Arts Desk

Can the Washington Folk Festival Make Room for D.C. Indie Folk?

40 2009 WFF _DSC0985-2

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.”

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  • jj

    I have staged managed at that festival before and dealt with plenty of amps on stage. I think Saylor just happened to get stuck with an inept stage manager or overwhelmed crew. That is what can happen when a festival uses an all volunteer crew with little direction.

    I agree with the general thrust of this article. Yes, the Washington Folk Festival is graying. More importantly, they are, as a whole, made up of people who live in the outlying areas of the city-Takoma Park, Gathersburg, Vienna. They have little connection to what is going on downtown. That being said, they work hard to try and bring in the thriving traditions of the region and work hard to bring in what they think "feels" right for the festival (and that will play for free). I am thrilled to see that they offer a venue for Persian drumming or African dance. Something that the blackcat or DC9 don't do. Getting some younger people to sit on their committee is important, but don't think that will mean booking bands the City Paper drools over. Just because a band like the Junior League band has been influenced by the folk tradition, doesn't make them right for this festival.

  • jj

    I have another question: When was the last time the City Paper actually wrote about the Washington Folk Festival? My guess is that it has been years. I would say,if the City Paper is going ofter the Festival for not attracting a younger audience, it should also partially blame itself for not giving this type of event the coverage it deserves.

  • Jim Heald

    As a 58 year old practitioner of "Contemporary" Folk, or Americana, or Roots Music Singer-Songwriter or whatever and having played my songs at Weddings and Funerals as well as juke box dives, I'd have to say the greying of the audience is a red herring. I grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix, Santana, and the Beatles, as well as Dylan, Tom Paxton, John Prine, and Steve Goodman... I guess I'm just not traditional enough for the Wash Fest (or at least wasn't the couple times I've tried to enter) who should be my demographic, and probably not hip enough for the younger generation. As I wrote in a song,many years ago:

    I sing to much folk for the pop clubs,
    too much pop for the folks,
    to many tears for the up clubs
    and nobody laughs at my jokes.

  • Julia’s Mom

    Didn't the Folklore Society have a program chair in her early 20's a few years ago?

  • Pam Larson

    Great article! I am happy to say that the Festival organizers have also included the DC Labor Chorus on Sunday evening,a multi-generational group of activists singing always-current songs of social justice. In full disclosure I sing alto in the Chorus, but I also have been attending the Washington Folk Festival and helping organize the Takoma Park Folk Festival for years. "Folk" music IS of, by, and for all of us. Come this weekend and mark September 12 on your calendars for Takoma's celebration!

  • Dean

    I'm a former Coordinator for the Washington Folk Festival and have worked with the Program Committee for many years. However, I do NOT speak in behalf of the festival or the Folklore Society in these remarks. The article raises some interesting points, and, in truth, the festival is greatful for any publicity it receives. I was sorry to hear of Mr. Saylor's problems. It is definitely NOT policy that we don't allowed amps on stage (though it helps a lot if we know about them before hand).

    The purpose of the festival is to present local people who are carrying on the traditions of their families, cultures, and sometimes other people's cultures. We recognize that sometimes 'carrying on' means taking the music in a different direction. I think that a careful look at the whole festival program will show that the festival covers a very broad spectrum of 'folk' music both new and old.

    The truth about the term 'folk music' is that it not well defined. Scholars in the field of folklore do not have a uniform definition. With this in mind, the program committee does not have a formal definition either. One of the perks of being on the program committee is that you get to decide what is included in the program. Those that are unhappy with the program are encouraged to volunteer to work on the program committee.

    Finally, I would like to point out that the article is full of factual errors. Mia Gardiner has been an integral part of the festival since its inception, but she was not a co-director this year. The first festival was not in 1980, but in 1977. Christylez played for the first time as a solo act this year, but he first appeared in the festival in 2008. I'm not sure what the author thinks 'world music' is, but the music from other countries has been about a third of the music presented since the very first festival.

  • Lissy Rosemont

    Thanks for the article Steve. I think you did a fine job of highlighting just how vast the music scene in Washington, DC is, and how difficult it can be to keep in touch with all the various facets, neighborhoods, and scenes.

    I think putting on a festival is a huge undertaking, so the Folks at the Washington Folk Festival should be commended for what they are offering to the community around them. I work at the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and we just kicked off the Folklife Festival on the National Mall- so I can empathize with anyone putting on a festival.

    I will say I think Steve forgot to mention the possibility that perhaps the artists weren't invited back to the festival becasue the music wasn't good. Yes, there seems to be a disconnect with the Washington Folk Festival and some of the folk music scenes inside the city(I sing songs at the 9:30 Club and the Black Cat that I learned at Union Grove with my Dad, our family's festival and the longest running fiddler's festival in the US, or so says the Library of Congress- I think that qualifies as Folk Music in DC)- but then again, I had never heard of the Washington Folk Festival and clearly hadn't done my research either.

    It's a big city, and its hard to know whats going on in a grassroots, folk level and in all the various communities. There are clealry geographical and age divides, and I wanna say thanks to Steve for beginning the discussion!