East River Folk Society

Jeff Karoub performs on the Downriver Council for the Arts stage during an open mic night. Photo by Dave Gorgon.

Celebrating 30 years of timeless entertainment

Dave Gorgon

Folk music is alive and well every second Saturday of the month at the Downriver Council of the Arts at 81 Chestnut Street in Wyandotte.

Organizers of the East River Folk Society are celebrating 30 years by inviting entertainers to open-mic nights and inviting music lovers to enjoy timeless music.

On March 14, eight to 10 musicians can sign up between 6 and 6:45 p.m. to perform in a coffee-house style setting. The music starts at 7 p.m. and concludes with a Celtic music show – just in time for St. Patrick’s Day – featuring the Irish trio KilMullen with Andy Kilburn on fiddle, Kim Kilburn on tin whistle and Mike Mullen on Celtic harp.

Admission is $3 for members of the society or the arts council; $5 for everyone else. Coffee and snacks will be available.

Open-mic nights are scheduled monthly from September through May. 

The February concert drew musicians from throughout the region and featured singer-songwriter Jeff Karoub as the featured performer – and drew the largest crowd in recent memory.

All musicians perform for free and proceeds are divided between the nonprofit East River Folk Society and the DCA.

The arts council is a new venue for the East River Folk Society, which was founded in the summer of 1989 by Mullen and fellow Grosse Ile musicians George Stewart and Mary Colie.

Mullen, who has a graphic design and letter press studio in the basement of the arts council, recently returned as president of the organization he helped create. He struck an agreement with DCA Executive Director Erin Suess to move into the current facility. He recruits feature performers and is an avid promoter of the open-mic nights.

“I knew the DCA would be a terrific spot,” Mullen said. “It’s a wonderful venue. The room has a great vibe for music.”

He said folk music was most popular during the 1960s. The term “folk music” originated in the 19th Century. Top folk music performers have included the Kingston Trio, Gordon Lightfoot, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Arlo and Woody Guthrie and Simon and Garfunkel.

“Folk music transcends generations and transcends musical taste,” Mullen said. “Folk music is a big umbrella. We attract many performers that have nothing to do with folk music who like to sing and play the guitar. My emphasis has been acoustic music and bringing it back to the singer-songwriter.”

Mullen remembers his brother Bob performing folk music as president of the folk music society at Wayne State. Mullen said Bob was part of a trio that included best friend Dr. Tom Dickoff that made numerous recordings and was just about to “take off” when Bob drowned in a boating accident.

Mullen, who was 10 years old at the time, said he saved Bob’s guitar and continues playing it to this day. He also plays the mountain dulcimer and the Celtic harp.

In the 1980s, Mullen and Stewart, now deceased, performed at Stewart’s Grosse Ile restaurant Truly Gourmet. The two had met while performing at a Crop Walk in 1983 at St. James Episcopal Church. Despite a 20-year age difference, they clicked and continued performing together.

“Mary heard us several times and came up with the idea to have a monthly folk music event,” Mullen said. “She thought George and I could perform and have others perform.”

Jeff Karoub (left) of Dearborn, Alayna Will of Wyandotte, Mike Mullen of Grosse Ile, John Rinn of Dearborn Heights, Battered Hat of Dearborn, Rick Pitts of Dearborn Heights, Bobby Carroll of Lincoln Park. Photo by Dave Gorgon

Mullen said the East River Folk Society originated at the Grosse Ile Recreation Department, where Colie worked, and moved to the St. James, which is located on East River Road. While the location has changed several times, the name East River remains.

Years later, Stewart moved to Lexington and formed the Blue Water Folk Society and Thumbfest, the single largest one-day folk music event in Michigan, which drew performers from all over the Midwest.

Mullen served as president of the East River Folk Society until 1995 when he moved to Plymouth. He started the Baseline Folk Society in Northville in 2005. The group is still going strong.

The East River society moved to Wyandotte in the mid-1990s, originally at the First Presbyterian Church, until it closed, and then St. John Episcopal Church.

Mullen credits Rick Pitts with keeping the society “alive.” Pitts was president when he met with Mullen and Colie last summer and asked them to get involved again. Pitts remains treasurer of the society and is the lighting engineer during open-mic nights. He also performs. Colie now resides in Brownstown Township.

Mullen is in multiple singing groups. In 2004, years after his brother’s death, Mullen found a number of recordings that his brother did with Dickoff. Mullen, Dickoff and Dr. Jeff London formed a band called Pairadocs.

“My brother’s music partner is now my music partner,” said Mullen, who once again lives on Grosse Ile.

Meanwhile, the East River Folk Society “is doing just as I hoped,” he said. “We had the largest turnout in recent memory,” thanks in part to Downriver native Karoub, a reporter for Associated Press whose musical career has a following.

“The Downriver Council for the Arts is an amazing organization,” Mullen said. “It’s such a good fit for the East River Folk Society. I don’t know any open mics that have been going on longer than this one. A 30-year run is pretty significant.”

Karoub got his start at East River in the early-to-mid-1990s as half of the duo “Jar.” A decade later, he began honing his craft as a solo artist. In the 2010s, he released four albums under his own name and has been sharing songs and stories across the Great Lakes region.

His reconnection with East River came when Karoub and Mullen were working for a media startup in Ann Arbor in the early 2000s. Mullen invited him to perform in February.

“I guess you can go home again,” joked Karoub, who plays the guitar, mandolin, fiddle and piano. “When Mike invited me, I thought it would be great to rejoin a fantastic folk tradition that once welcomed me and showed me a glimpse of the connection a performing songwriter can make with an audience – beyond the garage or basement.”

Karoub agreed that the folk society is a great match with the DCA, which is “all about promoting visual and performing arts, while the East River Folk Society is all about showcasing Downriver area singer-songwriters and musicians, so there’s a natural fit between these two local organization. As someone who believes connecting with people is the most important thing I can do as a performer, this is the best way to do it.”

To learn more about Jeff Karoub and his latest album Pieces Break, visit the website www.jeffkaroub.hearnow.com.

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