By Lee Zimmerman
Glance back fifty years and the idea of a folk music festival would bring to mind a gathering dominated by tie-dye, Birkenstocks and people who might otherwise find work as stunt doubles for Peter, Paul and Mary. In a sense, that’s still the perception for those unawares, but at the 29th Folk Alliance International conference held in mid February in Kansas City, there was far more of a modern twist that many might imagine. While the old guard was duly represented, the encroachment of Americana and relevant rockers also dominated the proceedings. Hundreds of artists participated in the confab, both in the exhibition rooms of the Westin, the host hotel, and in three floors of guest rooms where beds were removed, presenters moved in and music performed until the wee hours of the morning. The latter scenario found this new brand of folk music anything but staid, more like a scene out of Animal House, where hotel corridors saw action akin to a college dorm or a frat house, and guitars, partygoers, posters and performers crammed every available nook and celebrated a succession of sounds.
If that cool vibe seemed to moot some of the cerebral sensitivities, the fact that the conference was subtitled “Forbidden Folk” allowed more than a passing nod to folk music’s legacy of protest and populism. Practically every speaker alluded to the need for rallying the masses in support of various causes that were perceived as being undermined by the new administration. Indeed, Donald Tump’s ears must have been burning, because while his name was rarely mentioned, it was all too obvious as to where most of the remarks were aimed. Billy Bragg’s rousing speech at the conclusion of the conference offered less praise for the music and bid more homage for the cause, eventually culminating in a fist pumping rally for union devotees. Those apolitical or of a different mindset might have felt isolated and alone, but there was enough solace to be sought in the music to keep participants applauding.
Indeed, there were plenty of kudos to go around. The first night of the festivities included an award ceremony that saw such luminaries as Sonny Ochs (Phil’s sister), environmental activist Si Kahn, iconic names such as Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Cockburn, Eliza Gilkyson and David Amram, storied singer and storyteller John McCutcheon, once jailed veteran of the Arab Spring Ramy Essam, and sitcom star-turned-singer Megan Mullally take the stage to give or receive awards, and occasionally share a song in-between. It was an inspiring evening, one that affirmed the music’s heritage and continuing trajectory while reaffirming the common bond of community that bound all the participants together. When Gilkyson spoke of the “disbelief and grieving” that seemed to have overtaken the nation in the weeks and months since the election, there wasn’t a soul present who couldn’t identify with the realities she was referencing.
The call to arms, then, was that the folk faithful needed to recommit to a protest purpose, the same mighty mission that prompted people to stand up against the Vietnam War and march en masse for the cause of civil rights. The need is, one speaker noted, more urgent than ever.
Still, for all that earnest intent, it was the music that really mattered. For the 2,600 participants from twenty countries, it took a full measure of devotion to endure hours of stalking hotel hallways in order to catch the scant half hour sets accorded to each of the performers. With showcases that went on until the wee hours of the morning — often until 4 AM and beyond — only the heartiest individuals were able to withstand the desperate need to run from room to room to catch a favorite artist, who often was playing at the same time as two dozen other favorite artists. Nevertheless, the opportunity to catch such stellar talents as Robyn Hitchcock, Tift Merritt, Amelia White, John McCutcheon, the supergroup of sorts Kortchmar, Postell and Navarro, Bobby Rush, Bruce Sudano, Caroline Spence, Cali Shaw, Carrie Elkin, Jonathan Byrd, Tim Easton, ` Chuck Hawthorne, Cory Branan, Dave Gunning, David G. Smith, David Olney, Plainsong, John Fullbright, Darden Smith, Ellis Paul, Beaver Nelson, Freebo, Greg Greenway, Heather Rankin, Kim Richey, Linda McRae, Matt the Electrician, The Once, Oh Susanna, Steel Wheels, Peter Bradley Adams, Ray Bonneville, Robbie Fulks, Rod Picott, Romantica, Michael Fracasso, SONiA and Disappear Fear, Sara Watkins, Susan Werner, Tret Fure, Tony Furtado, Tom Freund, Nell Robinson & Jim Nunally Band, Tish Hinojosa, or the Wild Ponies, as well as such up-and-comers as Banjo Nickaru & Western Smooches, the Novel Ideas, Beck Warren, Beth Bombara, Ben de la Cour, Anne McCue, Patterson Barrett, Anthony da Costa, Brian Langlinais, Ffreddy & Francine, Harrow Fair, Kirsty McGee, Karpinka Brothers, Leland Sundries, Luke Jackson,Matt Haeck, Mark Huff, Renee Wahl, Son of Town Hall (with David Berkeley),The Soul of John Black, and Doolin’ made all attempts worthwhile.
(Whew… if you think that was a lot of names to observe, bear in mind it’s only a fraction of the several hundred artists that were there in attendance.)
Indeed, trying to catch every artist was futile, even despite the fact that most of these artists offered repeated performances. No matter. Folk Alliance served its purpose, binding past and present and looking ahead to the future. Compressed over a mere five days in a single hotel can scarcely do it justice.