La Guardia airport. My flight has been delayed again and again, due to a tardy pilot. It’s becoming increasingly clear that no pilot is coming. I watch with growing resignation as flight after flight moves from delayed to cancelled on the screens. It looks like a night in New York is inevitable. The red letters concede I am another casualty of bad weather, so I head to a hotel in Long Island, competing with the horde of travellers who won’t be making it to their destinations tonight.
Initially excited to spend a night in New York, my spirits are dampened by slush, rain and an apparent knack for arriving at food joints two minutes after they close. I end up back at my hotel soaked through, less than enamoured with the Big Apple, and ravenously hungry.
After a few redirected flights, rental car troubles and some serious BBQ, I finally make it to Kansas City, the site of the 2016 Folk Alliance International (FAI) conference. A five day event that takes over the entire Westin Hotel, FAI is the largest gathering of the folk music community in the world. I’m looking forward to the unimpeded march of old tymey music to change my life. Or whatever.
At the Westin, among the crowds milling on the conference level, I’m surrounded by a throng of folk from around the world who are taking part in a giant schmoozy opportunity for musicians to meet industry reps and for all of them to drink together. Some are successful at the schmoozing; almost all are successful at the drinking. As I move through the crowd I spot the impressive and distinctive beard of Ben Caplan, a Halifax musician with a voice the size of the Great Lakes. I compliment his beard and his voice. He is gracious.
His music is like water, calm and soothing for a moment, but with the potential to break loose and crash over you like a wave gone rogue, burying you in its swell. Caplan weaves melodies from his Jewish upbringing with insatiable energy. We chit chat and while I try to say intelligent things, he offers me a tale. The hotel we are both staying in is the site of one of the largest architectural disasters in America short of 9/11. Then the Hyatt Regency, the hotel was playing host to over 1600 people for a Tea Dance on July 17, 1981, just past the first anniversary of its opening. Due to shoddy design and construction, the elevated walkways gave up and crashed down. Overcrowded bridges collapsing onto an unsuspecting crowd of dancers and spectators crushing down into the hotel lobby, resulting in 114 dead and 216 injured.
There is a new lobby, a new hotel name. The crushed bodies long removed, what could be buried was buried. Surrounded, as I was, by folk musicians, I started wondering if this is exactly the type of experience that they are drawn to, stories of loss and tragedy, stories of carrying on.
The definition of folk music is very fluid, it’s a style but it’s more of a concept, an idea that pervades music throughout history. It educates, it entertains, it takes what is the most human of our experience and puts it to a tune you can sing. It’s confusing. I meet up with Ben after his official showcase. He sips from a mediocre Old Fashioned while I munch on bread and some weirdly appealing purple beet hummus.
“Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and all these guys before them, they were playing the music of the people, who were not professional musicians it was the people’s music it was not this polished professional thing,” he tells me.
“All of these different traditions have this ancient core of the music that could not be recorded or written down but had to be passed down generation to generation… and only the ear worms stick and only the songs that have meaning stick.”
Ben tells of his time backpacking through Europe and hearing what he describes as, “Belgian jazz students who went out on this gypsy freak kick. Hearing them play was like, oh fuck, there’s this whole world that is mine that I never really thought of as musical expression… I hadn’t realized ’til that moment that I was separating one kind of melody in one category and another kind of melody in another category, and watching this band perform those categories fused, and I realized that there was only music.”
Clearly the idea of folk music is as old as human existence, each culture developing its own style and function for music. Members of the Swedish folk group, Bjåran, say they feel drawn to reinterpreting old folk music of the 17th and 18th century, songs of folklore, of gnomes, immigrant songs of leaving home behind. Songs of love. But, music rarely develops in isolation and the Swedish folk music shares its heritage with other European cultures.
“If you go back, back, back to the 17th century,” I’m told by Bjåran’s Magdalena Eriksson, “then our music came from Poland, a king married a Polish princess, and it was really hip to listen to European music… so it spread from that down to the people.”
Fortunately, most romances are insufficient to transform musical tastes across a nation, although sometimes musical movements can help transform the ideals of a nation. Freedom songs exist across the world and our continent’s recent history is rife with examples of such songs. Marcus Mosely of the Sojourners tells me of a time when he had to move off the sidewalk when white folk walked by just because he was a black kid growing up in Texas.
Take a moment to ruminate on how screwed up that is.
Listening to the Sojourners is perhaps a spiritual experience if you believe in that sort of thing. Drawing from the deep well of gospel music, their rich melodies, their mournful harmonies take you back in time. They catch your soul in a moment of vulnerability and ask it to resonate with songs of healing, of loss, and of hope. They remind you that you, through it all, are human.
Marcus views music as part of a cultural transformation that he lived through. “If you look at Dr. Martin Luther King, it was brilliant for him to use the church as his platform to move the country towards civil rights…It was the core of the black community. So gospel music has always had that element of subversiveness, of being defiant, of giving people a sense of power and of hope, something bigger than themselves.”
Songs like I Shall Not be Moved and We Shall Overcome became an inseparable part of foundation for the civil rights movement. Even now, music is playing a role in the Black Lives Matter movement as artists speak out against racial violence in America. In his downtime from the Sojourners, Khari McClelland has been spearheading a project with the CBC called Freedom Singer, finding “songs that accompany people on their journey to freedom,” on the Underground Railroad, he says. As people observe their world, and observe the injustice that exists, songs prove a powerful ally in the search for progress. At a workshop on freedom songs Khari recalls his experience listening to Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan, “This is some heavy shit…this is authentic in the same way punk is authentic… they actually want to make change and will fight to change it.”
