Mary Cliff, folk music and radio legend
Growing up in the 1950s, Mary Cliff sang along to the radio with her mom while doing the dishes at their home in Arlington, Virginia.
“Radio was the thing in our house,” she said. “I learned all my music from the radio.” She also sang along to 78 records played on a wind-up turntable, which she still owns.
Cliff, 77, started working in radio in 1966 as a stenographer, and since then has done just about everything required to produce a radio show, from engineering to interviewing.
As host of the weekly show “Traditions” on WERA (96.7), every Saturday night from 9 p.m. to midnight she plays a mishmash of music: folk, blues, ballads, country, old-time, gospel, bluegrass, honkytonk, ethnic and more for thousands of fans across the Washington region.
Cliff’s gentle, soothing voice draws listeners in to hear beautifully blended harmonies, plinking banjos, moaning harmonicas and twanging fiddles.
Between songs, Cliff offers commentary on the local folk music scene and odds and ends. Unscripted, she often teases, “Let’s see where we go.”
A one-time singer herself
In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Cliff, an alto, sang with her boyfriend and future husband, Chip Cliff, in local hootenannies, spontaneous sing-alongs, and at Washington’s Cellar Door nightclub — where, she recalled, “Nobody got paid.”
When the club’s managers learned she was an Army stenographer by day, they hired her to type contracts and take reservations.
At the time, Dick Cerri hosted “Music Americana, the Folk Music of America” on WAVA-FM. “Chip and I learned much of our music from Dick’s show,” Cliff said. Cerri needed someone to type up his playlists, pack up records and take them to the transmitter site, so she moved to WAVA.
In 1968 on WAVA, preferring live hosting to pre-recorded voice-tracking, Cliff said she played “whatever the Beatles opened the door for” — Joni Mitchell, Tom Paxton, the Doors, the Everly Brothers, microtonal piano — music that at that time she dubbed “underground” music, now known as “progressive rock.”
Cerri was her mentor, Cliff said. “He gave me space to learn.” Throughout her career, she did programming, producing and engineering. She has written scripts and conducted interviews.
The show she created and still hosts, “Traditions” — Washington’s longest-running radio show devoted to folk music — first aired on WETA in 1973, then on WAMU, from 2007 to 2015.
In 2018, she was inducted into the Folk Alliance International’s Folk DJ Hall of Fame, which honors broadcasters passionate about the promotion and preservation of folk music. “Ms. Cliff,” lauds the World Music Central magazine’s website, “has risen to the challenge.”
Broad variety of songs, themes
On Saturday nights, Cliff weaves a tapestry of folk music, which she defines as “culturally-related music, the stuff that got us here.” She unreels a list: Anglo-Celtic, African jubilee, Gospel, blues, Piedmont, Western swing and “ethnic” (such as Klezmer, Swedish or Polish).
“That’s what made us what we are,” Cliff said. “American music would not be American without all the cultures. Folk music is about stories, how you connect to each other.”
During normal (that is, non-pandemic) times, Cliff often chooses songs by musicians who are performing in the area. She posts a weekly “Who’s Where” list on her website, marycliff.net.
She spins some sing-alongs for people at home, tunes like “This Land Is You Land,” by Woody Guthrie, or “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” by Peter, Paul and Mary.
She builds some shows around a theme. For instance, on May 2, with unemployment numbers rising, she played songs about money and jobs, like “All about the Cash” and “The Guy who Changes the Lightbulb,” with the refrain, “the most important job.”
On the night before Mother’s Day, her show honored moms with “If I Could Hear My Mother Pray,” “Mama’s Got the Blues” and “Mama Don’t Allow No Easy Riders Here.”
She deftly shifts from Tom Rush’s “San Francisco Bay Blues” to Burl Ives crooning “The Bluetail Fly.” She might follow a plaintive song like Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain” with a lively Irish fiddle jig.
Source: pre-digital archives
As the show’s sole creator, Cliff digs into her basement library of records, CDs, reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes, videotapes and digital audio tapes — an archive consisting of 29 file drawers of 250 alphabetized CDs arranged so she can easily read the spines.
“I don’t do download,” she said. “I don’t play music on my phone.”
Instead, each week Cliff hauls to the studio two bags of CDs and LPs, sorted as “ought to play” and “if I have time to play.” During the show, she scribbles notes. “The music tells me where it wants to go,” she said.