Sustainable Music


Sunday, September 17, 2017

US National Folk Festival, 2017

The National Folk Festival celebrated its 77th anniversary, in Greensboro last weekend, with a seven-stage musical extravaganza featuring traditional music performed by professional musicians from various parts of the US and the world. If you were in attendance, you could hear a variety of traditional North American musics, with the usual emphases: old-time music, bluegrass, and country; Cajun, Cape Breton, African American blues (Lurrie Bell) and gospel music (The Fairfield Four), Polish-American, and so on, mixed in with a smattering of ethnic musics not usually heard at these festivals--last weekend it was Egyptian music from New York City. Besides the music performances, more informal, educational presentations occurred, with musicians from different performing groups gathered on a single stage: for example, seven fiddlers, each representing different traditions and demonstrating similarities, differences, and the characteristics of genre and style. 
     The National is one of two major, annual, long-running US folk festivals. The other is the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which takes place in Washington, DC, whereas the National moves from one city to another every four years. The Smithsonian’s is more ambitious, with more stages, more performers, and a many more crafts artists besides, often demonstrating what they make, whether boats or baskets or Polish Easter eggs or any number of other hand-made objects. When the National was in Bangor, Maine, 2001-2003, the Maine Folklife Center partnered and offered a crafts stage with Native American basketmakers, state-based violin makers, and other crafts artists; in Greensboro there were crafts demonstrations in a North Carolina tent area. One stage at the National is always reserved for traditional dance music, and the crowd is always given a huge dance floor and encouraged to dance (see photo below). I was one of the presenters at the National this year, and it was my job to work a little at the dance stage and introduce Lurrie Bell and his Chicago blues band, and also Bruce Daigrepont and his Cajun band. There must have been 500 people happily dancing at each performance, while another few hundred looked on. Mutliply that by seven stages along with others moving about from one stage to another, or to the food concessions, and I guess about ten thousand overall in attendance. The National (and Smithsonian Folklife) festival have no admissions charge, but at the National a bucket is passed around for suggested contributions of $10 per person per day, and most people do contribute. The money is used to defray expenses. Other expenses are borne by corporate sponsors such as large telephone companies, along with local businesses, that get a chance to advertise at the festival. Sometimes the city council also contributes, hoping that the festival will attract out-of-town tourists whose expenditures will enhance the local economy. It’s good in that it brings people in the city together for a common, pleasurable experience; and in a city as diverse as Greensboro, this had a very positive impact. There was an atmosphere of celebration, a feeling that all traditions are valuable; there was no competition to speak of among ethnic groups, as there can be in certain European folk festivals.  
     The history of these festivals is complex and interesting. The National is much the older one and, like many that took place before the 1960s, it concentrated on Anglo-American musical traditions, implicitly promoting the idea that the US’ folk heritage is largely British, stemming from the British Colonies. The silent message was that the vast number of immigrants from outside of the UK, along with the Africans who were taken and sold into slavery, had less of a right to claim a pure American heritage. In the 1960s US immigration laws were relaxed, the nation began to be viewed as a mosaic of various ethnic groups, while the old "melting pot" idea came under pressure as ethnicity became a positive attribute and tracing one's roots became a pastime for some. The Newport Folk Festival added a significant number of African-American and Euro-American performers and traditions, and the Smithsonian (which began as the Newport was fading into obscurity) gradually increased ethnic as well as regional and class diversity among the performers and traditions they represented, making a special effort in the aftermath of the war in Indochina to bring displaced Asians and their traditions into the festival lineup. The National, also, became more diverse in its programming during this period. Soon, the Smithsonian festival partnered with folklorists overseas, and in most years traditional music and arts from one non-US nation was featured. For the US Bicentennial, the Smithsonian festival ran throughout the summer and traditions from many nations were on display along with their US diasporic counterparts, a festival extravaganza that has not been equalled since.
     The audience understands these festivals primarily as entertainment, but the festival organizers want also to inform and educate to some degree. The performers are unfamiliar to most of the audience, and in some cases the genres are as well. The presenters have the option of informing the audience, before the performers take the stage, about the traditions they represent, and something about the performers’ lives and careers. Of course, the audience grows impatient for the music if the presenters take more than a few minutes’ educating them. For me, this is a real danger because as a college professor I tend to lecture in a situation like this, so I have to remember to keep it short, especially when presenting on the dance stage. 
     At the Smithsonian festival, the stages are either performance stages or so-called narrative stages. In the latter, presenters engage the performers in conversations, and then performers demonstrate what they’ve been talking about—so it’s a much more educative environment. I recall that in the early 1990s, when I was working for the Smithsonian festival, in response to a few of my questions blues singer Johnny Shines delivered a scathing indictment of racism while explaining the history of blues. I had visited with Shines in his home in Alabama some years earlier, and found him to be not only a fine musician, singer and composer, but also a reflective person who, he said, had been writing his autobiography. I didn’t stay close to him, though, and by the time he died several years after performing at the Smithsonian festival, he hadn’t published the autobiography, nor did any part of the manuscript surface after his death. 

