Saturday, October 31, 2020
Bangor’s 35th annual Hootenanny music festival was a little smaller than usual this year and the venue was changed to the front porch of event founder John McCue, pictured front left. Also pictured are, from left, John Ward, Jay Hoffman and Dave Zwiee. Contributed photo

A little music festival with a lot of heart

Bangor’s 35th annual ‘Hootenanny’ goes off unnoticed – by design

While it’s no Summerfest, Bangor’s annual Hootenanny music festival is an important tradition for a lot of area musicians.

One in particular is John McCue, who started the event, held every Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, in 1986. And after a run like that, he wasn’t going to let something like a pandemic ruin its 35-year streak.

The Hootenanny was scheduled to be held at Leo & Leona’s Bar on Middle Ridge May 24, but with the arrival of the COVID-19 virus, all events at the bar were cancelled. So, McCue, respecting social distancing and other health guidelines, held a much abbreviated and unadvertised event on his front porch in Bangor.

He and three other musicians, Dave Zwiee, John Ward and Jay Hoffman, played a mix a folk, country, rock and blues, the music the down-home festival is known for. 

In effect, the event returned to its roots. It began on McCue’s front porch as a jam of local musicians he met while bartending in La Crosse in the mid-80s. He invited a few of them to his house, which, at the time, was located just outside Rockland for a jam session on Memorial Day weekend.

Zwiee was one of those musicians and McCue considers him a co-founder of the Hootenanny, especially since he came up with the colloquial name for the event.

“After we jammed that day and we had some beers and straightened the world out, I said ‘hey, we ought to do this again next year, let’s make a thing of it,” said McCue.

Over its three-and-a-half-decade history, the Hootenanny has been held mostly in the Bangor Park and has gone through a few different iterations, including the Hobo Hootenanny to honor some of the hobo royalty who have attended.

In 2014, McCue himself was selected King of the Hobos at the annual Hobo Convention held each year in Iowa. His hobo name is appropriately “Songbird” and his Queen that year was Miss Cindy Lou, who is known outside of the hobo community as Cindy Pacheaco.

She lives in Hasting, MN and works in senior facilities. She couldn’t make it to this year’s Hootenanny but McCue serenaded her over speaker phone with the John Prine tune, “The Hobo Song” as she maintained her social distance from a state away.

There also have been some well-known musicians -- at least well known in certain circles -- who have performed at the Hootenanny, including:

Larry Penn, a WWII veteran and folk musician; Fred Starner, a banjo player who rubbed elbows with both American Folks songwriter Pete Seger and Don McClain of American Pie fame; Spider Koerner, a good friend of Bob Dylan, who devoted a chapter to him in one of his books; the St. Louis blues band Dutch Schultz & the Untouchables; and Irene Keenan Jr.

There are plenty of local singer-songwriters who also show up to jam.

But the Hootenanny is more than just a small-town music festival. McCue, a Vietnam War veteran and founder of the organization Veterans Opposing War, uses the event to raise awareness of the POW and MIA issue as well as raise funds for different causes.

In the past, the festival has contributed money to the Salvation Army, Special Olympics, Freedom Honor Flight, New Horizons, Coulee Council on Addiction, The High Ground, Children’s Miracle Network and Sunshine on the Trail. The Bangor-Burns Fire Department and booster clubs from the Bangor and West Salem high schools have also received donations.

McCue said he hopes to continue the festival for years to come and wants people to watch for the 36th Annual Hootenanny next Memorial Day weekend at Leo & Leona’s – “If all goes well.”

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