If Steve Had a Hammer

Reckless accusations have testy Broward Folk Club balladeers sashaying

This is a story about peace and love and bickering and lawsuits, all the things that have come to define the Broward County Folk Club. It ought to be read while strumming G-chords on an acoustic guitar.

It began in the living room of Cheryl Valentine-Silberberg's home in Hollywood back on February 16, the day of the Folk Club's monthly meeting. Most of the regulars were there, the ones who go to the song swaps at the Unitarian church and hold hands during sing-alongs. They talked about upcoming shows and organized open mics. Then Pete Rimmel caused what nearly turned into a folk music fistfight.

Rimmel is a long-time folk guitarist, a ham radio aficionado, and, according to his website, a direct descendant of Old King Cole. "I think I inherited his 'merry old soul' gene," Rimmel boasts on his homepage. Still, Rimmel isn't the merry old type to stand by while thievery takes place. Rimmel, a marine chemist in Hollywood, told the group that half a dozen tickets to the South Florida Folk Festival had been stolen and that he had conducted an investigation into their whereabouts. Rimmel claimed that the thief -- and now it's time for a changeup to some somber guitar-picking in a minor key -- was none other than the club's founder, Robby Greenberg. Rimmel told the members that Greenberg had even sneaked into the concert without paying her way.

Greenberg says Rimmel, who hung up on a reporter looking for comment, also said some things about how Jews like them bore some responsibility for killing his Lord. Whatever he said, Greenberg's husband, Steve, wasn't going to stand for someone slandering his wife. "Steve started shouting, and justifiably so," relates Steve Glickstein, an avid mandolin and guitar player. "I don't think I would've shown the same restraint if someone insulted my wife like that. I would've pounded the son of a bitch."

It turns out that members of the club actually gave Greenberg tickets, and she passed them on to the mentally disabled children she works with through the Department of Children and Families. Talk about your banjo string in the eye. Sproing!

Here's where the story of the Broward Folk Club becomes as painful as a harp solo emanating from an Alabama jail cell. A week after the fiery exchange, Steve Greenberg, who happens to be a lawyer, filed a lawsuit against Rimmel and the club, claiming slander and defamation of character against his wife. The suit asks for in excess of $15,000 and unspecified punitive damages. What followed was a fracture-inducing debate among club members over whether to defend against the lawsuit or simply take an approach worthy of a folk song -- and apologize.

But it's been a while since folk music was the soulful sounds of sandal-wearing hippies. Many of the free-love types who strung together the first folk chords now wear suits to work, and the Broward Folk Club responded to the lawsuit by hiring one of the state's most powerful law firms, Ruden McClosky.

The organization's festival co-director of customer relations and membership chairperson, Cheryl Valentine-Silberberg, defends the decision to hire the law firm, which also employs her as a paralegal. With approval from the club's 11-member board, Valentine-Silberberg gave a $15,000 retainer to her law firm. The money would have otherwise gone toward organizing the folk festival, but Valentine-Silberberg says the club was obligated under law to respond. "The allegations are completely unfounded," the amateur singer says. "And because of the ongoing litigation, I'm afraid that's all I can say."

Valentine-Silberberg referred further questions to Bill Messer, a tousle-haired Oakland Park welder who often serves as stage manager for folk concerts. He didn't deny that Rimmel accused Greenberg of thievery, but he criticized the Greenbergs for bringing it to court. "This is people with sour grapes over what's going on in the club, and they want to control things," Messer says. "Well, Pete is a bit of a hothead. But this is supposed to be love and magic for everyone. Some people don't want to let that happen."

The whole fight was actually a long time brewing. Robby Greenberg, a 55-year-old, rosy-cheeked guitarist who founded the club in 1988 by assembling 20 folk music fans, says the group has been taken over by those who don't like her. She resigned a year ago. She says Rimmel and others have defamed her on the group's e-mail listserv. Greenberg has begun organizing her own folk music gatherings, and she says Broward Folk Club members have accused her of trying to siphon off members. "I try to turn the other cheek, but I've told friends that I've run out of other cheeks." Greenberg says the attitude of the club has changed. "It was a very loving group for many years, but the climate is different, and there are a lot of very hateful people."

Some Broward Folk Club members now grumble about a rebellion; board members are up for reelection at the April 17 meeting. Ellen Bukstel, a singer-songwriter and graphic designer, says several members plan to challenge the board members on the grounds that the club shouldn't have hired Valentine-Silberberg's law firm. "It's really so juvenile," says Bukstel, the member who allowed Greenberg into the concert. "All that's required now is for everyone to take a deep breath. We don't need an attorney for all this."

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