Customized antennas and other DIY electronics atop Big Joe Williams' 
station wagon, ca. 1980. Photo by Jeff Todd Titon.
     In 1976, the first time I worked at a folk festival—it was the Smithsonian—I was asked to present blues singer Big Joe Williams. At that time, the directors of the festival and the Smithsonian’s folklife division—Bess Lomax Hawes and Ralph Rinzler—were invested in the idea that folk music would be adulterated if presented accompanied by amplified guitars, electric basses, drums, and so on. Yet they understood that in the blues tradition, electronic amplification had become the standard after the second World War, and so they permitted a little of it, at low volume so that the sound didn't bleed from one stage to another. Big Joe had brought his own amplifier, a home-made rig consisting of an old floor-model radio from the 1940s, with a huge speaker, into which he’d placed an army surplus amplifier. It was very beat looking and at least 25 years old. Joe, who was quite a DIY electrician, carried it with him to his gigs in towns and cities up and down the Mississippi River, from New Orleans to Chicago, where he traveled almost constantly. I recall that when Bess and Ralph took their first look at his amplifier, they recoiled, thinking that it must be an electrical hazard. But he demonstrated otherwise, and the gigantic amp that looked like an ancient radio became an object of the audience’s fascination, though of course for Big Joe it was just an amplifier. 
     Joe also played a 9-string guitar, which was a six to which he’d added three more, another home-made rig. I’ve never heard of anyone else who played a 9-string guitar, or anyone who wanted to, for that matter. The three added strings included one that doubled the G-string an octave higher, as in a 12-string guitar, giving Joe’s guitar the most distinctive sound of the 12-string, the octave G. Joe’s station wagon also was a magnificent DIY contraption, to the extent that he’d customized the electronics and several other aspects of the interior. It was quite a sight, and I took many photos of it. I’ve told elsewhere, in an interview, about an incident with Big Joe at that 1976 festival, one that has troubled me for many years; but there’s no need to go into detail about that here. 
     I’ve written here before, also, about the paradox in presenting mediated performances of "authentic" traditional musics which, in their natural contexts, are not mediated, even though they may be staged. Presenters, of course, are the chief mediators, explaining the musical traditions and saying something about the performers’ lives and careers, aspects of the performances that would otherwise be absent. And yet, insofar as a greater percentage of these performers are professional folk musicians today—due in no small part to support from festivals like these, and from state and local arts councils—most of their performances are staged and many are mediated. And some of the genres that they perform have been presented from the stage and on recordings for at nearly 100 years, including blues and old-time string band music, while for others the natural context is the stage, not the home. A more realistic description of these musics, I think, is that they have front-stage and back-stage aspects, neither more authentic than the other. Old-time, bluegrass, and country musicians, for example, perform from stages but also get together to play with and for one another informally at home and on the road in motels, and in campers at festivals, and so forth. In some traditions, what was once done in the home kitchens, on porches, or in living rooms with rolled up rugs and carpets, moved into community halls, or bars and pubs, or both, retaining the community flavor of a large family. And so there is that aspect of this music as well, back-stage and informal, that not only remains but is in a sense encouraged by festivals like the National and others that help support it in all of its aspects. 
    One of the best things about these festivals, over the years, is that they’ve encouraged people in the audience to learn and make music. At the National, two of my friends and colleagues, who teach in Greensboro, brought their four-year-old son; and he was thrilled to see and hear the music, especially up close. Bruce Daigrepont, leader of the Cajun band, noticed him, walked over to the section of the stage close to where his father was holding him on his shoulders, and moved his accordion back and forth towards and away from the youngster, who was entranced. Although the boy is too young to know what kind of music this is, surely he continues to identify music with movement and pleasure, something that will serve him well when he decides to take up music systematically and learn to sing or play or both, himself. He already pretends to make music—certainly he makes sounds—at home, on toy instruments; and it won’t be too long before he’s ready to apply himself to learn the skills needed to make real music.