HELLO STRANGER: ND’s Summer 2019 Issue Explores the Whole Spectrum of Folk Music
Inuit drummers and throat singers perform traditional chants, songs, and dances during a set called Qaggiavuut’s Arctic Song at the annual Folk Alliance International conference earlier this year in Montreal. (Photo by Shadow Scape Records)
This is an expanded version of the introduction to our Summer 2019 print issue, whose theme is “Folk.” Learn more about the issue here and get it delivered right to your door with a subscription to No Depression’s quarterly print journal.
Folk music was one of the first types of music I discovered on my own and fell in love with. In particular, folk songs of protest helped shape my musical tastes and career, not to mention a chunk of my entire value system.
It wasn’t a particularly startling trajectory for a suburban kid coming of age during the Iraq invasion: Some early Bob Dylan albums led me to ’60s folk revival records and Woodstock, which pointed back to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. I met the contradictions of songs like the aggressive “Masters of War” and peaceful “Blowin’ in the Wind” with equal measure — one would resonate more on one day and the other on the next. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Ohio” was an early song I taught myself on guitar. The extra verses to “This Land is Your Land” are obviously my favorite and “We Shall Overcome” has always carried the weight of immediacy.
Yet, the older I got (and the more the internet came into our lives), the more I realized how narrow that scope of protest music really was, especially within the context of folk music as a whole. I wanted to hear the African American songs and spirituals that permeated the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and what women sang during the women’s liberation movement into the 1980s.
These niches of folk music— not just limited to folk songs of protest — stoked my interest in what folk music means other communities, both geographically and socially. In fact, just this year I learned even more about indigenous roots music at the first ever International Indigenous Music Summit at the annual Folk Alliance International conference (FAI) in Montreal. Created in conjunction with the United Nations’ declaration of 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages, the summit united music industry professionals, performers, and members of numerous indigenous communities and key allies “to discuss the most important issues facing the Indigenous music community.”
ShoShona Kish — a singer-songwriter, one half of the band Digging Roots, organizer, activist, and member of the Ojibway Anishinaabe nation — facilitated the multiday event. And while she and FAI Executive Director Aengus Finnan initially expected about 20 people to attend, more than 230 people from around the world participated in discussions, workshops, and heartfelt conversations.
Another way that FAI highlighted indigenous folk music this year was through private showcases in the Indigenous Voices Room; they were some of the most moving sets I saw all weekend. Showcase organizers stocked the small hotel room at the Hotel Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth with beer and kombucha driven in from a nearby reservation, indigenous artwork on the walls, and an entire roster of performers who have some connection to native lands and traditions. Every time I went in, the room was packed.
I saw the Leela Gilday Band absolutely crush a rock song with a chorus: “We can choose money or we can choose life … or we can choose the sound of the people.” Gilday’s latest single, “Hard Ground,” comes from her next album, North Star Calling, due out in September.
I also saw Raye Zaragoza, who agreed to write an essay for this issue after one of her many stunning mini-sets.
But the most moving experience of all of FAI for me was a breakout session called Qaggiavuut’s Arctic Song. Inuit drummers and throat singers performed traditional chants, songs, and dances. Proudly donning colorful traditional dress and moving in mesmerizing fluidity, the 20-minute set felt like ages in another time and place and dimension. The throat singers conjured sounds with no notes fitting into a Western, chromatic scale, yet ones that conveyed timeless primal emotion. Afterward, members of the troupe invited audiences to ask questions, fearless and generous in doing the work to educate, engage, and inspire non-native attendees.
“Doing the work” can be an unfair stressor on members of marginalized groups, though, so after FAI, I asked Kish about how allies can better support indigenous arts and engage with music not necessarily meant for them.
“I think that as marginalized people, regardless of where you’re from, there is a real challenge with often being dehumanized, and that those differences are the things that people lead with or take away from,” begins Kish. “Largely these things are happening in spaces where the narrative had already been defined for us … so we find ourselves falling into what we’ve been told about each other rather than actually finding each other. So I think that cultural experiences on whole allow us to bypass that and find our humanity.
“In my culture we have a teaching that talks about how there were four races that were each placed down in the four directions of the world, of Mother Earth, and each given gifts and teachings to carry into that world, and that our gift is to protect and preserve those teachings, but also to share them and that it is through all of those teachings and gifts that the balance is held.”
Although stories for the Summer 2019 issue of No Depression were already commissioned by the time of Folk Alliance, the performances I saw and lessons I learned reinforced my goal of broadening the context of folk music with this issue. In fact, focusing on the “folks” of folk music themselves proved to be a strong guiding point. Stories in the “Folk” issue explore folk music from Spanish-language communities, diasporic Yiddish-language communities, and more. They highlight the folk music process that includes oral traditions carried from one generation of folks to another.
Of course, the issue also features many famous and beloved folk icons like Joni Mitchell and Guy Clark. New and established musicians like Trapper Schoepp, Tom Morello, and Steve Earle all share their insights into this wide world of folk music, too.
Last, but certainly not least, we at No Depression are so thrilled to devote an entire section of the “Folk” issue to Pete Seeger in honor of his centennial this year. With incredible support from the FreshGrass Foundation, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, and more, we were able to cover many facets of Seeger’s career — from the censorship he faced and fought to the environmental legacy he left in the Hudson River Valley to his enormous body of musical work.
Discussing the successes of, and comedown after, the International Indigenous Music Summit, Kish gushed, but recognized this is only beginning of the journey. I feel the same way about the “Folk” issue of No Depression and our larger goals of representing a more intersectional community of favorite roots musicians. Says Kish, “I don’t want this to feel like we’ve arrived somewhere and now mission accomplished — check, check. This is meant to open a space that will continue to grow. This is just the beginning.”
To get more of the flavor of our Summer 2019 print issue, check out our playlist below featuring songs by musicians covered in the issue.