The Bayman
A Life on Barnegat Bay

by Merce Ridgway

222 pages, 23 chapters,
38 photographs, index.
$24.95 hardcover
ISBN 0-945582-62-5

This story appeared in The SandPaper, 7/12/00, and is reprinted with permission. ©2000 Jersey Shore Newsmagazines. It is reprinted in its entirety.

Making Piney Music at the
Albert Brothers’ Homeplace

By PAT JOHNSON

Merce Ridgway’s book, The Bayman, A Life on Barnegat Bay, is autobiographical, and although it deals primarily with how Ridgway’s life intertwined with the bay, it would not be complete without a section on his music.

Ridgway always loved the music he heard as a child. His father, Merce Ridgway Sr., was a singer/songwriter with the original Pinehawkers, the group selected by folklorist Dorothea Dix Lawrence to represent New Jersey at a 1941 National Folk Festival in Washington, D.C. They were also on the radio and early television.

Merce learned to play the guitar as naturally as he learned to clam and hunt.

Russell Horner of Tuckerton is one of Ridgway’s distant cousins. His maternal grandfather was a clammer, as were three of his uncles. But he didn’t meet Ridgway out on the bay; he met him at the Albert brothers’ deer hunting camp in Waretown. For more than 20 years, the Albert brothers opened their hunting cabin up every Saturday night to local musicians who could play such instruments as the guitar, banjo, fiddle, harmonica, spoons, washboard and washtub.

Horner and Ridgway both play the guitar and were individually invited to the “Homeplace,” as it came to be called, to sing the old songs that had entertained Pine Barrens folks for generations.

Speaking of those times, Horner said, “I got out of the army in ’59 and returned home to Waretown, and Joe and George Albert had started a music night at their hunting camp on Saturday nights.

“It was a relatively small gathering then. Then some newspaper wanted to write an article and more people came, and then one person told their friends and it got to the point where they couldn’t handle it anymore.

“I remember one night in particular. The way it was set up was, there was a great room with bunk beds lining the wall; that was where the musicians played. Then there was a smaller kitchen. Well, Joe (Albert) was standing in the doorway between the two rooms and this young guy had to squeeze by him to get in to play. When he came back out, he squeezed by him again and he said to me, ‘If that old guy doesn’t move out of the way, I’m going to have to push him out.’

“I said, ‘I wouldn’t do that to the guy, it’s his house.’ I think some people had the impression that it was a piney nightclub. The state police would come by once in a while and patrol it; that would help a little.

“Another thing,” said Horner, “the Alberts ran it like they were expecting company. There was always coffee and cake in the kitchen. People would bring stuff; the old-timers would bring something homemade. The younger folks would just stop at the store and bring a package of doughnuts.

“Eventually, most of the homemade chocolate cakes and stuff was put away and the store-bought stuff was put out for everybody to eat. Well, that was their right,” Horner laughed.

When George Albert died, Joe Albert kept the Saturday night music going as long as he could while the popularity of the place literally overwhelmed him.

Ridgway describes his last trip out to the Homeplace.

“The last time I went on a Saturday night, I had to park a long ways off and walk in with my guitar. I found at least three groups were playing on the grounds for a big gang of people who were milling about and drinking beer. There was another group playing on the porch, another group playing in the kitchen, while the main room and music were filled to capacity.

“I sadly walked back to my car and went on home. There were far too many people as far as I was concerned.”

After the music at the Homeplace stopped, Ridgway and the other musicians talked about finding some other place to play, but it was six months before a suitable spot presented itself.

Ridgway and his wife were regulars at the Waretown Auction, and the owner offered them the rental of the hall on Friday nights. Merce spread the word through the music community. Not everyone was as enthusiastic.

“I was probably one of the naysayers,” said Horner. “I really didn’t think enough people would want to listen to amateurs play music, but I was wrong.”

After a terrific first night, the Auction musical nights became a regional staple for music players and music lovers, with Ridgway running most of the business. Then it was time to organize into a nonprofit, and the Pinelands Cultural Society was born.

When the auction building burned to the ground some time ago, the society was invited to move to the Frederic Priff school in Waretown. It took a few more years till the society was able to build the Albert Hall on land next to the school and donated by the school board. The Albert Hall auditorium is shared with the school, and music continues there every Saturday night.

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