People’s Music Network at NERFA

The 2016 Northeast Regional Folk Alliance Conference (NERFA) was held November 10-13 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Stamford, CT. This was a new location for NERFA and the general consensus appears favorable for the new digs. Some growing pains, but it is a sign of a healthy organization and a growing community. I’m happy to report that folk music is alive and well, contrary to anything you might read elsewhere in the mainstream media.

The conference began two days after Election Day. Given that folkies have a reputation for progressive views, you can imagine that there was a spirit of gloom as the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency sunk in. All those gathered in Stamford realized that being together with each other was just the tonic and after four days of showcasing, workshops and schmoozing, we left feeling invigorated and ready to continue fighting against injustice and the issues that plague our planet.

Wanda Fisher

Wanda Fischer

Rather than recap the entire weekend, I want to focus on one event that took place at NERFA that might have been lost in the shuffle. It was a showcase that took place in a small hotel room on the Friday evening of the conference. A fraction of the attendees attended, but I felt this showcase typified the spirit and commitment of all the attendees. It was a showcase of songs for social justice.This event was one of the highlights of my weekend at NERFA, when I had the honor of judging the People’s Music Network’s  Social Justice Songs Showcase with my good friend and radio colleague Wanda Fischer (host of The Hudson River Sampler on WAMC in Albany, NY).

I should start off by saying that selecting a “best” song goes against the grain of what I enjoy about radio and music. However, the purpose of this “contest” is to recognize and promote songwriter’s contributions to creating music for social change, which I wholeheartedly support – and the experience is both fun and uplifting.

The showcase was the culmination of a process that began several months earlier through the People’s Music Network (PMN) website. Songwriters were encouraged to send in an original song that was written in the past five years. The songs were to be judged based on 1) their political effectiveness, 2) musical and lyrical craft, and 3) relevance to struggles for freedom and justice today. Applicants had to be registered for NERFA as well. People’s Music Network reviewed all the applicants and chose 12 songs that were presented live at NERFA. The artists performed their songs before Wanda and myself and the other attendees in the room. Wanda and I had to choose one song that best represented the stated goals.

There were twelve amazing songs presented and each was unique and important. The topics we heard addressed concerns such as racist policing, homophobia, climate issues and political commitment among other issues. I will gladly play all twelve on my radio show and I hope there are many more like them being created by talented writers like the ones presented in this showcase. We need these songs more than ever.

Wanda and I chose the song Rise Up created by Erika Kulnys. This song stood out as it addressed the commitment each of us can make to create a better world. The stirring lyrics touched on many social issues and asks the listener – “where were you?” After hearing Erika’s performance, the question in my mind became “where ARE you?” “Rise Up” is an anthem for empowering each of us to stand up and make our voices heard. Erika’s voice and words serve to inspire and connect people to join in the many struggles still to be fought.

As I mentioned, all 12 songs were well crafted and important. I admired Driftwood Soldier’s reworking of John Henry to show the exploitation of a black man, Brad Yoder’s powerful 49 was a stirring tribute to those whose lives were taken from us in the Orlando nightclub shooting and Vincent Cross reminded us of the consequences of the western world’s desire for cheap clothing with his song Garments of Shame that revisited the Bangladesh garment factory collapse. These and the other songs presented gave me hope that music will not ignore these issues and reminded me of Pete Seeger’s comment that “a good song reminds of what we’re fighting for.”

PMN at NERFA 2016

Ben Grosscup, Driftwood Soldier & Beth DeSombre at NERFA

I’d like to thank Ben Grosscup of People’s Music Network for inviting Wanda and myself to judge this showcase. Ben has posted videos from this and other events at the People’s Music Network website: www.peoplesmusic.org . The organization’s mission is to cultivate and inspire a community of singers, activists and allies to use music and cultural work as tools to promote social change for a just and peaceful world. Through their website they provide resources and support to create a network of musical organizers. They sponsor two annual gatherings (Winter and Summer) where people swap songs and share experiences. The events include numerous workshops to highlight group singing and develop skills for using music to promote social change. The goal is also to expand their cultural base, so PMN summer gathering is held in a country setting and the winter event in a selected city. The next gathering is scheduled for January 27-29th at Greenfield Middle School in Greenwood, Massachusetts.

I urge all songwriters and activists to check out People’s Music Network. I also invite artists with topical songs to contact me as well. I hope to share timely songs on my weekly radio show and continue the folk music tradition of sharing music of social relevance.

Click on the video below to see a playlist featuring all the performances from the People’s Music Network’s SOCIAL JUSTICE SONGS SHOWCASE recorded at NERFA on 11/12/2016

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About Ron Olesko

For over 40 years, Ron has been a radio programmer with WFDU-FM in Teaneck, New Jersey. He created WFDU-FM's TRADITIONS in 1980, a show that he continues to host and produce every Sunday afternoon from 3 to 6pm Eastern Time. He's the president of and booker for the Hurdy Gurdy Folk Music Club in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, and is a regular contributor to Sing Out! as well as the host of the Folk Music Notebook blog on this site. Ron can also be found emceeing concerts and festivals around the NYC/NJ area. A lifelong Mets fan and a rabid soccer geek, Ron is a Red Bull season ticket holder since their inception and will most likely be in his seat when not in the studio.

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