Musica leaves Hudson for Big Easy

Rob Caldwell at his store Musica in Hudson. Photo by David Lee

HUDSON–Musica has vanished. Rob Caldwell, the dynamo who brought the multifaceted music store to life 21 years ago and nurtured it in Chatham and then in Hudson, faced changing demographics and consumption habits that spelled financial doom. So he’s taking his bluesy, music-making self to New Orleans, the home of the blues, where Musica has been reborn as The New Muse.

Gathering places for musicians–coffee houses, public squares, bookshops–catalyzed the Greenwich Village folk music scene in the 1960s, where a teenaged Caldwell would make pilgrimages to learn from titans like Dave Van Ronk. So it made sense that all that singing and picking would culminate in his creation of such a gathering place in Columbia County.

Musica was a haven for music lovers of all stripes. It offered lessons in many instruments, and referrals for many more. It was an acoustic repair shop. It sold guitars, fiddles, banjos and many other instruments from around the world, and a vast array of instruction and song books. It was a place to hang out and talk about music, politics and life. It was an incubator for hundreds of young musicians.

JM: Where were you originally from?

RC: Peekskill–then I went to Peoria for school, then to San Francisco. I lived in the woods like a hippie. From 1969 to 1971, I was back and forth between New York, Peoria and San Francisco. I hitch-hiked through Idaho, and up and down the West Coast. I hitchhiked across country with my 12-string. I wrote a few songs in Denver–there was a woman involved. I got a job making Vitamin E for Groen, on a machine–you turn it up, then you turn it down. There was cod liver oil involved. I was stoned.

Subsequently, he spent some time working at the Super Foods in St. Croix with people he would have graduated from college with, if he had graduated.

RC: From time to time, we’d have these little bands — rock bands in hotels. I listened to calypso on the radio. There was a big Puerto Rican influence on the radio, too.

Caldwell went home to Peekskill, where he did “handyman stuff” and was in a couple more bands, moved to Middlefield, Mass., and then to Canaan, NY, in 1976, working as a laborer with carpenters.

RC: The Spencertown Academy opened up in the 70s. I did a lot of stuff with them, playing–it was a great place for folk music. They brought people like Peter Schickele and David Amram. I did sound for them.

In addition to serving as a volunteer folk music programmer at the academy, Caldwell had started his own construction company, the Caldwell Houseright Company.

RC: From 1976 to 1978, there were only two ads for construction in the Yellow Pages. I was building houses in Western Massachusetts and Columbia County…. I was (also) building dulcimers. I just took one from my sister’s. It had been hanging on my sister’s wall for 40 years. She said, “Don’t take it! I love it!” I said, “No, you don’t! It hates you!” The dulcimer business was really good — I made about 20 of them. Each one cost me three weeks and $120. I could sell them for about $85.

I built the Millay Colony. We had a great crew. In the middle of winter, we were having lunch , it’s freezing. We were working with glass on both sides, everything’s covered in plastic, there’s this really big wind, and the water started dribbling on our heads. I said, “You know what? I’m going to open a really good music store in Chatham. I had just been to Maple Leaf Music in Brattleboro. I could do this. So I opened it–so far, so good.”

Musica opened in 1998 on Main Street in Chatham and soon became a hangout for talented Chatham school kids. In a photo, teenagers are gathered, in chairs or crosslegged on the floor, watching and listening, as two girls sit at microphones, holding guitars, eyes intent on the strings. From the necks of the guitars dangle price tags. Caldwell opened a separate room for lessons and performances for small audiences, dubbed The New Muse by his bandmate, the late trombonist Walter Bauer. He created spaces for kids to perform.

He continued to originate and perform in various area bands at venues like the Spencertown Academy, bands with names like Toss the Feathers and Chatham Airplane, including such members as Bauer, singer Sheri Bauer-Mayorga, pianist Lincoln Mayorga, fiddler Trevor DePew, singer-songwriter Alana Belle Carroll, and drummer Renee Harvitt.

Several of his students later became bandmates in a large, fluid group called the Guerilla Band. On any given day, the Guerilla Band, which might include guitars, banjos, flutes, fiddles, kazoos and/or washboards, would show up unannounced at some location in Chatham and start playing. Chatham resident, magazine writer/editor Elaine Khosrova, recently called her performance with the Guerilla Band for the surprised employees of a local insurance agency one of the highlights of her life.

But the demand for lessons and for merchandise started to decline and Rob began to look elsewhere.

RC: After 9/11, when someone bought a home in Chatham, there were no new kids there. It was just an exit strategy. Chatham and Hudson are similar to each other now. In Chatham, they were ripping up Main Street in 2007, 2008. I kept saying, ‘Why don’t we have a green walkway?’ But nobody listened.

For the last 11 years, Musica has been located at the corner of 4th Street and Prison Alley in Hudson, just a half-block off the main drag, Warren Street. Here, Caldwell found a location spacious enough to fit plenty of instruments plus accommodate an overstuffed couch and a room for lessons, with living quarters upstairs, with the added enticement of a vibrant music scene that was soon to include Helsinki Hudson, just around the corner. Many musicians performed on Musica’s welcoming patio, or inside the store, including Chandler Travis and Yukari Rojas. But psychologically, that half-block off Warren was a big half-block. Warren’s foot traffic of tourists and browsers didn’t seem to make it that far.

RC: People don’t go on vacation to buy a guitar. They go on vacation to buy a cup of coffee.

And there’s the changing demographic. Gentrification has been hitting Hudson in a big way, with well-to-do professionals buying up housing properties.

RC: Every time a building sells, there’s a new Airbnb. I was going to have the ‘I Hate You Cafe’… but I’d hate myself. I already have a small shop in New Orleans. “The New Muse” will be the name of it. It’s in Anchor and Arrow Dry Goods. They sell women’s lingerie, handmade. The boys don’t like to walk by the brassieres to look at the guitars.

Musica is 21, and so are many of its former students, who will play their way to fame, fortune or bliss. Meanwhile, Caldwell already counts among his New Orleans customer base Rhiannon Giddens, whose excitement at his eclectic collection of traditional instruments found expression in a word not fit for print.


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