Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Folk Music

Sharon Wildwind

Last Friday night I went to a performance at a local folk club, and had a terrific time. The house band played the first set. A young local performer — a little unpolished, but great potential — did the second set, and a person I know off-stage and love listening to on-stage, the third set. I listened by candlelight (tea lights in orange globe holders), with people around me eating meat pies and sausage rolls, and drinking beer, and realized I’d been going to this kind of thing a darn long time.

Earlier that day I’d heard a CBC program about Record Store Day, which happened on Saturday. RSD is a celebration of vinyl records and the record stores that still sell them. Part of the show was someone asking people what was the very first vinyl album they bought.

No brainer. Summer of 1962, with money saved from baby sitting, I bought Peter, Paul, and Mary. Sometime around there I briefly took up the guitar long enough to learn the G-D-and A7 cords before giving it up as a bad job. The problem was tuning. I couldn’t turn a tambourine, much less a guitar. I realized very early that my role was going to be listening.

For a long time my contacts were records and later cassette tapes, and the all-too-infrequent performances by folk musicians on radio and television. None of my family was musical, except my brother who played clarinet in the high school marching band, so we had very little connection to live music. I knew about the Newport Folk Festival because of Bob Dylan being booed off the stage there in 1965 because he dared to go electric instead of acoustic, but I had no idea that folk festivals were springing up across the country. It didn’t dawn on me until decades later that I could climb in a car and go to a folk festival.

My first folk festival was a consolation prize. Big vacation plans fell through. I ended up with two weeks off and nothing to do. I decided to go to Vancouver, British Columbia because I’d never been there. When I picked up my room key, the motel clerk asked me if I was in town for the Vancouver Folk Festival. A folk festival sounded a whole lot better than doing nothing, so I took a cab to Jericho Beach Park. The only time I saw my motel room for the next three days was to sleep.

I was hooked. I listened to Simply Folk on CBC radio. I went to local clubs. I went to every Canadian folk festival within reachable distance. I volunteered several years with one of the festivals. I met a few musicians and became a groupie. I had a great time!

Getting married put an end to all that, going to folk festivals I mean, not having a great time. Different interests, different uses for money, different ways to spend our vacations. I went back to CDs and music on the radio. Only by now the Internet had come along. Every year it became easier to listen to a global range of folk artists in the comfort of my living room.

Which was why it was such a treat to go to a live performance again. The weirdest thing happened in the middle of that second set. One after another, images going way back to that Peter, Paul, and Mary album flooded through me. I realized that each image would make a great scene in a book. I realized that I had a lot of good stuff tucked away about folk music, about musicians, about clubs, about folk festivals. So much good material that I’m pretty sure I’ve just started my next book.

By Saturday morning I knew who my protagonist would be. Her name is Robbie Breland. She’s the volunteer coordinator at a folk music club, and one night, while she sits in the club listening to music, everything she thinks she knows about herself, her two ex-husbands, and the folk music scene starts to unravel. Then, of course, a body is discovered.

Stay tuned for further developments.
Quote for the week
Alan Barrows: I always thought it was “hey nonny no, nanny ninny no” and I’m getting kind of confused with all the nannies and the ninnies.
Jerry Palter: There’s no nanny, just take that out of the equation. It’s “hey nonny no, nonny ninny o”.
Mark Shubb: Iron clad rule, Alan. Nonny before ninny.
~from the inimitable movie, A Mighty Wind, which is a very cool riff on folk music


Julia Buckley said...

The genesis of an idea! Sounds great, Sharon.

Sheila Connolly said...

Ooh, ooh, I have that album! And all of the first ten or so that PP&M did, on vinyl. And a couple of Dylan, and Baez, and...

More recently (by a few decades) I've come to realize how much they borrowed from (or paid tribute to)traditional Irish music. Nothing like sitting in the Brazen Head, the oldest pub in Dublin (12th century, I think), and singing along to "Whisky in the Jar" because I knew all the words thanks to PP&M.

Jerry House said...

Sadly, Mary Travers is gone, but Noel Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow still perform individually and together. The magic is still there.

The Chad Mitchell Trio often opened their sets with "A Mighty Day" but haven't been able to since "A Mighty Wind" came out.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

My folksinging, folk festival, and hootenanny days started WAY before Peter, Paul, & Mary and the Chad Mitchell Trio--I think of those groups and the Kingston Trio as the moment when folk went pop. I traveled through torrential rains and flooding--in Manhattan--to hear a friend's folk band perform at the People's Voice Cafe this weekend. More than 50 years after learning those first three chords, I'm working on an album of my songs. (Sharon, wanna help me reach the Canadian market?) And, Sheila, I sing "Whiskey in the Jar" (which I know as "Gilgarra Mountain") to my granddaughters, who love to sing along on the chorus. Can't wait for Sharon's book!

Nina Meyer said...

Your idea sounds like its going to be a great book. Keep up posted so I can get it ordered when it comes out.

If you haven't come across it on the web Folk Alley is a 24 hour all folk web station. They play both the old and the new. they have a feature where they go to the local show and highlight the new groups.

Thank you for all of you wonderful books as a advid reader there can't be too many good books.

Anonymous said...

Sheila, are you sure we aren't twins, separated at birth?

Jerry, Peter Yarrow is featured at a number of Canadian folk festivals this summer. He's apparently doing a Canadian tour. Chad Mitchell Trio has been another favorite for a long time.

Liz, you are a gold mine. I envy some of the experiences you've had.

Nina, thanks for the Folk Alley information.

And thank all of you for encouragement about the book. I'm pumped on this one.

Sandra Parshall said...

I love folk music -- the popular kind and the pure music dating back centuries. Many of the songs people think of as originating in the 1960s are actually updated versions of songs that have been sung in the southern mountains for centuries, and in the British Isles longer than that. The history of a culture is contained in that music.

Steve Moore said...

Hi everyone!
Yep, I have that PP&M album and saw them when Mary was still with us in Hyannisport. My favorite folk album was Hedge & Donna. I first heard them on Pete Seeger's old TV show. Their album was the first I copied onto CD-ROM from my old LP collection. Phil Ochs was the second. Ah, nostalgia....

Steve Moore said...

@ Sandra, and everyone,
I have a copy of the original Joan Baez songbook where many of those really old Scottish, Irish, and British folk songs and ballads that appeared on those original Vanguard 45 rpm records are written down. They're in fakebook form, so it's easy to play them on a guitar or a piano. I played them on a tiple, a Colombian instrument, at one time (long story there). One of my favorite is Matty Groves--you could almost turn it into a mystery.