A folk festival in New York City you ask? The Brooklyn Folk Festivals is now in its 11th year, and is hosted by The Jalopy School of Music and Theatre. It is also the city of New York's only folk festival. Of course, as many of you know, New York City was once the epicenter of the Folk Revival and used to host numerous folk festivals back in the day, but it's been some time since the 60s folk scare and those towering folk superstars of yesteryear Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. What really makes this festival unique is its emphasis on traditional music and its respect for artists both old and new. Also at the heart of the festival is revivalist John Cohen (New Lost City Ramblers). Cohen is a well-respected musician, documentary filmmaker, photographer and recorder of rural Southern music. Acknowledged as a central influence on Bob Dylan and others during he was involved in bringing rural Southern music to city folks in the 1960s.
Day 1: Friday, April 5th
Arriving at 7.30pm the opening night had an atmosphere both pensive and frenetic. The buzz was palpable. I caught the melliferous tones of the Ukrainian Village Voicesthough somewhat lost in the kerfuffle of the opening night. Their customs were eye catching and added to the diversity of the evening's music. Their music is primarily vocal and instrumental music from the rural Ukraine. As the evening progressed Jackson & The Jankshit the stomp box and loaded the evening with R&B from New Orleans. I then had to run upstairs to the workshop room to host, present and perform my own segment on the Ballads of James “The Rooster” Corcoran.
Day 2: Saturday, April 6th
As I entered into the fray of Saturday, The Mammalswere taking to the main stage to provide a healthy dose of folk and original songs, and some fine tailoring. On the parish stage John Harrodwas performing eastern Kentucky fiddle syncopations for the fine flatfootingCity Stompers. The temperature was set for The Hayrollersto tear it up with some high-lonesome bluegrass vocals and some fierce fiddling by fiddler Bruno Bruzzese. In the afternoon, I excitedly headed upstairs to hear about folk music impresario Izzy Young and his impact on the folk revival in Remembering Izzy Young and the Folklore Center. The panel was moderated by my old buddy, and blues aficionado, Scott Barretta. The discussion took from personal recollections and Tulsa bound archival material to present Izzy as the conscience of the folk revival with his participation in the 1961 Washington Square riots (there's some Youtube footage on this). Izzy's encounters with Bob Dylan are the stuff of legend, and many did not see his initial potential as John Cohen quipped some saw him as " a Woody Guthrie knock off." Izzy moved to Sweden in the late 60s as he became enamored with traditional music there. Izzy’s friend's John Cohen, Peter K. Siegel and Matt Umanov where also joined by archivist Mitch Blank who was sporting a Rolling Thunder Review denim jacket which certainly warranted mention. There was also a small selection of photographs and memorabilia from the Folklore Center that is being curated by Mitch.
Onward and upward as I entered into a special screening of American Epic. A new documentary "featuring the untold story of how the ordinary people of America were given the opportunity to make records for the first time." The first artist of which was one of my own personal favorites Mississippi John Hurt. It was great to see and hear new footage of Hurts, and to hear him being interviewed at the Newport Folk Festival of 1964 with the sounds of Bob Dylan performing 'Tambourine Man' echoing in the background. Ironically Hurt is talking about what the new interest in folk music means to him as an elder statesman. He quotes the Bible by saying he is impressed that there is an interest in what the older folks have to say.
The final segment of the movie brings together the technology of the past with artists of the present with Jack White performing, hosting, and leading folks through live performances of traditional sounding tunes. The technology was somehow the star as it hummed away in the next room. An incredible example of engineering as the weight hit the floor to end each recording within a 3min period of time. That's where the 3min song standard was conceived.
Day 3: Sunday, April 7th
You know you've been at a festival when you cannot cover everything that is going on, and your appetite has truly been wetted. I had to be very selective at times and decided that I needed to hear more about Alan Lomax from archivist curator Nathan Salsburg. He was certainly up for the task in his presentation that spanned the years before and after Lomax's 1959 “Southern Journey.” Its legacy 60 Years on is still really only now beginning to reach the mainstream public in terms of its scholarly importance, as he documented folk and traditional song performances fro the US, Europe and further afield. Hi Southern states recordings used the state of the art stereo tape machine, as Lomax was a keen observer of technology changes and used them effectively in his collecting. Lomax made the first ever recordings of now-legendary figures like Bessie Jones and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Recordings of work songs at Parchman Farm and the thunderous hymnody of the Sacred Harp were essential to the folk revival, and Lomax's legacy still inspires today.
My final event of the festival had been earmarked from the start as I wanted to catch the old-time, bluegrass super-group consisting of Bruce Molsky, Tony Trischka, and Michael Daves. Daves voice rang clear and true, and Molsky took the lower leads to Michael's tenor, and Tony's playing was sharp as a tack. Overall, I couldn't ask for a more fitting end to another fabulous Brooklyn Folk Festival. Kudos to Eli Smith and Lynette and Geoff Wiley for all their efforts this year. I'm already looking forward to next year