A Folk Festival Grows in Brooklyn

& WFDU-FM’s TRADITIONS playlist for April 5, 2015

Brooklyn, New York has undergone a renaissance during the past 20 years, and the accompanying issue of gentrification has been well documented in news reports in recent years. After young professionals snapped up real estate deals and a new culture of hipsters emerged, Brooklyn has become the epicenter for some of the finest restaurants, microbreweries, artisanal donut shops, and countless boutiques in the five boroughs of New York City. Brooklyn has also become the heart for one of the most vibrant and creative… and yes, the hippest folk music scene in the nation.

From Friday April 17 through Sunday April 19, the 7th Annual Brooklyn Folk Festival will take up residence at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church at 157 Montague Street (between Clinton and Henry) in Brooklyn Heights. Headliners include Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, Michael Hurley , Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel, Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens, and Frank Fairfield among many others. The festival will also feature numerous workshops, films, jam sessions and the infamous “banjo toss” in the Gowanus Canal.

Like Brooklyn’s famous tree from the classic Betty Smith novel, this festival is growing larger each year. In her novel, the metaphorical tree survived and thrived despite efforts to remove it.  Just as the tree survived, folk music has survived years of the mainstream press has tried to downplay the interest in the styles, but folk music remains vibrant, and events like the Brooklyn Folk Festival are reasons why.

Unlike a number of contemporary festivals that use the words “Folk Music” in very broad fashion, the Brooklyn Folk Festival Festival is built on a foundation of traditional music – you won’t find many naval-gazing singer-songwriters in this bunch.

The Down Hill Strugglers photo credit: Down Home Radio

The Down Hill Strugglers
(Eli Smith in center)
photo credit: Down Home Radio

Started six years ago by Eli Smith, the Brooklyn Folk Festival was conceived as a way to showcase the local talent that was emerging from the Brooklyn folk scene. Smith is a banjo player, writer, and promoter of folk music.  His unique podcast, The Down Home Radio Show, (currently on hiatus) shines a spotlight on the traditional styles.  He calls the music he plays “Down Home Music” as he feels the words “folk music” and “traditional” have become overused to the point where it doesn’t give a true picture of the music being made.  Eli is also a member of the stringband, The Down Hill Strugglers, who were featured on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis.

In 2009 with the folk scene blossoming, Smith was also taking note of several venues that were booking local artists playing traditional, “down home”styles.  Smith teamed up with Geoff and Lynette Wiley who ran the Jalopy Theater in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn to present the first Brooklyn Folk Festival in 2009.

The Jalopy Theater proved to be the perfect partner for the annual festival. The Jalopy opened in 2006 to sparse crowds but by 2009 it had become one of the main centers of folk music activity in the city. The original idea of Jalopy was to promote a gathering of artists which included painters, woodworkers and musicians. Over time, the music portion became the focus as folk musicians from around the city recognized the potential of the intimate space. Although Red Hook is one of the outermost sections of Brooklyn, it became the unlikely focal point for this new folk revival. The area maintains a neighborhood feel, and it has developed a loyal audience. More than just a place to present concerts, Jalopy also offers classes where you can learn to play a banjo, guitar, fiddle and other instruments; workshops for more advanced techniques often led by traveling artists with extensive experience; a storefront where you can purchase instruments and perhaps most importantly – workshops for children. What better way to perpetuate folk music? The venue itself provides an inviting and intimate space for patrons to listen and discuss music with the artists.

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