Back in high school, the 1964/1965 World's Fair was Rick Cashman's stage. When he and his garage band, The Centurian Beets, played at the New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Cashman not only had a venue to indulge his passion for music -- playing a mix of pop hits like "Woolly Bully" and "You Really Got Me" and their own songs -- but he also got his first taste of stardom.
"We were little stars, and when we would get off the stage . . . some little girl from Ohio would have you sign autographs," he said.
But the Beets didn't go on. Once college beckoned, Cashman and his bandmates parted ways. Then he got married, raised a family in Smithtown and settled into a career as a business continuity planner. But Cashman, 64, always knew he had to get back to music. And even though his band had played pop and rock, he listened to a lot of folk music growing up. "Right before The Beatles you had a folk craze with Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio. You could go from Jimi Hendrix to Joni Mitchell and hear both on the same radio station," he recalled.
Four years ago, he was making "a popcorn run at King Kullen" when he passed by Acoustic Long Island, a popular performing spot in Huntington for folk singers. "I thought, 'You can do this,' " he said.
Since then he's been performing regularly and is part of the music community known as the Folk Music Society of Huntington, where he sings and plays guitar with his group Cafe Racers, which includes violinist Lynne Bowden, 52, of Bayport and flutist Jay Loomis, 37, of Stony Brook.
"They make the lousy songs that I write come alive," he joked after a performance at the Folk Music Society of Huntington's monthly Saturday night concert in June. "I do the guidelines and they fill in the blanks to make it sound good."
They are among the more than 200 members of the Folk Music Society of Huntington (fmsh.org) who gather to perform or listen to both classic and original folk songs at the organization's many functions, including open mic nights, first Saturday concerts at the Congregational Church of Huntington in Centerport, monthly jams at the Huntington Library, and Hard Luck Cafe concerts at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington.
And then there's the Huntington Folk Festival in Heckscher Park, scheduled for July 22, the society's annual bash which, this year, will feature homegrown performers such as Lois Morton of Huntington, whose specialty is comic songs, a 40th anniversary tribute to Joni Mitchell's "Blue" album and a 100th-birthday salute to Woody Guthrie.
While those tributes offer a nod to the past, there's a lot more to folk music than "Kumbaya" and "If I Had a Hammer." "This is not your grandparents' folk music," said Michael Kornfeld, president of the Folk Music Society of Huntington. "Folk music covers a wide field from contemporary music to Cajun to zydeco to bluegrass and new grass."
Morton, a 78-year-old folkie whose previous careers included teacher and psychotherapist, puts a humorous spin on her Tom Lehrer-ish tunes that cover topics as diverse as road rage and cellphones. She even muses about dry mouth in her ditty on the side effects of medications.
"I had a three-year excursion into songwriting in the late '60s and then I stopped for 25 years," says Morton, who lives in Huntington. "I came back to it in the middle of when my husband had Alzheimer's and I wrote a lot of sad songs. Then 2006 was the year I finally started to see the funny side of life."
Life experience has also influenced Hank Stone, 60, a postal clerk from Patchogue, who started performing at open mics 11 years ago. Stone, who performs with his trio Rough Folk, has shared both his struggles and his childhood memories in his music. "My family was going through some rough stuff for a few years. We had some financial difficulty," Stone said at the society's June concert. "I got a lot of good songs out of that. Some were songs of heartache, but I found some songs of hope."
One of those hopeful songs, "Sycamore," is about a tree he climbed when he was a child. "It's very personal, and people seem to relate to it."
For the Folk Music Society of Huntington, the song began in 1968, when some folk music fans began the group with the intent to keep the spirit of traditional folk music alive. At the time, membership consisted of seven people.
Partnering with the Cinema Arts Centre on Hard Luck Cafe concerts has not only attracted more members, but also brought in touring artists, usually paired with local performers. All concerts are usually preceded by an open mic.
"We look at ourselves as not just presenting music, but forging a community around the music," Kornfeld said. "After each of our first Saturday concerts, for example, one board member hosts a party at their house for members who come to the concert and artists performing that night. People bring food, chips, soda. And people bring their guitars and fiddles."
One of those sure to have guitar in hand is Jesse Oelbaum of Syosset, the society's treasurer. Oelbaum, 57, who only performs covers of other artists' songs ("I don't think my stuff is good enough yet"), began performing about five years ago. His first number: the overture to The Who's "Tommy."
"It's different playing in front of people because you try to improvise and that's when you make mistakes. But if you can cover up your mistakes, that's when it sounds good because it's live. It's not perfect."
Unlike playing in bars or even a coffeehouse where there's background chatter, at Folk Music Society concerts the audience is attentive. "I love an audience that is not there sitting at a table," Cashman says. "They're with the music and you're not far from the audience. And you're not competing with someone's order for onion rings."
As with any special interest group concerned with growth and longevity, society members recognize that it's been important to attract younger members, such as Eli Maniscalco, 27, of Huntington, who says he's been a musician since childhood and a songwriter for almost as long.
"So it was a matter of finding a community that supported what I wanted to do," which he describes as a mix of rock and jazz. "Pretty much anything as long as it sounds good with a guitar," he says.
And don't be surprised if Cafe Racers adds another violinist to the group soon.
"My daughter Sophie plays the violin," Bowden says of his 9 year old. "She's been playing since she was 4. She's better than I am. We're going to get her up there soon."
Huntington Folk Festival
WHEN | WHERE Heckscher Park in Huntington, July 22 starting at noon, through 11 p.m.
HIGHLIGHTS Performances by The Levins and The Ya Yas (4 p.m.); songs from and inspired by Joni Mitchell's Blue Album (5 p.m.); A hootenanny-style musical tribute to celebrate Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday (5:45 p.m.); the emerging artists showcase on the Chapin Rainbow Stage (8:30 p.m.)
HOW MUCH Free; bring lawn chairs, blankets and picnic baskets