BROOKLYN, NY—This year’s Brooklyn Folk Festival, the 11th, offers one of its best lineups ever, strong this year on Southern folk and country or, if you prefer, Americana. The musical trees and their offshoots, presented by Red Hook’s famed Jalopy Theatre, grow in Brooklyn April 5-7 at St. Ann’s Church, 157 Montague Street.
Eli Smith, both the curator and the main announcer, said that string bands from Georgia and Kentucky will be featured this year. There will be three bands, a pair of films, a workshop and square dance presented by Appalshop, the nonprofit folk arts aggregation based in Whitesburg, Kentucky. And, as always, they’ll be plenty of blues and gospel. As well as a slightly smaller dose of music from New York’s immigrant diaspora, though there’s Tenores de Aterúe (a Sardinian vocal quartet), La Cumbiamba NY (playing music from Colombia) and Ukrainian Village Voices.
One of the Appalshop films is Catfish Man of the Woods, about a fifth-generation herb doctor living near Glenwood, West Virginia. Speaking of films, I’m looking forward to seeing the documentary about British folk singer Shirley Collins’ Southern adventures with folklorist Alan Lomax in the late 1950s.
As usual, a lot of the music is new to me, but it all looks intriguing. The Ozark Highballers and the Dixie Swingers? I’m there. “A good part of my job is knowing what’s happening and bringing it either to the Jalopy or to the festival,” Smith said. “I hear music on the road with my band [The Downhill Strugglers] and via word of mouth,” he said.
The Brooklyn event seemed packed to me last year, and the fact that it’s a younger crowd is encouraging. Is it growing? “It can only grow so much if we’re going to stay at the 800-seat St. Ann’s which we definitely want to do,” Smith said. That said, the audience turns over quite a bit during the weekend, and there’s lots of room (f instance) Sunday afternoon and evening. I’ve done the whole thing several times in the last few years, and there’s never a flat spot—or sets you’ll be glad you missed.
Groups I do know about and am looking forward to seeing include: Jake Xerxes Fussell (Friday evening), Jackson and the Janks (Friday evening, featuring the versatile Jackson Lynch), The Mammals (Saturday afternoon; their Summer Hoot is also strongly recommended), Little Nora Brown (Saturday afternoon), the workshop on the early African-American history of the banjo (Saturday afternoon), a panel on the impact of the late folk impresario Izzy Young (Saturday afternoon), Frank Fairfield and Meredith Axelrod (Saturday night), The Brain Cloud with Tamar Korn (Saturday night), Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton (Saturday night), Jim Kweskin (Sunday afternoon), the Downhill Strugglers (Sunday afternoon), the trio of Bruce Molsky, Tony Trischka and Michael Daves (Sunday night) and Anna rg of Anna and Elizabeth (Sunday night).
The church pews are kind of hard, but you’ll get wrapped up in the music and won’t notice it. There’s good food on the premises, restaurants a-plenty just outside the door, and the opportunity to buy records from Jalopy’s own label. I recommend the albums by Jerron Paxton, Tamar Korn and Mamie Minch, the Downhill Strugglers, Jackson Lynch, and the Whiskey Spitters.
I asked Smith why he’s so successful at attracting young audiences. A graying crowd is a big issue at other events. “We have young bands, and they have young followers,” he said. Makes sense. Smith said the event is holding its own, but “on a shoestring every year. It would be nice if we didn’t have financial problems.” All the more reason for you to get your can down to Brooklyn.
Smith is working on an oral history of folk music in New York, 1935 to 1975. That covers a lot of territory, and I’m looking forward to it. Researching that will make him a better curator. He’s already revived The Fugs and the Holy Modal Rounders (or at least a piece of them).
I’m telling you, this is a good event. Don’t miss it. The Brooklyn Folk Festival kicks off the summer season in fine fashion. For details, visit the website or email lynette@JalopyTheatre.org.
This video captures the spirit of the event, though it was recorded in Texas. The duo will be in Brooklyn Saturday evening: