BROOKLYN, NEW YORK—The 11th annual Brooklyn Folk Festival, in its long-time home of St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn Heights, is about the agony and the ecstasy. The agony of sitting in hard, upright church pews for days at a time, and the ecstasy of a sublimely curated festival of folk music (using the most creative interpretation of that genre) for three whole days.
We walked in Friday evening as Tenares de Alelerúe was just starting. It’s a vocal quartet that sounds like a cross between barbershop music and shape note singing. They gathered in close to sing, holding each other’s shoulders. Has Joe Biden heard about this?
The repertoire was Sardinian and Corsican, and I thought that’s where these folks came from, but when the talked, lo and behold, Americans. What kind of Americans, bred on Top 40, decides to take on ancient European vocal traditions? Well, welcome to the Brooklyn Folk Festival, where this kind of dedication is commonplace.
Up next was Jake Xerxes Fussell, whose Columbus, Georgia songs I’ve played on my WPKN show. “Did you ever see peaches growing on a sweet potato vine?” he asks. Fussell is getting known; he has a strong tenor voice and an even stronger guitar style. Some of his songs are a bit odd at first, but would probably wear like old boots. “Jump for Joy”; I want to hear that one again. He played a song he described as coming from Duke Ellington, but it sounded like 60s singer-songwriter.
Jackson [Lynch] and the Janks play R&B from New Orleans, where Lynch is now resident. Unusual instrumentation: steel guitar, sax and drums. Lynch is a master fiddle player, guitarist and folklorist; I like him better solo or with the Downhill Strugglers (featuring curator Eli Smith and John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers).
The Big Dixie Swingers, also from the Big Easy, were my hit of the day. “Western swing, that’s mostly what we do,” said fiddler/vocalist Aaron Bushnell Gunn, but there’s a really big dose of New Orleans jazz in there too, thanks to Aaron Olwell’s clarinets and Nathan Wolman’s heavily Louis Armstrong-inspired trumpet. They swung like a gate. They also have a gem in vocalist/banjoist Elizabeth Gunn Bushnell, who conjures the crackly vocals off an old 78. Ruth Etting, maybe? Points for repertoire, too, with tunes like “On a Chinese Honeymoon.” Sample lyric: “We will live on love and kisses/On our Chinese honeymoon.”
Jontavious Willis is still in college, but showed enormous promise as a young bluesman, particularly in his stellar harp and “talking” guitar playing.
At this point I took a break from a music and walked up the winding stairs to the workshop room, where a lecture on the origins of the banjo was in progress. Scholars Pete Ross and Kristina Gaddy were knowledgeable and funny. The earliest banjos we know about were found with slaves in the 18th and 19th century Caribbean. They are seen in old paintings of revels at the slave quarters, and were made from a wooden stock stuck in to a sliced-open gourd (often with a sheepskin or hide covering)
They’ve found them in Surinam, Haiti, Barbados, Madera, Jamaica, and in the U.S. too. A song—played during the workshop—was transcribed around 1687 by a visiting European from “the best musician there.” Was it called “Strum Stomp”? By 1736, there were references to slave instruments called “bangers” in New York (and from Congo Square in New Orleans, circa 1819). One definitive reference point is a 1792 painting called “Old Plantation,” with a banger and drummers and women waving scarves (also seen in Caribbean depictions).
Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues reminds me of a group that might have been seen in Washington Square around 1969. A visit to the Square didn’t turn up much music now, though somebody had mysteriously left record albums (Lionel Ritchie, anyone?) strewn about the benches. The vocals of Samoa Wilson, sometimes heard with jug band pioneer Jim Kweskin, were a highlight.
Nat Polly was one of the musicians brought from eastern Kentucky by the Appalshop group of folklorists. He wasn’t stuck in the past—he did a song about the opioid crisis. “That song moved in next door to me,” he said. Also strikingly contemporary were the Local Honeys, two Appal Shop women with clear voices and a strong political conscience. Fiddler Linda Jean Stokley’s song about the coal mining czars was biting, specific and on-target.
I’ve written so much about the Mammals I won’t go into detail here. I usually see them upstate at their Summer Hoot. But they met in the city, and it was particularly appropriate that they did their Woody Guthrie-lyrics New York subway song in Brooklyn. (Guthrie lived out on Mermaid Avenue.) Mike Merenda wore a shirt celebrating Greta Ernman Thunberg, the young climate activist, and then performed “Sunshiner” (his renewable energy song). Ruth Unger’s interpretation of an Etta James song reaffirmed what a great vocalist she is.
Little Nora Brown (just 13) is getting better and better, and is developing both stage presence and vocal command. Opening with a Shaker song, she calmly informed us that it had just been recorded for a Shaker tribute that also features Yo Yo Ma. She was joined by Anna Roberts-Gevalt of Anna and Elizabeth, and at one point played a banjo that had been used by Roscoe Holcomb in New York.
The Ozark Highballers do a wonderful job of keeping alive the music in and around their Ozarks hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas. They’re an old-time string band with a great respect for the tradition, and have a new album out on Jalopy Records (the Jalopy Theatre in Red Hook is the parent organization of the festival.) The Highballers have a wonderful asset in the vocals of guitarist Aviva Steigmeyer, but don’t avail themselves of it enough—she sang lead on only one song.
The absolute high point of the festival for me was a set by the recently formed Lovestruck Balladeers. It’s a supergroup of sorts, with stars from a variety of ensembles. Everyone is a multi-instrumentalist, and the repertoire is ragtime and early jazz.
