60-year friendship powers folk music group at Piedmont Gardens

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April 30, 2021 -- Helen Rubardt walked through the doors of Piedmont Gardens for the first time seven years ago, she immediately recognized a familiar face.

“Vangie was sitting in the hall; she looked exactly the same,” laughed Rubardt. “I felt like I really moved to the right place.”

It was an unexpected reunion for the pair who’ve spent the better part of six decades playing and socializing in the same Bay Area folk music community.

“I was just so delighted when I saw her,” added Buell, who had moved to the community the year prior.

Music — classical, jazz, blues — has always been a constant presence in both their lives since childhood, but their love affair with folk music started in 1952. Buell, on a first date with her husband, saw Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson perform in a San Francisco warehouse. Helen, in high school, was invited to her former husband’s house to listen to Burl Ives and play guitar.

Six years later they were formally introduced and spent the next six decades in the epicenter of American folk music in Berkeley and the Bay Area. They both taught — Buell guitar and Rubardt voice — raised families, attended festivals and events, performed, and socialized with legendary voices like Seeger, Joan Baez, and Malvina Reynolds.

“Folk music in America expresses the progressive aspect of America, and songs handed down through generations of families sharing their lives, families making music together,” explained Buell. “Emphasis is on the involvement of family groups because that is the tradition of folk music. Today we are family making music together at Piedmont Gardens.”

Every other Wednesday, the pair leads Hootenanny jam sessions, hour-long performances in their community’s outdoor courtyard. The small group of residents and team members rehearses three days a week and performs a new themed set every other week.

Rubardt said they keep it light and fun and have even welcomed their children and grandchildren in performances, many who have followed in their folk music footsteps.

“The challenge is there are lots of different versions of songs,” said Rubardt. “It’s so surprising Vangie and I seem to know the same versions; that’s what nearly 70 years will do.”

And what do their friends and neighbors think of regular performances by musicians of their caliber and experience?

“They love it,” chuckled Buell. “We’re in demand.”



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