From its beginnings as a small music festival and farmers' market, Paonia blues musician Howard Berkman was a big supporter of the Mountain Harvest Festival. A consummate musician, he was a perennial favorite at the first 10 festivals, until his untimely death in 2011.
On Sunday, the 16th annual Mountain Harvest Festival closed out with a concert by the Mountain Harvest Festival All-Star Band, a group of seven of Berkman's musician friends. Before their set, a plaque honoring Berkman was unveiled and the stage was officially named the Howard Berkman Memorial Stage in honor of, "Chicago's son, Paonia's beloved troubadour."
Before the dedication, blues guitarist Johnny Ohnmacht and the Johnny O Band took the stage. Berkman mentored Ohnmacht during their Carbondale days, and the Johnny O Band has recorded some of his songs. Berkman's nephew, Kyle Sage, joined Johnny O on stage, playing a red electric Gibson guitar that belonged to his uncle.
MHF executive director Heidi Hudek called the dedication "a special moment for us. We are so grateful that Johnny O could be here to share some of Howard Berkman's spirit."
Following his death, his family established a memorial fund to benefit local aspiring music students. Earlier this year the fund was closed and the family donated the remaining funds to the Blue Sage Center for the Arts and to Berkman's friends to help fund upgrades to the stage at Paonia Town Park where Berkman loved to perform. Trustees for the Town of Paonia, which owns the stage, gave their blessing for the work and the naming of the stage.
"We are here today to dedicate the town park stage to our friend, compatriot and musical brother in arms, Howard Berkman," said Paonia musician Rick Stockton, who spearheaded work on the stage and raised the balance of funds needed to finish the project. "Anybody who lived in town probably knew Howard."
Stockton told of Berkman growing up in a musical family in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. He was surrounded by the music of the time, most notably the Chicago blues. At a young age he followed in his father's footsteps and picked up a guitar, performing in the Chicago area by the time he was a teenager. He also taught guitar lessons. Among his students was Steve Goodman, who went on to pen "City of New Orleans."
Berkman founded the band The Naves in 1964 and performed with many of the great Chicago blues musicians of the time. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he formed the band, Yama and the Karma Dusters. Stockton said that recordings by both bands have recently been re-released.
Berkman landed in Paris, said Stockton, where he was a songwriter and producer for Decca Records. When he returned to America he landed in Carbondale, where he remained a fixture in the local music scene for almost 30 years. After recording a record at Stockton's studio in Paonia he decided to make the town his home. "He quickly became a fixture," said Stockton, "making friends, not just with the musical crowd, but with anyone who enjoyed a lively conversation or who wanted to share a crazy story."
Berkman was a great supporter of Mountain Harvest Festival, said Stockton, who is credited with founding the festival when his wife and singer/musician Helen Highwater decided to throw a street party to highlight the musicians who had recorded at their studio. "He charmed and rocked the audiences every year for the first 10 years of the festival. We were lucky to have him."
"I just wanted to say that Howard really loved Paonia," said Berkman's sister, Felice Sage, who along with husband Darryl spoke at the ceremony. "And I want to thank all of Paonia for loving him back."