growing, changing and adapting with every gig. That's what keeps things fresh and alive."
George calls Fry a "remarkable performer."
"He's a wit with a sense of humor that rivals Mark Twain's," he says. "He has a love of children and an accessibility that make children feel at home. He's a rascal just like them."
He says the decision to do a new kids CD came from parents who have asked him: When's the next one?
The new disc, tentatively titled "Dave Fry Live at the Playground," will include some of the material he does in concerts that hasn't been recorded, including "Baby Shark." The project is funded by a grant from Beall and Linny Fowler.
Fry wants the CD to be filled with playground songs that children helped create. He calls the recording "playfully percussive," with organic sounds and jump ropes, drawing on influences from folk singers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
Fry remains involved with Godfrey Daniels, where he helps with publicity and maintains the archives of posters, photos, articles and recordings.
"Godfrey Daniels is unique in that it's a listening room," Fry says. "Artists get to play for a listening audience and the audience gets to experience world-class performers. It's rare, especially in a small venue. Interactions are heightened for both the audience and performer. That's why performers want to play here and why people want to come here. Its uniqueness sometimes baffles people."
He also has returned to doing radio programs on WDIY to increase awareness of folk music.
Fry says he is honored by his upcoming award from Bethlehem.
"The recognition is cool," he says. "It grasps what I am as a performing artist. At the crux of what I do, I try to create community. I learned from Pete Seeger of the power when one person, one instrument and a group of people get together. That's why I do even the silliest stuff, breaking down the barriers."
WHERE TO SEE DAVE FRY
•Allentown's 250th Anniversary Community Festival
•What: Fry is one of more than a dozen local performers at the community celebration for Allentown's anniversary celebration.
•When: 3:40 p.m. today
•Where: Bandshell, Eighth and Hamilton streets, Allentown
•How much: Free
•Vintage Open Mike with Dave Fry
•What: Fry hosts an open mike featuring regional artists from the early days of Godfrey Daniels
•When: 7 p.m. Sunday
•Where: Godfrey Daniels, 7 E. 4th St., Bethlehem
•How much: $3.50
•Info: 610-867-2390, http://www.godfreydaniels.org