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March 2023
Vol. 22, No. 6

Yesterday And Today

San Diego Folk Heritage: Still Folkey After All These Years

by J.T. MoringJune 2016
Chris Clarke and Artie Traum at a Folk Heritage concert. Photo by JT Moring.

Chris Clarke and Artie Traum at a Folk Heritage concert. Photo by JT Moring.

Dick Jay. Photo by JT Moring.

Dick Jay. Photo by JT Moring.

Sam Hinton at the Sam Hinton Folk Heritage Festival, 2002.

Sam Hinton at the Sam Hinton Folk Heritage Festival, 2002.

Maybe you’ve noticed the Folk Heritage ads in every issue of the Troubadour. Maybe you’ve been to one of our concerts, or dances, or festivals, or even performed at one. In any case, I’ll bet there is more to Folk Heritage than you suspected. Knowledge is power, so read on.

The mission of Folk Heritage is to “preserve and promote folk arts” in the San Diego region. The group focuses on three areas: acoustic music, contra dance, and storytelling. Established master performers get a venue to share their art; upcoming artists get a chance to reach an appreciative audience, audiences get access to performances that might otherwise never happen, and everyone gets the benefit of a supportive like-minded community. Folk Heritage has been a non-profit organization since 1987 and is operated by volunteers.

Two years ago I became the concert booker for the group. It’s become a bigger part of my life than I imagined and I enjoy every day of it. I’m expected to always be on the lookout for cool new artists so, no, I’m not wasting time listening to music, I’m just doing my job here. I have the pleasure of bringing people into town who would not otherwise play here as well as provide a little boost to local performers who deserve more attention. Sometimes I invent new events, like the Woody Guthrie birthday bash we’re rolling out in July, or the Valentines Day Stories and Songs we’ve presented the last two years. I also have fun pairing artists with interesting results, such as the time when Cindy Lee Berryhill and Peter Bolland treated us to the Beatles’ “Revolution” or when Jim Kweskin and Happy Traum teamed with local hot shots in the G Burns Jug Band for a grand finale.

As much as I’d like to take credit for these shows, the man who really makes it happen is Dick Jay, who for 20+ years has been “chairfolk” of SDFH. Dick’s most visible role is MC at the concerts. He also operates the sound system for most shows, with first rate support from Greg Gross and Barney Evans. Providing good sound to the audience–and performers–can make or break a show, and the team earns repeated accolades in this area.

Dick also writes and publishes the quarterly Folk Notes newsletter sent out to subscribers and given away at shows. He sends out emails announcing the shows and dances. He takes care of the concert finances and myriad details to keep the organization viable. Somehow Dick still finds time for holding down a full-time day job and making regular musical odysseys to such places as Old Scotland and Nova Scotia.

In high school, Dick found a library copy of the Weavers’ 1955 Carnegie Hall concert, which started him down this rocky road. Through his association with Folk Heritage he has hobnobbed with some true folk legends, starting with San Diego’s own Sam Hinton, and extending through Tom Paxton, Josh White Jr., Eric Bogle, and Robin and Linda Williams.

Dick describes what keeps him fanning the folk fires. “This music shows us our history, celebrates our lives, illuminates the problems in our societies, makes us laugh, makes us cry, and makes us think. When my wife of 40 years died nine years ago, this music was one of the things I held onto to keep me going. As Peter Paul and Mary told us, ‘Music speaks louder than words; it’s the only thing that the whole world listens to.’ Folk Heritage provides a place for our part of the world to do that listening.”

Storyteller Marilyn McPhie reminds us, “There’s nothing like a great story: face to face, eye to eye, heart to heart.” Folk Heritage helps to keep alive the stories that have been passed down through the ages as well as the art of storytelling. Each telling of a story is new, whether it is drawn from the teller’s experience or has been passed down for generations. Marilyn represents the storytelling community in SDFH and embraces the quote from the poet Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made up of stories, not of atoms.”

These days, storytelling is often touted as the latest thing in business, but its greatest strength has always been its roots in folk heritage. Storytelling groups–like the SDFH and Storytellers of San Diego–present “concerts,” in which one or more storytellers recount folk tales, literary tales, or even personal stories. Sometimes, storytellers team with musicians or otherwise incorporate vocal or instrumental music into the stories. The next scheduled Folk Heritage story event will take place at the Sam Hinton festival, on July 9, where one room at Old Poway will be dedicated to professional and amateur storytellers.

Folk Heritage hosted 20 concerts in 2015, with an average attendance of about 65 people. The artists that performed included some of San Diego’s premier acoustic acts (e.g., Berkley Hart Selis Twang) and paired a few local acts with touring artists (e.g., the Lovebirds with fellow New Folk prize-winner Daniel Boling). We hosted some perennial favorites, such as John McCutcheon, who has been visiting SDFH since its inception. We presented some excellent artists for the first time, including local Cajun hotshots Billy Lee and the Swamp Critters (heading out this summer for a European tour), Arizona bluegrass wizards the Sonoran Dogs, and the big sound of the Dustbowl Revival, who came down from LA. Molly’s Revenge put on a beautiful Celtic Christmas show, with chills-down-the spine singing and outrageous bagpiping, punctuated by Irish dancing.

