Folk Alliance 2017, Day 1: Inclusivity, Roots Music, and Late Night Jams

Courtesy of FAI

The halls, hotel lobby, and hotel rooms are alive with the sound of music here at the 29th annual Folk Alliance International Conference at the Westin Hotel in Kansas City from early every morning to early the following day. Nearly everyone in the elevators, strolling the walkways between hotels, carries a guitar or banjo strapped to his or her back, or carries along a ukulele, fiddle, mandolin, an upright bass, an autoharp, or rolls a small harp. At any moment you can find musicians gathered around in a circle calling out a tune and jamming. In an American culture quickly going to hell in a handbasket, these enduring strains of music foster unity and harmony, offering solace and reminding us that well-played tunes and passionately written lyric continue to tell a story that touches our human spirit. From out of the cacophony of voices in every hall emerges a sweet chorus lifting to the heavens to wonder at the vagaries of love, to ponder the abysmal vagaries of the human character, and to praise the resilience of human nature. This music is all about community, and it’s nowhere more apparent than at this year’s Folk Alliance International.

The power of music to bring people together is evident simply in the growth of the attendance at Folk Alliance. As of yesterday — the second day of the conference — almost 2,800 people, from 20 different countries, had registered for the conference, up from 2,423 in 2016. There are 1,000 first-timers registered, and 662 attended Wednesday’s awards show. This year’s theme, “Forbidden Folk,” zeroes in on the power of folk music to raise voices in protest of inequities and social injustice, reminding every attendee just how much the celebratory character of folk music transforms.

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At Wednesday’s awards show, Kris Kristofferson presented the inaugural People’s Voice Award — created to recognize “an individual committed to social and political commentary in his or her creative and folk music career” — to Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn. Cockburn became well known for his songs “Wondering Where the Lions Are” and “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” and his autobiography, Rumors of Glory, which he signed yesterday, reveals his own meditations on the inextricable tangled quilt of music and spirituality. In accepting the award, he reflected that “I had not thought much about the effect of the political aspect of my songwriting; I’d always felt, and still do, that the job is to tell the truth of the human experience as we live it.”

Sarah Jarosz was presented the Album of the Year award for Undercurrent; Michael Kiwanuka & Inflo were presented the Song of the Year Award for “Black Man in a White World,” and Parker Milsap was named Artist of the Year. Recipients of the Spirit of Folk Awards this year included Barbara Dane, Chloe Goodyear, Michelle Conceison, Ramy Essam, Si Kahn and SONiA disappear fear, and Lifetime Achievement Awards went to iconic composer David Amram (Living), activist songwriter Malvina Reynolds (Legacy), and Canadian folklorist Helen Creighton (Business/Academic).

If the nights and early morning hours are filled with music, the days are filled with panels on sessions devoted to topics focusing on concerns of artists (how to find a publicist), industry (how radio stations select the records they’re going to play), and community (how do we define ourselves as folk musicians). The highlight of yesterday’s sessions was an engaging and passionate conversation about the definition of folk music and its borders.

Musician ShoShana Kish opened the panel by inviting everyone in the room to pull their chairs into a circle rather than sitting in the usual conference design of folks facing speakers sitting behind a table. She remarked that it’s nice to be in conversation about the panel’s topic, Cultural Equity and Inclusivity, and she expressed fervently her hope that “maybe today we can take the conversation into brave places, opening up safer spaces for our humanity.” As each participant discussed his or her involvement in creating such safe spaces in his or her community, Bau Graves, executive director of Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music admitted that he’s “been in this business for 40 years and things look much the same as they did when I started out” with relation to cultural inclusivity and equity.

He described several initiatives, including one in which arts organizations in Chicago offer high school students the opportunity to work in arts administration. Reflecting on our current cultural situation, David Amram said that “the racism at the time I grew up — and we didn’t call it racism then since we didn’t have that word — makes the current administration look like Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.” Karen Lisondra, who works in activist theater, movingly remarked that she uses theater to get people to look each other in the eye in a small space: “if we can look in each other’s eyes, we can recognize the other.” Rosina Kaz, an LGBTQ electronica artist, admitted that she’s beyond diplomacy and that she’s hurt and angry so her work in her own house concerts is to create a safe space for artists. Hovering over the entire conversation was the question of the definition of folk music and the ways that the organization that puts together Folk Alliance might not have worked as hard as possible to be inclusive.

The conversation is reminiscent of the ongoing conversation in the Americana music world about equity and inclusivity. The issues that surfaced during the session were many. Who has the power to determine who’s in and who’s out? What is folk music? What is the nature of change and how does true transformation occur, and can an organization that has systematically characterized folk music in a certain way (singer-songwriter paradigm is dominant) strive to transform itself by being, as one participant put it, attentive to the polyrhythmic nature of the music and the community?

At the core of this ongoing discussion is the attempt to recognize the plurality of forms that flow into this river of folk music, as well as to consider the limitations of genre and embrace music as simply the expression of the human spirit in the community.

In the evenings and early into the next morning, folks here can hear hundreds of musicians practicing their art. Every hotel room, spread over three floors, features five sets by five different artists. You can’t hear it all, but I wandered into a rousing and poignant set by East Nashville’s Wild Ponies, a joyous hour of blues by Brian Langlinais, a moving set of soulful acoustic roots by the versatile Bob Woodruff, and a blistering set by the Titan of the Telecaster Bill Kirchen. Kirchen, who wrote and played on “Hot Rod Lincoln,” the one hit for Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, had to turn down his amp at the request of musicians in adjoining rooms, a funny reliving of Dylan going electric (Kirchen did play a rousing version of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”), and he ended his set with an extended version of “Hot Rod Lincoln” in which he plays a medley of different styles of guitar from Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix to B.B. King and Merle Haggard. Somehow, Kirchen’s set was the perfect reminder of the wide and deep embrace of folk music, and it was more than a perfect ending to the first day of Folk Alliance.