Courtesy of Gabriel Davila

January 23, 2023

The Rongo Band Brings Ithaca History to South Hill Cider

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There’s always live music at South Hill Cider on Thursday nights. On Dec. 8, I had the pleasure of listening to the Rongo Band, an Appalachian folk band steeped in Ithacan history. The Rongo Band used to play at the Rongovian Embassy, a famous local music venue about 30 minutes north of Cornell in Trumansburg, New York, until the venue closed in 2016. 

An eclectic mix of characters filled the audience at South Hill Cider: A man with a bubble-braided beard, couples in Carhartts and women with floral knitted headbands. Women linked arms and danced. Strangers introduced themselves to people at different tables, shaking each other’s hands and swapping compliments. The venue served cider and small plates of food, including an excellent cheese plate. I felt like I had stepped through a portal to a tavern in a video game.

The Rongo Band played instrumental music for the first hour, with a viola, banjo, guitar and stand-up bass. Then, halfway through the set, they introduced some vocals and swapped out the banjo for a second guitar, shifting into a more folksy sound. The combination of two guitars with layered voices achieved a romantic and wistful tone, as the band sang, “You can tell winter is coming.”

The band kept time with tapping boots and the lumbering bass, with a fast-paced wandering energy. The quartet played together seamlessly — their 15 years of practice together came through in their tight sound and coordinated starts and finishes. 

“It’s like Appalachian fiddle music. […] This is actually still considered Appalachians,” said Richie Stearns, the band’s banjo player, in an interview with me. His kind of music has been in the Ithaca area since the music scene in the 60s and 70s. Dressed in denim overalls, with a gentle voice and affect, Stearns shared, “There was a scene here when I was a kid. I used to go hear bands play all the same songs that we’re playing now. And I learned from the older people around here that are very open about teaching them.”

While the band has been playing together for 15 years, Stearns has been playing the banjo for 45. He listed Maxie’s Supper Club, Deep Dive and West End Saloon as among the other venues that the band and other rock bands have played at since the late 60s. 

“Everything is just starting to come back [after COVID], and I just would encourage people to go out and hear local music to help bring the scene back,” Stearns said. Cider and cheese aren’t the only reasons for going out and listening to local music; it’s also a great excuse to get out of the Cornell bubble for a night. Driving only 15 minutes from my house on North Campus brought me to an entirely new world in Ithaca. 

The town and farmlands around us are rich with culture and experiences. For aspiring musicians especially, getting off of Cornell’s campus and into the community around us is even more important. There is much to be learned from the stories of local musicians. 

The knowledge and legacy of the Ithaca music scene in the 60s and 70s is not somewhere buried in a vault — it’s all around us. Stearns imparted on me at the end of our conversation, “If you really love music, you should play it because you love it. You’re never going to make a nickel out of it. Don’t do it for money. Do it because you love it.” 

Kiki Plowe is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].