We split our concerts between Poway and Encinitas/Carlsbad, though we’re open to new venue ideas. Future events are listed and described at Upcoming concerts are announced via Facebook, email, newsletter, and Listen Local Radio. Past performance footage is often posted on our YouTube page.

Peggy Watson has been performing for Folk Heritage since its early days–perhaps a dozen times over the years–and last year volunteered her energies to serve on the board of directors. Peggy shares some thoughts on the subject. “I think SDFH has a unique and important role in the local music scene. The organization has worked really hard to preserve and promote American folk traditions, including music and dance. The festivals bring out families and music lovers of all ages. The concerts are high quality yet affordable. We need SDFH and I hope it keeps going strong.”

Peggy recalls one experience. “In 2003 I performed a concert for SDFH with Robin Adler, Dave Curtis, and Gregory Page. When we planned the show we had no idea that San Diego was going to suffer one of the most devastating fires in its history. The concert came after the fire so we decided to make it a fundraiser for local fire victims. The turnout was wonderful that night and it felt really great to use that stage for such a good cause.” See Peggy perform her next Folk Heritage show with David Beldock on June 17 at Templars Hall in Old Poway Park. Hopefully, there will be no need to turn it into a benefit.

As I’m writing this, our most recent concert featured the Evie Ladin Band from Oakland. Evie sings original and old-time Appalachian songs while playing banjo or guitar, and sometimes buck-dancing, while Keith Terry accompanies her on bass, cajon, and “body percussion.” Next up is UK-based Claude Bourbon, who incorporates medieval, Spanish, and modern blues into his guitar stylings. Without Folk Heritage, San Diego audiences would not have the opportunity to catch these unique world-class acts.

Almost every weekend, there is a contra dance in North Park, with live music and an expert caller. See for details and a schedule, which is also included in the Troubadour calendar, page 14. In contra, pairs of dancers progress up and down a line of other dancers, interacting with every other pair in turn, under the direction of the caller. The band may be local or touring and typically includes a combination of string band instruments (fiddle, guitar, bass, mandolin, banjo) playing traditional dance tunes. Every dance is preceded by a 30-minute “beginners session” in which newcomers are introduced to the basic figures and formations. It’s easy to find a partner at the dance, and beginners are encouraged to pair with experienced partners during the early part of the evening until they feel more comfortable.

Banjoist Michael Nieman began performing with the open Community Band, which plays regularly the dances, and he now performs with the band Crooked. For years, he did not engage in the dancing itself. “But one night my wife convinced me to try it, and I can’t begin to say how much I enjoyed it. I find that the combination of physical movement, moving to inspiring, rhythmic music and the mental puzzle of following the intricate steps to become part of a seamless whole is extremely absorbing and a lot of fun. At this point, I’d be hard pressed to say which I enjoy more: dancing or playing for dancers.”

Michael continues, “By far the most important value to me is to bring forward a sense of the lives of those who have gone before, whose struggles created this country, and the society in which we live, with its faults and its treasures. For me, that’s what participating in a communal, traditional folk art is about. Plus it’s a lot of fun!” Fun is a word that seems to pop up in every conversation with contra dancers.

SDFH will be 30 years old in 2017. During those years it has kept the folk fires burning in the San Diego campground, helping to foster our vibrant folk music community. San Diegans are fortunate to have a huge variety of folk venues (AMSD Concerts, house concerts, Java Joe’s, Joe Rathburn’s Folkey Monkey), festivals (Julian Family Fiddle Camp, San Diego Scottish Highland Games, Summergrass), organizations (San Diego Bluegrass Society, Poway Folk Circle, North County Bluegrass and Folk Club), and of course artists (insert your favorites here) to choose from. Many events have been associated with SDFH over the years. For example, the Highland Games use SDFH sound equipment; PFC sponsors selected SDFH artists for workshops; SDFH has a regular spot on Listen Local Radio. This is all part of what makes San Diego such a positive music community.

Being involved also creates challenges for Folk Heritage; with all the musical options in town our dance and concert income has begun to fall behind our expenses. While our attendance numbers stay roughly flat, costs such as venue rental continue to rise. We feel that SDFH still provides a unique and valuable service to the community, but it needs a little extra juice to keep it dynamic. YOU could make a difference:
-    Come to a show or dance. Bring a friend!
-    Join up! Invest in a yearly sponsorship, which offers concert discounts, for as little as $25 (although, as Dick reminds us, there is no maximum!). Maybe your employer has a matching donation program or similar?
-    Volunteer to help us get the word out. Got a few hours a month? We could use help with web site/Facebook/YouTube updates, newspaper notifications, radio promo spots, art/poster/t-shirt design, grant writing, and newsletter mailings. What else you got???

Stay tuned as San Diego Folk Heritage cooks up some 30-year anniversary celebrations, and come on out to help see that we get a good start on the next 30.

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