The Folk Alliance Sad-Off
A few of us are parents, accustomed to long, sleepless nights. Ages range from 20s to late 40s, not a spread that represents the whole of the folk music community, but we can’t fit everyone in the business into one hotel room. These are people who have found each other after much time spent seeking. As many people as were in this room, there were just as many who were missing, unable to attend the biannual events because of exhaustion, scheduling, or life.
I have sadly missed quite a few of these circles while raising little kids. One of the most hard-won lessons I’ve learned, through the brave act of parenthood, is that there will always be another party. It’s okay to miss a few of them.
But this night, we filled the hotel room. We sat in a tight, crude circle with every face turned inward, toward the center of the circle. There were private conversations at first, old friends laughing at inside jokes, new friends asking for one another’s origination stories. Some sipped beers while others pulled off a bottle of whiskey.
We all knew what was about to happen. We had been here before — whether it was around a campfire at a festival, each song headed up toward the constellations with the smoke from the fire; or at a friend’s house, when there just happened to be a few of us in town. We folksingers gather in circles, each of us trying to bring our most prized or unknown work to the table.
This ritual is like a gift to all of us, a reminder of why we are all here. At gatherings like this, I believe we are working much harder than the actual job of singing songs, just to continue to do the job of singing songs. The idea of each of us singing a song for the simple communion of it, is a crucial thing if not the most important time we can spend together.
This particular circle was last Saturday night. It was the final night of the International Folk Alliance in Kansas City, Missouri. To tell the truth, it was 3:30 in the morning, technically Sunday when the whole thing started.
There are few rules in these circles: Don’t play a 15-minute epic, keep your song to a pilot length. You don’t need to introduce your song, just play it. If you tune the guitar differently, tune it back when you’re done. Listen. Don’t fall asleep. Don’t get so drunk or high that you can’t play. Everyone in the room is a peer — just because you’re selling out 250-seat theaters doesn’t mean your song is better than someone who is playing coffeeshops.
Danny Schmidt started this round. Robby Hecht ended it. There were world-class songs in between those two. This particular song round was a Sad-Off. Each songwriter trying to out-sad that one that came before. By the time it ended at 7 a.m., when all parties had played, we were all closer and better for it. Each person made stronger by the gravity of the others. The sum of our parts made a most beautiful whole.