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Q&A with Ron Cary, teacher turned tavern music singer

NORTH TONAWANDA – Ron Cary’s second career as a singer of 18th century tavern music has led the retired music teacher and his wife to unexpected places, including one of his current favorites: a tree inside the Old Fort Niagara where he heads to sing and play guitar whenever the spirit moves him.

“We just started going up there and plopping ourselves at the one tree that’s in the fort there,” he said. “I’ve kind of become the fort’s unofficial fort singer.”

Cary, 66, spent 40 years teaching music in the North Tonawanda school system. What came next followed his reluctant acquiescence to his wife’s idea to try an 18th century dance class at the fort. “My first impression was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ My dancing skills are quite underdeveloped,” he said. “It was tough at first. I couldn’t remember the steps and the patterns.”

But then: “I kind of got to liking it.” When the dance instructor, Jere Brubaker, also curator at the fort, said he could use more volunteers to roam the grounds and show tourists what the place used to be like, Cary decided that would be fun.

After all, his second love after music was history. His wife, Deborah, was a social studies teacher, and her interests were similar. They researched 18th century characters. There were already plenty of people dressing up as soldiers. So they came up with the idea for him to perform as an itinerant tavern singer who traveled with his embroidering wife.

Now she uses a portable period-style embroidery frame Cary made, applies the needlepoint she learned from her mother as a girl and works on a long vest known as a waistcoat – and pronounced, “westcot.”

“I sit and sing, and she sits next to me working on my 18th century clothing,” Cary said. “We affectionately call it the never-ending waistcoat. … I’ll probably be lucky if I get buried in it.”

Find Cary at fort activities and fundraisers like the twice-a-year “Tavern Nights,” the French and Indian War encampment in July or the 12th Night Ball in January.

He is also applying his talent for history as the Niagara County deputy historian. He helps manage historic records and assist people with projects like genealogy research.

“It’s fun playing history detective. People come in looking for a certain thing,” he said, recalling a man he had just helped find a naturalization document for a German ancestor. “He was thrilled because there, on the document, was his great-great-grandfather’s signature, which he’d never seen before.”

How did you learn about tavern singing?

In the old days – that means pre-Internet days – one would have had to have gone to the library. Google, “18th century tavern songs,” and a whole bunch of sites pop up. The Internet makes that kind of research now extremely easy to do.

Do you have a favorite?

There is one song called “Red Is the Rose.” It is supposed to be an Irish song. The lyrics and the melody were supposed to be from early 1700s Ireland … I happen to like the melody. It’s unrequited love. He’s lost his love at the end of the song. He’s singing about how, “Isn’t love wonderful?” But it’s so sad that for whatever reason she’s gone. It’s a typical love song.

What are the songs like?

Just being in a tavern environment, the songs that I do there, they’re kind of almost two-way songs. They’re all bawdy. The operative word is bawdy. They’re not dirty.

Most of the bawdy ballads of the 18th century were suggestive double entendres, where you didn’t come right out and say it. I have a song that I use on my lecture demonstration. It’s called, “The Keyhole in the Door.”

And it’s about a person who takes a room in a tavern and peeps through the keyhole and sees a young girl undressing on the other side, opens the door, and one thing leads to another, and in the morning he wakes up and a certain part of his anatomy is sore, and the moral at the end of the story is “Be careful what you do because you never know what’s in store for you.”

I sang that at a recitation for a group of women. Some were quite elderly, and at the end people were coming up and talking to me, and one of the elderly ladies came up to me. She looked at me with a twinkle in her eye and said, “Young man, that was the dirtiest song I ever heard,” and she paused and said, “‘I just loved it.”

The 18th century tavern patrons seem to love songs that are stories.

Have you had any interesting encounters with your audience at the fort?

I was up there one Sunday by myself. It was a Sunday in July about maybe seven years ago. I sang a song called, “The Jolly Miller.”

Basically, what it talks about is that this miller is saying he doesn’t care what other people think about him. He basically lives from day to day and that he’s quite content in being a miller and basically there’s nothing better in life than to be a miller. Flour miller. You know, grinding flour.

I finished it, and a family from India came up to me. The father was very excited. He said, “I need to tell you that song I hadn’t heard in 40 years. When I was gong to school as a young boy in India and we were learning to speak English, that was the song that teacher used.”

It’s small world. I’m singing a British song about a miller, that was Britain in the late 1800s. Here, a gentlemen from a foreign country learned that song as a child in a class where they were teaching English.

Has this singing taught you anything about yourself?

For 40 years I basically channeled all my performance abilities into a directing a chorus or directing a musical show. What I didn’t realize was how much I missed the actual performing or entertaining aspect of my musicianship.

If you’re a musician, if you are that kind of an entertainer, it’s what we do. We entertain. We perform for people. That’s our addiction. That’s our drug. That’s our high. That’s what we do. It doesn’t matter if you’re sitting there doing it for one, two or three people. The thrill is the performing and getting up there and watching people’s faces and interacting.

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting column? Write to: Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email or