As we wrap up our interview, Khari asks if they can sing me something. Umm…yes. Obviously yes. As they sing, I can’t help but think of how insufficient my understanding is of the oppressive hand of racism.
Cease to agitate, we will
When the the slave whip’s sound is still
When no more on guiltless limb
Fetters print there circlet grim
When no hound a thirst for blood
Scouring the the thorny Georgian wood
When no more a mother’s pleading prayer
Quiver on the southern air.
On that day we shall be
Family, equal born and free
“Folk music, protest music is like a mirror being held up saying, look in this, what do you see? Marcus says. “If you don’t like what you see how do you change it?” Folk music can be a tool to understand ourselves better if we let it, to look into the dark corners behind the facade. “It has to be encouraged and supported, there’s always going to be a reaction from the establishment that is going to say no, this is wrong, this is bad. They’re going to try to tear it apart because it exposes the problem.”
Personal space bubbles have long since been forgotten as Konrad Wert lays down his characteristic, frantic growl of a voice. Performing under the moniker Possessed By Paul James, possessed seems an appropriate descriptor. Thirty people are packed into a tiny hotel room, sweating buckets and stomping their feet along with the tangible, aggressive energy of Wert’s one man show. He grew up with Mennonite parents he describes as, “conservative in faith but progressive in their political outlook.”
A nurse and a teacher, they encouraged music that had underpinnings of social justice.” As the cold beers are passed around to the cramped room captivated by Wert’s performance, it’s hard to imagine his musical education starting in a church, but that’s where it all began for him. “Faith comes into play in writing more universally if you can write about the themes of faith, the themes of troubled times, of brokenness, of redemption, of salvation but not in the realm of religion but just in life. I think that’s where faith and spirituality…come to play best in folk music… I try to talk about the brokenness of humanity a lot, that sounds dramatic…but we like to try to build redemption in that social change.”
These shared feelings of loss, or guilt, joy and accomplishment, create a sense of community. “That sense of community, people really gather around…Folk music was built upon slavery, immigration, the violent times of labour movements, international war and domestic unrest.” Wert says, “I feel I don’t see strong representation of political influence or social unrest in folk music necessarily (currently), but I feel like everyone is knocking on the door. They’re willing to say these things that we want to be addressing but we don’t know how to address it. I feel that it’s going to be a resurgence.”
A resurgence of old musical ideas, if not conscience, is easy to feel in the Westin Hotel. Musicians like Ryan McNally and Saskatoon’s own Rosie and the Riveters look like they stepped out of the 1950’s and the lobby sounds like a small pub in Ireland. But few groups present seem to embody to spirit of old time music as scorch folk duo Hogan and Moss. Wandering around one of the three hotel floors dedicated to showcasing artists, I feel a tangible energy as I walk into the tiny hotel room they are playing. It’s like stepping into a musical tornado done up in 1920’s fashion. Playing a canon of music that takes you through the early 20th century of American folk tunes, Hogan and Moss present an almost historical experience. When they’re not performing in showcases upstairs they’re a ubiquitous site in the hotel lobby, stomping and hollering through St James Infirmary Blues or Clarence Ashley’s Coo Coo.
Letting me interrupt one of their marathon music sessions, Maria Moss speaks about storytelling as an important element in social development, “The collective unconscious is a tremendous part of the story telling tradition. There’s only a few stories, and they’re mostly cautionary tales. Before there was recordings… people needed a way to express themselves and express what they feel an urgency to tell in a way that will last, and a song can move from town to town, country to country and mountainside to mountainside… Connecting with the human psyche is what folks songs are.” And you can see the same hardships, the same attitudes expressed by different groups of people across centuries and decades. Jon Hogan references the same “gangster resignation” in early 20th century folk songs and you see in modern hip hop and rap. “You have all the same elements as a modern rap song: women, drugs, violence, territory, defiance, jail, a sense of loss and a sense of you can’t beat the system,” Hogan says. “These thing were identical in their picture from 1925 with Dock Boggs to 1995 in Compton.”
The music of the people calls us to open our eyes to the less privileged, the marginalized and the poor. Beyond that, it can speak about complicated and polarized issues in a way that is connective, emotional, and at times extremely personal. As we finish our underwhelming meal at the bar, Ben Caplan suggests “Storytelling is a way of articulating a worldview. Philosophy is overt, and storytelling is covert, and sometimes the storytellers themselves don’t know what they’re doing, but it’s the same thing.” Caplan’s song, Down to the River, repurposes poet Dylan Thomas’ famous line,
You’ve got to rage against the dying of the light
Live for the moment that’s left
Grasping humanity in all its moments, believing that you are so very alive right to the moment of your death, each moment is worth fighting for. After four days of wandering through crowded hotel hallways, packed with musicians from around the world, eating and drinking and jamming together, the idea of folk music seems more and more difficult to grasp. But maybe that’s the point of it. Maybe folk music is more about understanding how the music grasps us. We’re gathered together around the music, telling tales, keeping those cautionary tales, those love stories, those tragedies, alive. Grasping at the light, or truth, or meaning, or community, to make sure it keeps burning.