Cheryl Kagan’s Other Passion

March 19, 2024

Montgomery Magazine

The state senator finds solace from politics in promoting contemporary folk music.
Article and Photos By Susan C. Ingram

State Sen. Cheryl Kagan, center, with musicians Lena and Sanford Markley.

On a bright and balmy Sunday afternoon, a steady stream of folk music fans pour into Hank Dietle’s Tavern, the legendary Rockville roadhouse that rose from the ashes following a Valentine’s Day fire in 2018.

Among the crowd, cheerfully greeting acquaintances, colleagues and her long-time friends the Markleys, is Cheryl C. Kagan, a Maryland state senator who has represented Gaithersburg and Rockville since 2015.

As the Markleys take to the stage, the crowd quiets and music fills the room. Sanford’s guitar and the duo’s close harmonies seem a relaxing balm. Perched on a bar stool, guitar-pick earrings bopping to the beat, Kagan, all smiles, sways while enjoying a sandwich and a local brew. (As with folk music, she is a passionate proponent of local brewers.)

The folk music scene is a self-drawn district for Kagan, 62. She says she is in her element here, enjoying the freedom to relax and listen, without having to work the crowd as she would at a political event.

“The music world is an enormous part of my life,” Kagan says. “It’s a respite for me. It’s one of the ways I get off the grid from the craziness that can be politics today.”
Singing along to the Markleys’ set list, which includes folk standards and originals, a theme emerges through the titles: “The Times They Are A Changin’,” “Always Be Humble and Kind,” “Come Together.”

Meeting social issues of the time head-on is a thread running through Kagan’s political and nonprofit careers and into her involvement and care for Montgomery County’s folk music community and its many, and varied, musicians. While being humble and kind in bringing people together through music seems an absolute mission — including introducing newcomers, who may not initially be interested in the folk scene.

“People have a certain view of what folk music is,” Kagan says. “They think it’s old stuff. Folk music today is contemporary singer-songwriters. Some of the performers, whose music I adore, are about social change and social activism. But that’s just a portion of it. They also write about everything else — love and joy and friendship and work. This is not all world peace and climate change.”

Helping musicians

Singer Lena Markley knows just how Kagan has so successfully combined politics and music. A graphic designer for more than 35 years, as well as a professional folk music performer, Markley produces much of the print graphic design work for Kagan’s music and political efforts.

“I initially knew her through folk music, and she was really supportive of our music.” Markley says. “I’m aligned with her politically all the way. She’s on the side of issues that I care about. And she works really hard, always. Cheryl’s been amazing in helping musicians.”

Part of her helping musicians includes unionizing her house concert series, which she launched in 2003. That way musicians received retirement contributions, even when performing in Kagan’s living room.

“One of the reasons I unionized was because too many singer-songwriters have no retirement benefits. No retirement income.” Kagan says. “And they didn’t used to necessarily have health insurance before Obamacare. Helping support their retirement was really important to me. So I made a pension payment on behalf of anyone who played my house concert series who was a member of Local 1000 of the American Federation of Musicians.”

Dietle’s co-owner Sarah Bonner (a vintage harmony singer), along with co-owners Tommy Bowes (her drummer husband) and Alan Kresse (a photographer), have been affiliated with the tavern since Bowes started booking music there in 2015.

“It’s super-important what Cheryl is doing. I would be very interested in expanding what we’re doing in the folk area,” Bonner says, in between checking in concert-goers. “We’re completely delighted to have Lena and Sanford here today. I went to high school with them!”

Folk ‘N Great Music

Known around town not only for her work as a senator, former state delegate and nonprofit leader, Kagan has been a die-hard fan and promoter of folk music and musicians for 20 years.

When Kagan launched her Folk ‘N Great Music house concert series in 2003, she mounted three concerts in her Rockville home. Over the years, she produced four, five or sometimes six concerts a year. For her 10th season in 2013, she offered eight.

Growing up in Montgomery County, music was a part of her life. By the time she got to Vassar College, Kagan was on the airwaves, promoting one of her favorite musical genres.
“I had a radio show with Broadway musicals, called ‘Curtain Call with Cheryl Kagan’,” she recalled. “Broadway musicals have always been a love.”

But it was early in her political career, when she crossed paths with then-Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), that she dipped her toe into folk music waters, and eventually dove in.

“Sen. Mitchell allowed us to honor him at a gala that I was organizing for a national organization where I was executive director,” Kagan says. “One of his conditions was that we bring down his favorite band, a trio from Maine, called Schooner Fare.”

Kagan got a cassette tape and listened and, she remembers, “That was the beginning.”

“I went to see them at Wolf Trap, and I went to a folk festival. Over the years I dated musicians and ended up meeting my [former] husband through music. I started my house concert series because I wanted to give back to the community that has brought me such joy.”

The ‘UnNaugurals’

Politics and music stayed in separate worlds until Donald Trump was elected president.
“When Donald Trump was elected, I came up with the idea of creating, hosting, producing and emceeing an ‘unnaugural’ on the night of the inaugural ball,” Kagan says. “It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”

Kagan chose five progressive causes she deemed among the most vulnerable during a Trump administration, selling out Montgomery College’s 500-seat Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring for the Jan. 20, 2017, event.

“We raised money for Planned Parenthood, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, the ACLU, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the League of Conservation Voters. It was really extraordinary,” Kagan says. “A little bit of a Field of Dreams idea; if you build it, they will come.

The concert gave Democrats the opportunity to do something fun, to celebrate and gather together at a time when rich Republican Trump supporters were getting in their limousines with their tuxedos and gowns to go to inaugural balls.”

Kagan initially considered that concert a one-off, but found people calling for more of the “Playing it Forward: Voices for Social Justice” concerts. Each year Trump was in office, she brought together folk performers, raising tens of thousands of dollars for progressive causes, including climate change, immigration, hunger, health care, sexual assault, affordable housing, domestic violence, pollution, poverty and suicide prevention.

The first concert featured Sweet Honey in the Rock, Emma’s Revolution, Brother Sun, Josh White Jr. and Tret Fure, raising more than $60,000.

Kagan says she had avoided mixing music and politics for years. In 2020, a live, virtual birthday concert benefited her political campaign and community outreach efforts. There was a cavalcade of folk music performers she has known over the years, interspersed with remarks from colleagues and political leaders, including Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson (D).

Keeping the culture alive

Back at Hank Dietle’s, general manager Gina Cocco (a bass player) is busy behind the bar and serving food. She says music promoters and supporters like Kagan and venues like Dietle’s are invaluable to the music community.

“Especially after COVID, it was tough to bring [live music] back. So it’s really important to keep musicians working,” she says. “There are so many full-time musicians in the area, and providing a good space for them to perform is important.”

Co-owner Bonner says the tavern books singer-songwriters at least once or twice a month.

“We have a gal who does ‘Local Cream’ on the first Wednesday of every month, which is all singer-songwriters,” she says. “And we have SAW, the Songwriters’ Association of Washington. They come in about once a month and bring in a bunch of songwriters.”

Through her house concerts, her UnNaugural concerts and all the ways in which Kagan supports, promotes and introduces folk music to new audiences, she helps keep a local music culture alive and vital.

“I just enjoy talented singer-songwriters,” she says. “These singer-songwriters are super-talented. Just because they’re playing in my living room in Rockville doesn’t mean that they’re not unbelievably brilliant writers and guitarists or keyboardists and singers.

“I have found over the years that if I can get somebody to come to just one house concert, I watch their eyes light up. I watch the light bulb go on,” she adds. “They discover how much they enjoy it, and they come back over and over and over.”