What We Owe Musicians Who Paved the Way
If I can get personal for a moment: the last two weeks have been one of those periods of my life that I know I’ll eventually look back on as a moment of very concentrated transition, growth, and learning. (Otherwise known as “my twenties.”) These were the major events that occurred during this time: teaching at the Ossipee Valley String Camp, announcing my band’s signing with Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, playing for the first time at Newport Folk Festival, and then attending the Appalachian String Band Music Festival (aka Clifftop) in West Virginia, on my own, for the first time. These events followed a two-month period of near-nonstop touring for my band, the first tour in our new phase of life as full-time musicians. So… it’s been a lot. A lot of what’s on my mind this week has to do with those big touchy-feely concepts that we learned about in kindergarten: things like respect, gratitude, and humility.
Through all of these recent experiences I’ve had, there have been a couple of common threads. At Ossipee, I taught alongside veteran musicians like Bruce Molsky and Scott Nygaard. At Newport, we collaborated with country and old-time hero Valerie Mindel, sat in with queer-country pioneer Patrick Haggerty of Lavender Country, and had some great conversations with our friend Betsy Siggins, a behind-the-scenes folk legend. Visiting the Smithsonian Folkways headquarters, I got chills looking at their office walls and seeing names like Elizabeth Cotten, Lucinda Williams, Hazel Dickens, and Alice Gerrard. At Clifftop, I immersed myself in Appalachian traditions that have been passed down for many generations. All of these experiences reminded me that I’m so grateful to be part of a music scene that’s intergenerational, and that encourages respect for those who came before you.
Ageism is a real, and often ignored, bias in our society. It’s still a problem even in the folk world, though I think it’s to a lesser extent than society at large. I am so grateful for the experiences that remind me to honor, thank, and learn from the people who paved the way for the music I make now, and who continue to carry forward tradition in tandem with younger musicians.
This idea was particularly at the forefront of my mind at Newport, where Lula Wiles was part of a showcase sponsored by Smithsonian Folkways and curated by JP Harris. Called Outside Folk, the event was an opportunity to showcase veteran musicians whose careers have existed at the edges of the spotlight, playing alongside some of the younger rising musicians they have influenced. We shared a set with Valerie Mindel, a torch-bearing singer, guitarist, and educator known for her work with the all-women Any Old Time Stringband and the Village Harmony singing workshops. One of the songs we sang was “I Know Whose Tears,” a trad-sounding folk standard written by Joe Newberry that I’d been singing since I was a kid at Maine Fiddle Camp without realizing I’d learned it secondhand from Valerie’s recording. After the set, I had a great conversation with her about the joys and perils of being in an all-women band, and I know that Lula Wiles might not exist if people like Valerie had not begun bushwhacking their way through the music industry’s sexism before we were born.
Before our set was a performance by JP Harris and Patrick Haggerty. We hadn’t heard of Patrick before getting booked to play Newport, but on our late-night marathon drive to the festival, I received a text from JP asking us to sit in on their last song. He included the Spotify link, and we listened to Patrick’s 1973 album Lavender Country with our jaws on the floor. It’s billed as the first-ever gay country album, and I will let it speak for itself. Go listen to it, and then (and I cannot recommend this strongly enough) Google Patrick Haggerty. There’s lots of excellent media coverage of his incredible story. Patrick’s music, and Patrick himself, has a defiant outlaw-country activist’s spirit, a DIY roughness around the edges, and a core of incredible joy, tenderness, and fierce passion. At the festival, I literally could have sat with him for days on end listening to his stories. The level of oppression he experienced is unfathomable to me in 2018, and I am overwhelmed by how grateful I feel to the people who helped make a world where my generation feels more liberated to be ourselves.
After I returned from Newport, a few friends and I loaded an unfathomable amount of stuff into a small car and drove 14 hours to Clifftop, West Virginia, for the Appalachian String Band Music Festival, more often referred to as Clifftop. Though I’ve been enamored of Appalachian old-time music for almost 10 years now, last weekend was my first time attending an old-time festival. These festivals are unlike the music festivals I’m used to attending. There are contests and performances, but they’re secondary to the festival’s purpose – it’s mostly just unstructured time for people to gather and play the music they love together. (I could write a whole other article on the unspoken, and often fraught, dynamics of social jamming, but I’ll leave that for another time.) The legacy of old-time music is a complicated one for a host of reasons, and I am still trying to figure out my place in that music, but the best thing I got from Clifftop was a renewed sense of inspiration and humility. There is just so much that I don’t know about the music I love, and I am continuously inspired to learn more.
I think part of my current soul-searching mood is inspired by my band’s signing with Smithsonian Folkways. Even writing that sentence feels like tooting my own horn in a way that I don’t like, and I’ve been trying to sit with that discomfort. Signing with a record label has got me grappling with how we conceive of success, and this specific record label has got me grappling with ideas of legacy and tradition. I think part of this discomfort comes from that old scam, imposter syndrome. I worry about living up to some standard (I don’t even know whose) about what folk music is, and who gets to bear its torch. I’ve found that the answer – maybe not the answer, but an answer – lies in these ideas of humility and gratitude. I’m just one link in many long chains.