Ordinarily I write about the Brooklyn Folk Festival (April 6-8, at St. Ann’s Church) after it happens, but this year I’m previewing it. Maybe that will help sell a few more tickets to what I believe is the old-time event of the year. The festival sprawls across the weekend, with afternoon and evening concerts, as well as lots of side events and jams. There’s food, artifacts, crafts, book signings—all in a historic church.
The first festival was in 2009, so this is the 10th anniversary, and there’s an appropriately splendid lineup to celebrate. The big news addition this year is Pokey LaFarge, the retro rockabilly/old-time guy, who will fit right in. The young and enthusiastic folk-rock collective Spirit Family Reunion (with an ecstatic following in Brooklyn) is back, and I’m excited to see Molsky’s Mountain Drifters. Bruce Molsky is the greatest living exponent of old-time country music, bar none.
Don’t miss Elizabeth Mitchell, who’s recorded a wonderful overview of the folk repertoire (with kids as backup singers) for Smithsonian Folkways, and just made an album—all in Spanish—with Suni Paz. And the East River String Band would be great, even if the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb (a fanatic prewar music collector) weren’t also on board to play along and paint their covers.
Also returning is the miraculous Horse-Eyed Men, a brother act that defies description. Deftly written country-western with a humorous edge? Maybe, but they’d be equally adept skewering techno. I’ve heard good stuff from Wyndham Baird, Jerron Paxton (a wunderkind on multiple instruments) Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues, Piedmont Bluz (a charming husband-and-wife blues duo), Little Nora Brown (who’s what, 12 now?) and Michael Dawes.
It occurred to me that the old-time scene in New York owes a lot to two groups, the New Lost City Ramblers and the Holy Modal Rounders. Peter Stampfel of the Rounders was at the Brooklyn festival last year, and fellow traveler Michael Hurley the year before that. New Lost City Ramblers’ John Cohen is a regular, as a member of the Down Hill Strugglers with Brooklyn Folk Festival founder Eli Smith and the great Jackson Lynch.
I talked to Smith earlier this week, and he says there are still seats available for next month’s festivities. “I had the idea back in 2008, so I looked to see if there was an existing folk festival in Brooklyn,” he said. “There wasn’t.” In fact, there probably wasn’t another regular folk festival in all of New York, which is pretty shameful considering the city’s past nurturing Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Dave Van Ronk, Patrick Sky, and many more.
“So we put the first two festivals on at the 100-seat Jalopy Theater in Red Hook, and they sold out immediately,” Smith said. “It was an idea whose time had come.” Indeed.
The Brooklyn event isn’t just about old-time country, though that’s a lot of it. There’s also music this year from Morocco, Mexico, India, Hawaii and Italy, as well as sea shanties and other musical byways that represent New York as the cultural melting pot it has always been.
Find out more about the festival and buy tickets at http://brooklynfolkfest.com. If you come just once, you’ll be back every year, and also attending concerts and workshops at the Jalopy, a New York treasure whose good works should be better known.
Brian Geltner took all the photos, which are from the 2017 festival. Here’s some appropriate video, featuring Eli Smith: