SLEEPY HOLLOW, NY — The mandolin, along with a guitar and a violin, were gifts from his former dog trainer, Jeanne Gurnis. The instruments belonged to her brother, Stephen, who passed away in 2013, at age 62.
The barn dance was part of CORNucopia, a three-day corn festival held every Labor Day weekend at the 18th-century site, which includes a gristmill used to grind dried corn and wheat.
Keyes and four other musicians, altogether known as The Tappan Cowboys, performed during the festival. He played solo for the barn dances, which happened twice a day.
Keyes, 49, tends to attract used instruments. Some he keeps. Others he passes on to fellow musicians. He considers it his mission to ensure that instruments he receives remain in use.
“I do believe that musical instruments have an inherent spirit, especially that of the person who had played them,” Keyes said. “So when they are played, you do carry that spirit along.”
In addition the mandolin, Keyes played an accordion during CORNucopia. The accordion belonged to his father, Larry, who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2007, at age 71.
Larry Keyes was a Grammy-nominated recording engineer for Columbia Records for more than 30 years. He was also a model train collector. In Lake Lure, N.C., Jim’s mother, Peggy, turned her late husband’s train collection into The Right Track Toy Train Museum. She donates the $5 entrance fees to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
Larry Keyes died about three months after being diagnosed. While he was ill, he passed along the accordion to his son.
“He was running out of road,” Jim Keyes recalled. “He wanted to make sure that I took this. He lived in North Carolina and he insisted I bring it home… So I did and I play it everywhere I go.”
Before and after his father’s death, Jim Keyes composed an album titled State of Grace, which he released in 2008. The album was influenced by his father's religious faith, as well as the faith of friends who supported his father.
Life on the Hudson River inspired Keyes’ subsequent albums — Time on the Water and Sleepy Hollow Suite. Keyes resided along the river for 24 years, first in Dobbs Ferry, then in Irvington. He also worked as a kayaking instructor. He moved to Brewster earlier this year.
Next month, Keyes will be conjuring spirits instead of carrying them. Starting Oct. 7, he will accompany storyteller Jonathan Kruk for 40 performances of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow at the 17th-century Old Dutch Church, across the street from Philipsburg Manor and adjacent to the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Irving’s grave overlooks the church. Keyes will play the church’s pipe organ as well as an electric organ and an electric keyboard.
Like his father, Keyes appreciates the acoustics of spaces. On Sunday mornings, when he was a child, his father played the accordion inside their kitchen because “he liked how the room sounded,” according to his son. Jim Keyes has a similar appreciation for the Old Dutch Church. Inside its chamber, music “circles around you,” he said, much like the spirits of the past.
Tim Lamorte is an award-winning journalist who has spent almost two decades documenting life along the Hudson River.