I saw the amazing fiddle playing of Aaron Jonah-Lewis last summer on tour with Roochie Tootchie and the Ragtime Shepherd Kings, and he’s even more amazing with the Balladeers. Dennis Lichtman, also a monster on mandolin and fiddle, is most often seen with a clarinet (and also plays in The Brain Cloud, regulars at Barbes). Pianist Dalton Ridenhour knows his Scott Joplin; guitarist Jake Sanders has Django licks and more, and Sean Cronin had the audience in awe on bass. At one point, the whole front line was on mandolins.
Meredith Axelrod and Frank Fairfield were having an off night. Something was clearly bugging Fairfield, and his incessant tuning prompted Axelrod to quip, “Tuning is important. It’s more important than having a good show.” When they did play, they were great, especially an antique tune called “On the Brandywine” that was in the original Wizard of Oz stage play, circa 1905.
Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton was captivating on a bunch of instruments, including fiddle, guitar, harp and more. He’s not bad on piano, either. He started one tune, then noticed that the audience’s hand clapping was out of sync. “It’s a waltz,” he said. “The African-American contingent of the audience is now up to at least half a dozen, and they should be the ones to set the tempos.”
Paxton was joined later by Jonah-Lewis and Fairfield for two trio dazzlers.
I wish I was more awake for Kashiah Hunter and friends. Sacred steel is amazing live, and there were two players on the instrument—one Hunter’s uncle. In full cry it always reminds me—for some reason—of the Allman Brothers. If they were spiritual, of course.
The Brain Cloud, featuring Lichtman and the vivacious vocalist Tamar Korn were still cranking when we left for the night. There’s only so much bench time one’s nether quarters can take, and we were worried about the subways still running. Lichtman is the best kind of historian, and he told a long and fascinating tale about “My Window Faces the South” being first recorded by Fats Waller in 1937. Now it’s a country swing classic and sounds positively corn-fed.
On Sunday, events started with a kids’ singalong of Pete Seeger material sponsored by Smithsonian Folkways. Seeger would be 100 now, and his legacy is large. The kids seemed happy enough singing “This Land is Your Land” with Emily Eager and Chris Q. Murphy.
It was just as Pete would have done it, but surely an update with some new songs is permitted. The kids would become an issue later when their running around and yelling got in the way of the quieter performances. Host Eli Smith handled it properly, telling the parents that they were loved dearly, but the kids had to be corralled.
Jim Kweskin, who’s 79, is still singing and playing at the top of his game. Kind of amazing. He even looks good. A set from him is like hearing music in your own living room. On his own, instead of with his trademark jug band you get a musician strongly influenced by Mississippi John Hurt, which isn’t a bad thing. He did Uncle Dave Macon’s “Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train,” gave “Eight More Miles to Louisville” another go-round and sang a hilarious song about the life of a guitar player—to the tune of “Swinging on a Star.” Inspirational wisdom: “My buddy Geoff Muldaur likes to say we play for old people—and their parents.”
John Harrod, a Kentucky fiddler, sounded great and did a set that was strongly regional in flavor. One song was from a guy who had to be gotten out of jail to record it. But don’t let the baseball cap fool you—Harrod went to Oxford, and his accompanist wife to Vassar. Harrod made a strong pitch for his state’s music, Appalshop, and the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School (held the last full week in June). Indeed, many of the performers on Sunday had attended it.
The Downhill Strugglers were in rude good health, with Jackson Lynch in particularly fine form on fiddle and songs like “That’s All Right.” Eli Smith played a delicate banjo tune, “The Wild Goose Chase,” that was perfect for Sunday in church.
I’d describe the much-anticipated film The Ballad of Shirley Collins, about the British balladeer who accompanied Alan Lomax on his southern adventures, but the video player didn’t work. Oh well.
Ian Felice of the Felice Brothers looked like he just rolled out of bed, and his songs were in that same spirit. They were more like random journal entries than actual songs. For his information, Fred Neil did not write “Shake Sugaree”; Elizabeth Cotton did.
I can’t say too much about the uniting of Bruce Molsky, Michael Daves and Tony Trischka. As Trischka pointed out, they have busy schedules and don’t get together all that often. But when they do, sparks fly. All three are giants in old-time (and progressive) circles, and they played at blistering tempos when they weren’t making you cry with ballads like “The Blackest Crow.” The breakneck finale, a workout on something called “I Get My Whiskey from Rockingham,” was just awe-inspiring. Here’s video (but not of that song!):
Anna Roberts-Gevalt, half of Anna and Elizabeth, appeared earlier accompanying several of the acts (including John Harrod and Little Nora Brown), and was totally well-behaved. But her own set on Sunday night was the most avant-garde folk performance I’ve ever seen. One song was accompanied by the amplified sound of her washing her hands in a basin. In duet with Robbie Lee, she played the viola and he the alto sax, and they walked towards each other from corners of the church. It was dramatic, to say the least.
Other songs had her wailing like Yoko Ono, deconstructing the standard “Careless Love,” and radically re-interpreting the purpose of the banjo. Bravo for taking chances. The same should be said of the Brooklyn Folk Festival. Long may it wave.
Jim, I don’t usually read music reviews but I was so intrigued by your writing and the fact that the festival was at St. Anne’s church (I lived and raised my children in Brooklyn Heights for 12 years) that I read it from the first to the very last word and would have kept on reading if you’d given me more words.
Thank you, Hazel. It’s a great venue, and the music is just the best.
Hi Jim, I enjoyed your article and of course, the festival itself. Just a quick heads up, the first picture is of us “The Big Dixie Swingers,” not the Ozark Highballers. Although they were fantastic as always!
Fixed! Sorry for the error. I loved you both.