Instrumentalist, vocalist, songwriter

Current hometown: Petersburgh

Current project: Songwriting for a CD and creating new videos

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Deb Cavanaugh has (so far) had a fascinating life exploring music in myriad ways. At age 20 she hitchhiked with her husband from her hometown of Stamford, Connecticut, to San Francisco, to live in what she called a “hippie commune.” She subsequently crisscrossed the country in a Volkswagen bus, paying music on street corners and in cafés, before landing in Albany in 1982. In addition to playing with her band Dandelion Wine, she hosts singing and dancing events for kids under the name Miss Deb. She also has a particular interest in Appalachian folk arts such as the crankie, as she describes in more detail below.

If I were to ask you to describe yourself as an artist, what would you say?

I would say, I’m Deb Cavanaugh, I’m a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, teacher, singer-songwriter and memoirist… I use my creativity to expand our human connection, and bring in awareness of traditional American culture.

That’s a lot to unpack! Tell me more about some of the instruments that you play.

My main instruments are vocals, guitar and mountain dulcimer. In addition to that, I dabble with ukulele, mandolin, banjo and I’ve been playing classical piano since I was a kid.

Up until ’93, I was mostly a singer and percussionist in a rock ‘n‘ roll band (General Eclectic). Then I divorced my former husband who was the guitar player, and decided… rather than looking for people to back me up, it was time to learn to play the guitar. I was 40 at that point.

And then I met a fellow who was totally immersed in the traditional folk scene, and we were driving down the road one day and he wanted me to serenade him. Pulled over and handed me a mandolin, which I had never played before… He was an amateur luthier, so he was always looking for instruments in pawn shops and tag sales. He (later) brought home a mountain dulcimer, and I started playing that. That is my favorite at this point. 

Was this a romantic relationship?

It was… I’ve actually had two 20-year relationships now, and they were both (C)avanaughs. The first one I married and I took his name, the second one was Kavanaugh with a “K.” We had a duo, Cavanaugh and Kavanaugh.

What would you say have been some of your influences as an artist?

Both of those long-term partners were huge influences in my music… but I would have to say my dad was the first, and probably the biggest one. His family was all musical.

He always supported my music. I can’t remember ever not singing at home… after dinner, we’d clear the table and we’d all sit around and sing and play spoons and whatever other instruments were around. We sang in the car, on trips… it just was a really integral part of my childhood. 

Tell me about your involvement as an artist in the community.

My main gig right now is working with children… Heldeberg Music Together is my franchise. It’s music classes for families with children ages birth through 7. My job is to teach families how to become a musical family.

Are there a number of families taking advantage of it?

Currently, it’s very small… people really want in-person classes.

In addition to the classes, I was teaching in preschools and I was doing libraries and museums. All of that has dried up.

So that’s one of the ways the pandemic has impacted you as an artist. Are there others?

Negatively, it’s reduced my income dramatically. But, creatively, it has given me a lot of time to focus on other things. I just recently finished a crankie roll for the New York Folklore Society.

Tell me about the crankie.

I think it’s really important that everyone living in this country know about American culture, because it’s so much more than the corporate culture we’re exposed to all the time. Included in that is the mountain dulcimer; the limberjack, which I play —

What is that?

Ah! My dad actually used to carve these, but he called them a “Dancing Dan.” It’s a wooden man on a stick, and you have a thin pine board that you’re sitting on. You hold the limberjack so that his feet are resting on the board, and you keep the beat of the song by pounding the board with your hand. His feet hit the board and create the percussion; his arms and legs are all jointed, so he’s also flailing around.

A visual feast to go along with the music.

Absolutely. Similar to the crankie… I’m singing the song as the scroll is moving. I have made them out of paper; I did one for “Big Rock Candy Mountain” that had black silhouettes (with) colored cellophane cutouts… the one that I just finished I made on Tyvek, which is the covering that they put on the outside of homes before they put the siding up. It’s kind of plasticky and more durable. I rubber-cemented felt shapes on top of that.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been doing a lot of songwriting during the pandemic. My partner runs a recording studio here, so he is helping me put a CD together. I am also working on doing some new “Miss Deb” videos that I’m hoping to market to schools and libraries. I’m also going to do a video of this new crankie roll.

You mentioned your partner; is this the same person from earlier?

Nope, this is another one! I guaranteed him at least 20 years… I spent 20 years with each of the others.

You’ve kind of answered it a little bit already, but… if I said to you, “I don’t think the arts are very important,” what might you say to get me to reconsider?

I would ask you to look through history at the ways that music has lightened our loads. People have used music while they were working; when they were building the railroads and they had to hit the spikes at a certain time, they used the beat of the music to coordinate that. During really hard times throughout history, you’ll see the music really keeping people together and bringing up their hopes. I think of World War II and all the songs that were popular then. It was all about keeping peoples’ spirits up, and reminding them that there were better times to come.

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