folk music…can hipsters save the scene?
Sitting toward the back of the old church on a Saturday night, waiting for the show to begin. I’d come early I thought, but the crowd took up the first dozen or so pews, so when the suggestion was made to move up to the side of the altar, I quickly advanced and rested my boots onto the stage just behind the piano bench. It was a very comfortable space, allowing me to both interact with the musicians and look out at the audience.
Over the years as I began to venture to more and more concerts of an acoustic nature, churches of various sizes and shapes have hosted many of the events. And summer festivals. And coffee houses. I’ve noticed the latter are most often local and with a young audience, and it’s not unusual for most to have their eyes focused on their phones during a performance, nor is there any social decorum or norm for the listening process. A coffee house can be as loud as a Texas honky tonk on a Saturday night.
In a church setting, the pre-concert conversations are often respectfully hushed, as if adults are transported back to their childhood when moms and dads placed a finger over their lips and made the shhhh sound. And when the music begins, it’s not unlike watching a movie, a passive listening experience with the occasional smile or laugh at a joke, the nodding of heads in affirmation or on occasion, the sing or clap-alongs.
These days I travel solo; my teenagers love music but think my taste is too old school for their ears. Over the years they’ve been exposed to all sorts of music, from Pete Seeger to Steve Earle, from Buckwheat Zydeco to klezmer. We’ve seen lots of folkies and they’ve watched the old man himself perform on numerous occasions, in both acoustic and electric settings. They like it, but yawn. It is not the music of and for their generation. Mumford? They laugh. Lumineers? No way. The youngest will reach for the Aquabat’s albums, the older plays ten minute noise experimentations on his college radio station. (There is hope for him though; an interest in archival and ethnomusicology has knocked on his door.) So for the most part, I’m a solitary concert goer.
I sent an email to myself last night while waiting for the show to start, or rather I cut and pasted it from a website called the Grammarist:
“Gray and grey are different spellings of the same word, and both are used throughout the English-speaking world. But gray is more common in American English, while grey is more common in all the other main varieties of English. In the U.K., for instance, grey appears about twenty times for every instance of gray. In the U.S. the ratio is reversed.”
Recalling a conversation with a mid-twenties folkie-type performer, they said (I paraphrase based on memory), “We don’t mind playing the churches or the house concerts for the grey haired audience. We’re grateful they are receptive, and willing to pay for a ticket and buy a CD.”
Last night, Mary Gauthier who was the headliner, with Tracy Grammar opening, spoke about the time each of them (and Dave Carter) were invited to the Newport Folk Festival back in year 2000. “We thought we had made it. We expected superstardom.” And then she laughed. It’s just folk music. A life, if so desired, that requires living on the road, playing to sometimes full capacity and often to just a handful. These days, also being a businessperson in charge of your own label, management and booking. Things Woody was usually too drunk to worry about. But the Weavers had Harold and Dylan had Grossman and Columbia. The great commercial revival has come and gone. And this is what it looks like today.
Not that there is anything wrong with where we are today. Except one little thing…
Even in the best of financial times for the music industry, early-eighties through the early 2000’s, with CDs, big box expansion and booksellers making room for music (I admit that these may have not been the best of times for many, but for the “industry” and things like revenue, it was), folk music and it’s various components were relegated to a small space on the shelves. Even jazz and classical commanded more linear feet of display and inventory than acoustic music, be it folk or blues or bluegrass. The musical heritage of our country relegated to the ghetto of the store…poor lost souls, no hope for the future.
With music education in our schools taking the back seat to metal detectors and the athletic programs, we no longer can look to educators to share the music with our children. It is up to the business people. Not the Grammys please…for that is exclusive, not inclusive. But like the state of Connecticut which sponsors a state troubadour to promote music in classrooms, and the festivals and camps that spotlight music for younger people…we need more.
At the recent Folk Alliance confab, which I didn’t attend, my hope would be that this was a huge topic of consideration and discussion at the various seminars and panels. How to we turn the gray/grey into at the very least salt and pepper? How can we bring in a younger audience, whether its student pricing, stronger promotion at schools, providing materials to educators who can’t afford to buy it themselves or have no school budgets to play with, mixing the bills with the standard bearers and the young lions.
