Pianist Jacqueline Schwab, who lives in Cambridge, describes growing up in Pittsburgh, Pa. surrounded by “a black shroud of dust” from the city’s steel mills. “It’s in my lungs, I’m sure,” she says. She was also surrounded by Pittsburgh’s “melting pot” of culture — immigrants from around the world came to work in the mills and to attend the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon. This cultural stew sparked her early interest in folk music.
She started piano as a toddler. Her grandmother, a classical pianist, gave Schwab her first few lessons.
“She influenced the way I hear sounds,” Schwab says. “I try to open my ears to what the music calls for. That was my grandmother’s gift to me.” At eight, Schwab began taking composition lessons with composer Marjorie MacKown.
Schwab’s mother also loved folk music — both the traditional Appalachian and the progressive political versions. “When I was a teenager,” Schwab says, “my mother took me to my first folk dance.” She was “very, very shy,” but the English country folk dance community embraced her. “That broke the ice,” she says. “For a while, I stopped playing piano just to go folk dancing.”
The welcoming, nonjudgmental nature of folk dancing and its instrumental music is unusual, Schwab says, in the conservatory-oriented world geared to producing piano competition winners. In folk, she says, “You don’t even have to be good.”
Schwab came to Boston to attend the New England Conservatory and entered a program called Third Stream, now called Contemporary Music, she says, “for improvisers and for people who were creating their own genre.” She worked with English country dance tunes. “I was probably the only person in the whole department not playing jazz.” But the school supported her.
“Most of my colleagues are still in music, which you can’t say for other departments,” she says. “A lot of people give it up when they don’t win the competition.”
Living in Boston, she played piano for English country dances around the area. She started an instrumental quartet, Bare Necessities, “at the dawn of time,” she says — by which she means the 1970s. She played piano with two fiddlers and “a person who plays every instrument,” especially flute and guitar. The quartet became relatively famous in Boston’s folk-dancing scene and released its first recording in 1983.
“’Til my dying day,” Schwab says, “I’ll be famous for playing the background music for Ken Burns’s Civil War series.”
Burns probably picked up a recording by Bare Necessities at a folk music store in Brattleboro, Vt., Schwab says. At the time, he needed a pianist for his new documentary. “I was lucky to get the call,” she says.
Working with Burns, Schwab began to cultivate her unique playing style. Most documentary makers shoot the film and then hire composers to match music to the visuals. But Burns worked the opposite way. “He wrapped the film around the music,” Schwab says. “He told me the story and then asked me to play. That opened up a lot of doors in my mind about getting freer with the melody.”
He asked Schwab to improvise on a theme — something she often did in folk music. Instead of using the ornamentation common to folk music across the world, Schwab was asked to “play one hand, one finger at a time. Just melody. No chords, no ornaments.” It was like “making an omelet with only an egg,” she says.
“Using his structures gave me a lot of emotional room,” she says. Instead of relying on tempo and rhythm to make the music engaging, she had to use the pathos of pure melody. She thinks of it like this: “You’re a Southern soldier marching home after Grant’s army has destroyed your town. You’re wounded, and you don’t know if your sweetheart is still alive, or if your family is alive, or if your house is still there. You’re not really going to be marching to a peppy tempo or marching in time.” Instead, Schwab plays “the breath of the music and the mood.”
In her solo concert career, she has employed the techniques she discovered while working with Burns.
“I imagine some people might be averse to seeing me in concert,” she says. “They might say, ‘Oh, is it just going to be simple melodies played so you can hardly hear them?’ ” But she has played concerts in almost every state and at the White House and has released five solo albums. Her most recent, from 2022, is called I Lift My Lamp: Illuminations From Immigrant America. It has music inspired by sounds from Western and Eastern Europe, she says, music from Latin America and the Caribbean, and American spirituals.
Wellfleet’s annual Porchfest takes place this Saturday, Aug. 26, with two sets: the first from 1:30 to 3 p.m., the second from 3:30 to 5. Musicians stationed around downtown Wellfleet will play music ranging from Celtic tunes and American Roots to pop and jazz. During the second set, Schwab will play the grand piano on the second floor of Wellfleet Preservation Hall. The hall’s front doors will be wide open so that passersby can hear the music drifting out into the street.
“Porchfest is always bustling,” Schwab says. “You hear music from musicians at various stages of their musical lives. Some are brilliant performers, and some are sharing community musicmaking and they’re not going to go on the stage anytime soon.”
Schwab will mostly play tunes from I Lift my Lamp. But “people love hearing ‘Ashokan Farewell,’ ” she says. “I’ll probably do that, although it doesn’t relate to the immigrant theme at all.” The famous tune was written by American folk musician Jay Ungar in 1982.
“I guess the thing I’d say about my music is that it’s easy to listen to,” Schwab says. “But it’s not just background music. I’m trying to connect with people and their emotions. I’m trying to explore beautiful melodies and harmonic changes and find out how music came out of certain cultures.”
Schwab says she’s inspired by her folk dancing experiences in high school. “You can walk in and everyone’s welcome to try a Bulgarian dance, an Indian dance, a Filipino dance, a Polish dance.” She doesn’t have the resources to take on the big problems of the world, Schwab says. “This seems to be where I can speak right now. I’m trying create music that welcomes everybody.”
The event: Wellfleet Porchfest
The time: Saturday, Aug. 26; two sets, 1:30 to 3 p.m. and 3:30 to 5 p.m.
The place: Porches and lawns on Main Street, Commercial Street, Holbrook Avenue, Baker Avenue, and Railroad Avenue, Wellfleet
The cost: Free; details at wellfleetporchfest.org