The largest and most important question to emerge from this year’s Folk Alliance International is not which side are you on, but who’s in and who’s out, whose voices are included and whose are excluded. Numerous conversations focused on the lack of inclusivity and diversity in folk music, and the Folk Alliance organization itself came in for some criticism itself a few times. During a panel on censorship, Dave Marsh pointed out, referring to FAI, that “we have the power we could use and that we don’t use.” On that same panel, the youngest member of the panel, Norwegian singer Moddi, remarked in a tongue-in-cheek way: “If folk music is of the people, we have to find whose these people are, other than white guys with banjos.” The most dramatic illustration of the lack of exclusivity third day of the conference occurred at a panel on the folk roots of blues, where four white panelists tried inadequately to address—to an almost entirely white audience—the question of a young black blues musician, Tony Rocks, about the lack of young black musicians playing this music, or the lack of black blues musicians receiving awards and recognition. To be fair, Bobby Rush was scheduled to be a part of the panel and canceled because he got a gig, but as hard and sincerely as the panel and audience tried to answer Rocks’ questions, in the end the conversation came off sounding paternalistic.
Ironically, some panels strove to embrace the power of folk music to resist the political and social powers that silence and censor the voices of the multitudes. Although Billy Bragg admitted at a morning panel on protest songs that he doesn’t believe music can change the world, numerous conversations focused on the power of music to foster solidarity and to overcome the powers that would silence the voices of the marginalized. In the panel on censorship, Si Kahn proposed three ways to fight censorship with music: “create mountains of material for censors to attack; amplify the voices of those who are censored; recognize the democratization of media and to worry about only what we can control.”
No solutions to this question emerged from any of the panels, and many of the sessions featured less contentious topics such as how to find a publicist, how to get your song played on the radio, or how to network with other musicians, and many musicians come to Folk Alliance just to find some answers to these questions as they try to forge a “career” in music.
The highlight of the day was surely the keynote by Billy Bragg, who assured us that he was there “to kick ass and take names,” which, he laughed, “should be easy since you’re all wearing name tags.” After reminding us that “life comes at us fast; who knows what 45 is going to do today down in Florida,” he regaled the crowd with stories of the moments he came to understand the power of folk music. Bragg recalled a time in the 1980s when he and some mates went to a protest called Rock against Racism, as much for the music as for the protest. “I was playing punk music then, which is a different kind of folk music, just faster and with different drugs,” he laughed. As they were standing there, they witnessed men kissing under a banner near them; perplexed, he thought, why are these men kissing at this protest? Isn’t this supposed to be a rally against racism, and how do they fit in? “I came away from that day,” he said, “understanding that my generation was going to define itself against discrimination in any form. Music on that day changed my perspective.” While Bragg reiterated that he doesn’t believe that music can change the world, he affirmed that “music has this incredible intangible power to move us. Music can make you feel like you’re not alone.” Bragg quickly turned to name the malaise that contemporary society feels in the face of political administrations—especially in the US and in Britain. “The true enemy of all of us is not capitalism or conservatism but cynicism,” Bragg emphasized. Reading blogs or the news, or listening to the news is overwhelming, and so we often grow cynical about our ability to foster change. We have our doubts, which are perfectly human feelings, and we might be skeptical, but “a cynic is someone who has given up and wants you to give up as well so they can feel better about their own feelings. The greatest cynicism is our own sense of cynicism,” he stressed.
Bragg underscored that empathy and compassion are ways to overcome cynicism. “We live in an age of apathy for others; the right fears empathy; fascism is the denial of all feeling,” he intoned, warming up with the fervor of an evangelist. “As artists, we must be promoting empathy; a song can make you feel as if you’re not alone. Socialism in our century is not worth the name unless it is a form of organized compassion. Empathy plus action equals solidarity—that’s what the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, and the Affordable Care Act are about.” In the end, Bragg reminded us, “folk music is a collective memory of struggles. The folk tradition is about passing on that solidarity. We want you to learn the old songs, write some new ones, and get out there on your soapbox.” On the heels of those words, Bragg led the standing audience in a rousing rendition of “Solidarity Forever.”
One of beauties of Folk Alliance lies in its dynamic and welcoming character. Few places embrace first-timers and struggling musicians at the same time that established musicians share new songs or lead audiences in sing-alongs to their older songs. Between 10:30pm and 3:00am, hundreds of private showcases feature many of these younger artists. Mindy Dillard, who lives in Salt Lake City and says that she might be distantly related to the Dillards, played to a room of five folks, led them in a sing-along of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”, and shared some of her new songs; with a strong, clear voice with the phrasing of a soul and country singer, Dillard’s affecting lyrics conduct us into worlds not our own with haunting passion. The Way Down Wanderers—think the Steep Canyon Rangers on speed—turned in a staggeringly energetic set of electrifying bluegrass numbers that had a packed room moving and clapping. Curly Strings, an Estonian bluegrass band, poignantly sang of the revolution in their country in 1988, when as the lead singer recalled, their mothers stood in the streets and sang folk songs as the tanks rolled in, effectively turning back the tanks. We were children in our mother’s bellies, she recalled, so we learned to sing songs of the revolution then. Austin singer Tish Hinjosa sang lovely, lilting songs about power and poignancy of family and kin and community. John Black had the small crowd in his room stomping and swaying to his down-to-the bone blues and soulful jazz. Once again, Jimmy Lafave drew such a large crowd that the room was overflowing.
While the conference raised significant questions—next year Folk Alliance turns 30, and so it seems appropriate that the organization would discuss its identity and the shape of its future (recalling the now-famous adage, “don’t trust anyone over 30”)—the music’s the thing at Folk Alliance, and artists left Kansas City having met a few new co-conspirators on the folk trail, having tested some new songs on willing and quiet audiences, having captured a new chord or the just-right riff or run, having crafted a new lyric or two, and having the confidence that grows from the solidarity of music, knowing that a song can make you feel like you’re not alone.