Gene Shay, one of folk music’s leading advocates, radio host and founder of the great Philadelphia Folk Festival just this week spoke about the festival in particular: “You know we’re all getting on,” ruminates Shay. “Who knows if we’ll all be here for that big 35th festival. So now’s the time to pay our respects.”
Here’s an excerpt from an article back in 2010:
In 2008, the festival’s parent organization, the Philadelphia Folk Song Society, hired 28-year-old Levi Landis to be executive director. That same year, 38-year-old Jesse Lundy was brought in to book acts through Point Entertainment. Folk Song Society board members decided that professional help would be needed in a fiercely competitive and depressed market. “We weren’t sophisticated enough and we didn’t have the expertise in certain areas – promotion, graphics, computers, viral advertising – and we needed help,” Shay explains.
Landis holds a master’s degree in public administration from Villanova University and speaks the laconic language of folk, with a not-for-profit accent. “For many of the constituents, there was a real concern of ‘Are we gonna lose this?’ ” Landis said. “The financial aspect of it couldn’t be denied; it was public knowledge.”
Campground rumors of the festival’s imminent demise recurred like summer zucchini. Landis said the situation was not nearly as desperate as some believed; he thinks the real angst was over who would become the new flag- bearers. The old guard was starting to have trouble negotiating the steep hill at Old Pool Farm.
“We convinced everybody that this is a necessary evil – and it really isn’t evil at all,” said Shay.
Lundy says that Jeff Tweedy and Bonnie Prince Billy, another performer with indie cred, represent the A-team for the festival’s new direction. Also forging a new path will be A.A. Bondy, Horse Feathers, Erin McKeown, Annie and the Beekeepers, and the Spinning Leaves.
Landis and Lundy are also mining the city for talent, not unlike their folk festival forebears. They note that West Philadelphia is ripe with the kind of music scene that flourished around Rittenhouse Square back in the ’60s. “If you look at West Philly, which is of course its own planet over there, that is the hotbed of socially active activity, filled with socially conscious lefties and minorities that are probably doing more over there than anybody else is,” said Lundy. “A lot of the music that comes out of West Philly, like the West Philadelphia Orchestra, is a true melding of folk music and hipster stuff.”
“West Philadelphia is the spot to be if you like folk music,” agreed Landis.
Landis remains concerned about whether the folk festival can build a loyal audience from his finicky generation, which becomes suspicious of singers who get too popular and drops them. “That kind of thing will make it impossible to have another Bob Dylan,” he said. “Our generation won’t allow anyone to speak for us. We won’t allow ideas to become community ideas.” (philly.com) 8/15/2010
A look at the 2012 PFF schedule shows that the mix of tradition and hipster has blended nicely. Along with Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, you had John Fullbright and Pokey LaFarge. Arborea’s ethereal modern blend steeped in tradition, juxtaposed with a Carter Family celebration. An intensive effort for families to come…camping, arts and crafts, opportunities for kids to make music.
And at this year’s Clearwater Festival in the Hudson Valley, we’ll be seeing artists such as Son Volt, Patterson Hood, Tift Merritt, Jason Isbell and the Lone Bellow play alongside David Bromberg, Hot Tuna, Mavis Staples, Toshi Reagon and Tom Chapin.
Finally….from the Urban Dictionary, today’s definition of a “folkster”:
1) A young person, usually between the ages of 16-30, who has a particular love for folk music and country lifestyle. Sometimes referred to as a less-mainstream hipster, this kind of youngster has a keen love for banjos and mandolin. Usually can be found reading Steinbeck, drinking Foster’s beer, and smoking cheap cigarettes. The women tend to have a more boy-ish hipster style, but can also be found with worn out white Converse and an Adidas T-shirt with sleeves rolled up to the shoulder. Will probably be daunting a pixie cut of a flat color, or long, wavy un-brushed hair. Men can be found sporting facial hair from a little scruff to a full on mountain-man beard. Clothing is typically channeling a 1930’s/Great Depression feel, with vests, paper boy caps, skinny pants, and a belt buckle. More urban folksters can also be seen wearing flannel shirts and Urban Outfitter V-necks. Music taste consists of that of Laura Marling, Johnny Flynn, Mumford & Sons, Noah & the Whale, The Apache Relay, etc… When asked, most folksters will say their favorite music genre is nu-folk.
Kid 2: No, I love folk music.
Kid 1: Oh, you’re a folkster! My apologies.