Can the Washington Folk Festival Make Room for D.C. Indie Folk?
A Rockville High School bagpiper, whose group is performing at the festival.
Last year, Phillips Saylor discovered that the Washington Folk Festival is not the venue for “orthopolytonal banjo singing.”
Saylor, the inventor of that technique and the frontman of the D.C.-based band Stripmall Ballads, had been asked to share the stage with three other musicians as part of a songwriters’ workshop at last year’s festival at Glen Echo Park in Glen Echo, Md. He brought his amplifier—a four-watt, 1950s tube amp, which he uses with a homemade guitar with custom pickups—but didn’t tell organizers beforehand that he planned to use an electric instrument at the songwriters’ workshop, where performers customarily only play acoustically.
“I was looked at like I was E.T.,” Saylor, 31, says. “The stage manager told me I couldn’t use [the amp].” An argument ensued. The other performers at the workshop played their guitars into microphones, which were plugged into amplifiers, says Saylor, and he did not see the difference. And electric instruments are sometimes allowed at the festival. “I figured they hired me because they like what I do and they like the way I sound,” he says. “And I showed up to do what I do and sound the way I sound, and they got mad at me.”
Saylor did plug in but decided to forego any sonic experimentation. Still, the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, which organizes the festival, did not ask him back to perform this year.
What happened to Saylor was hardly a scandal, but it illustrates a local divide: That while for decades the Folklore Society has celebrated traditional forms like contra- and English country dancing, various folk music genres, and storytelling, its summer festival has made little room for the District’s burgeoning indie-folk scene. Here’s one possible reason: The festival will celebrate its 30th anniversary noon to 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Glen Echo, and its leadership—and, by some accounts, its audience—is aging.
“If you look at the heads of people, and all the gray hairs, you’ll notice a demographic change,” says Charlie Baum, 56, who has been on the festival’s committee for just shy of a decade. “There’s a cohort that got involved in folk music when they were in college in the ’60s, the ’70s, and they’ve become grandparents instead of college students.”
There are a lot of families,” says Brad Park, 37, who played the festival last spring with Greasy String, a local old-time string band. “But in terms of 18- to 30-year-olds, unless they have kids, there aren’t a lot of [them] there.”
All this raises a question: Should the Washington Folk Festival open its arms to new extensions of folk music? And in order to replenish its ranks with younger blood, will it have to?
While some festival committee members deny that the fest’s audience is graying, all acknowledge that the committee itself skews boomer. Some, including festival co-director Mia Gardiner, have been on the programming committee since the first festival, in 1980. “It is hard to find ‘new blood’ for the committees,” Gardiner says in an e-mail. Last year, the committee took on Maureen Andary, 27, and Jonny Grave, 22, both musicians in D.C., who have made an effort to generate buzz about the Washington Folk Festival among their friends in the District.
But the festival, which is free and does not pay performers, remains unknown to many young adults in the city who make and listen to music descended from American folk forms.
Among them is Justin Jones, 29, the Virginia alt-country singer-songwriter who is one of the Washington area’s more prominent ambassadors of Americana. “I’m a local artist, I’ve been here for eight years, and I’ve never heard of this thing,” he said when contacted by Washington City Paper. Jones then texted three local musician friends—Josh Reed, John Bustine, and Lissy Rosemont—none of whom had heard of the festival, either.
A fourth young musician, Laura Tsaggaris, had heard of the Washington Folk Festival—in fact, she has played it for the past three years. Tsaggaris runs a songwriters’ showcase at F Street NE’s Ebenezers Coffeehouse that functions very similarly to the workshop where Saylor and his amp were stymied last year. But she says there is very little overlap between the denizens of downtown songwriters’ circles and house shows and the attendees of the Washington Folk Festival—or any of the Folklore Society’s events.
As far as the Glen Echo event goes, Tsaggaris says that young city folk might be lured to Maryland by familiar, local names. “To get people interested in [traditional folk], you first of all have to get them there,” she says. “How do you get them there? You get the hot acts that are playing at the Black Cat and have them play unplugged. You have them present their songs in a way that touches the tangents of folk.”
But then there is the question of to what extent the fest actually wants to become a destination for 20-somethings. “There could be some concerns if you really pull in a lot of college kids, possible issues with drinking, issues with security, issues with behavior,” says Park. Drinking is not allowed without a permit at Glen Echo, a former amusement park that is now a multipurpose arts center co-run by the National Park Service.
Gardiner, the festival’s co-founder, says despite the decision to add Andary and Grave to the programming committee for “their fresh perspective and ideas,” she is confident that there are enough young people involved in the festival already—recently graduated sound techs, children of Folklore Society acolytes, certain performers—to pass on the tradition to the next generation. Any young city dwellers who hop a ride to Glen Echo because of Andary and Grave’s outreach, she says, would be “a bonus.”
There is also the question of whether the programming committee cares to give ground to musical forms they do not consider “folk,” notwithstanding whatever shorthand the press has chosen to use. “The pop media doesn’t really understand folk,” says Mary Cliff, current president of the Folklore Society and producer of the show Traditions on American University’s WAMU radio station. “Folk does not equal acoustic,” Cliff says. “It’s the substance of the material.”
Still, Cliff admits that folk is a “moving target.” She points out that bluegrass was not accepted as folk music when Bill Monroe invented it by mixing Irish folk music with American blues in the early 1940s. Bluegrass bands can be found all over the bill for this year’s Washington Folk Festival.
To its credit, the programming committee has expanded its bill in recent years to include different and new styles of folk music. There is a lot of world music on the bill. And this year, for the first time ever, the festival will feature a hip-hop artist: Chris “Christylez” Bacon. And yet local folk-inspired bands such as the psych-folk These United States and the folk-rock Junior League Band remain off the programming committee’s radar.
Members of the programming committee contacted by City Paper cited various criteria they use when evaluating the folkieness of a band: whether the music is participatory, whether it is the type played at life-cycle events such as weddings and funerals, and whether it tells stories that are deeply connected to cultural mores, among others.
But the process by which the Washington Folk Festival vets performers for folkieness—one member of the programming committee plays a few songs for the rest and they decide either to invite the act or not—seems to be largely based on intuition. “You avoid discussing it at length, because it’s almost impossible to define,” says Baum, one of the committee members. “You sort of know it when you hear it.”
“Who knows,” says Gardiner. “When I figure out what indie folk is, I might suggest we find a group to represent it.”