Hello Troubadourians! For the past two columns we have been talking about starting over, basically “What do I do if I stopped playing when I grew up and now I want to play again?” If you are/were experiencing this conundrum I hope you found my columns useful in your quest to reclaim your chops. This month I’ll tell you about my experiences at the recent FAR-West Folk Alliance Convention (http://www.far-west.org/).
That’s not such a jarring transition because FAR-West is an alternative and far-reaching avenue to explore your music and learn/re-learn to play and perform in a nurturing environment. There you’ll find folks who are more advanced than you are but are very willing and able to help you grow, folks who can barely play but are enthusiastic and dedicated, and plenty of folks who are pretty much right where you are. Far-West attracts musicians and fans from just about every walk of life and social strata. From banking executives to old hippies, from 20-somethings just discovering folk music to seniors who have loved folk music their entire lives. Some of the people you’ll meet have dedicated themselves to their music as professionals and just as many – if not more – who share that dedication out of the sheer love of the music.
Now, it’s right about here that I think it would be wise for me to define “folk music” as it exists today and is practiced by the “folkies” at FAR-West. If your idea of folk music is “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” and “You Are My Sunshine,” then you’re way off. Sure, there are some people at FAR-West who know those sorts of songs, and even a few who are willing to sing and play them in public, but you’re more likely to hear original acoustic-based songs and reworked pop songs from the “era of influence” that everyone has in their life. Blues, jazz, country, pop, just about any genre – with an emphasis on acoustic instrumentation – is open to incorporating into music what is essentially “folk” in nature. Someone at the convention asked me how I would describe myself and my music; I said I was a “folkie” who wears an Aerosmith T-shirt while playing jazz chords in a country song on an acoustic guitar through three amplifiers. I believe folk is more an elemental experience of music and less a genre as understood by the people who attend and participate in the camaraderie that is FAR-West. For many, if not most, folk defines a lifestyle choice that emphasizes people above profit and feelings over fortune. That isn’t to say that there aren’t wealthy people who are folkies nor does it imply that only the poor and uneducated “get it.” On the contrary, FAR-West was sponsored for the first time by Calvert Investments (www.calvert.com) as a major part of their corporate community outreach and to publicly provide support to organizations that represent what is truly American. So, I guess I could infer that FAR-West change their name from the old-time folk to the trendier moniker Americana, but that isn’t the case and actually misses the point and the true inclusiveness of folk as a culture and a choice. I once took a folk studies course in college and the professor was adamant that folk wasn’t a lifestyle but a life. The implication being that you were born to the Folkways or you weren’t. There was no choice. Wealth, education, talent all excluded a person from being folk. If you had these things you couldn’t be folk. If you began as folk and earned, learned, or yearned your way to a better life, you forfeited you folk-ness. That philosophy is no longer valid, assuming that it ever was, and being folk is a choice to live a more meaningful and community-centric life. The music is just one method of expressing the inclusiveness that folk stands for.
I attended FAR-West with my good friend and fellow Linkun, Harry Mestyanek. We were there to represent Folding Mr. Lincoln as a reborn entity following our nearly two-year hiatus due to Nancy Mestyanek’s battle with cancer. We were also there so that Harry could present a newly created award in Nancy’s honor. This excerpt from the FAR-West announcement of the award describes it best:
“It will be called the Nancy Mestyanek Within My Reach Award. Named after a song written by her husband, Harry, the intent is to remind everyone that all the folk arts and good will are within the reach of every individual. That is the foundation of the Folk Alliance conferences, and therefore FAR-West – our mission to help preserve that core human spirit of artistic community that is as ancient as mankind itself.”
Harry and I were proud to represent the music that is Folding Mr. Lincoln as well as the other two Linkuns, Jeff Stasny and Omar Ramirez. In October of 2012, FML were the headlining artists of the featured showcases for the FAR-West Folk Alliance Convention. We had just finished Two Rivers and our performance at FAR-West created quite a buzz in the acoustic music community. By November, Nancy was diagnosed with cancer and FML were unable to follow through on that promise. Harry and I were able to re-boot the music of FML and honor the spirit that Nancy brought to the music even in her absence. The people at FAR-West welcomed us with open arms and hearts and assured us that we will indeed have the chance to fulfill the promise of what we had started two years ago. Despite my relative skill at creating prose and expressing my thoughts and feelings in the writing of this column for the past three years, I simply haven’t the words to express my gratitude and the honor I feel by the selfless outpouring of love, support, and recognition that the good Folks at FAR-West showed to Harry – and to me – while we were there. The best I can do is say, “Thanks. I am truly humbled.”
With all of the preceding events as recorded, it would be easy for you, the reader, to assume that the music played at FAR-West was in some way light and fluffy and devoid of musicianship. You would be wrong. If anything, the spirit of folk in the 21st century is one of expecting excellence from the music and the musicians. Not everyone is at a professional level, of course, but all performers are driven to perform their best work at all times. I encourage everyone who reads this column to investigate FAR-West (www.far-west.org) for themselves.
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (firstname.lastname@example.org)