We now have cultural machines so powerful that one singer can reach everybody in the world, and make all the other singers feel inferior because they’re not like him. Once that gets started, he gets backed by so much cash and so much power that he becomes a monstrous invader from outer space, crushing the life out of all the other human possibilities. –Alan Lomax
Alan Lomax was a cultural archivist who deeply valued the participatory power of folk arts, especially music. He made it his life’s work to preserve the local traditions that he felt made this country great. And, while the above quote is admittedly a bit hyperbolic, he is right to remind us that there is much to celebrate and share here in our home community.
This Thursday marks the kick-off of the third annual Champaign-Urbana Folk and Roots Festival and with it comes an invitation: celebrate your community; share your talents. The festival is brought to you by the not-for-profit organization Champaign-Urbana Folk and Roots and, like Lomax, they recognize that music is sometimes best left for the front porch, not the main stage.
Brenda Koenig, a founding member of the festival who was kind enough to sit down and chat with me this weekend, explains that the community is what this festival is all about. “I really love the joy of providing a space to bring people together,” she explains. “The reward of the festival has really just been teasing out some of the beauty of this amazing community.”
While all music festivals provide a time and space for us all to come together and listen to great music, the founders of the Folk and Roots Festival were not satisfied with that kind of experience. “What I love about folk music and why it is so different,” says Koenig, “is that it isn’t this thing where artists are like, ‘hey, look at me, I’m on stage.’ To me, folk music is really effective in breaking down that barrier of performance versus passive observer.
“So, I think my agenda, which is probably different than everyone else’s, but my agenda in designing the festival is to make sure we do have performances, but adding to the performances this whole different layer of participatory activities to try and bring the community together in a way so that everyone walks in on an equal setting. It’s not, I’m a performer and you are a listener; it’s, let’s do something together, let’s make music together. And this is music that everyone can make together. You do not have to be professional to do this. So, it doesn’t matter if it’s kids coming in and learning their first chords on a ukulele, which is always fun to listen to, or somebody that has been a guitar player for twenty years.”
This is not the first year that this event has invited the community to come out and celebrate the arts, but this time around the organizers have worked hard to maintain a central and welcoming nucleus. Koenig says that the festival has evolved, and as it has evolved it has gotten stronger. “Last year,” she says, “we had more venues and we discovered that, even though everyone got really excited about doing the festival, and there were businesses that wanted to host music, we got to the point where it became unwieldy.
“We felt that, because there were so many venues, the core community was spread out. It thinned everyone out. It was outdoors last year and it looked like, if you walked through the outdoor section, that no one was at the festival. We just never had that core feeling. The way we have moved the festival this year is an attempt to bring back that core. So we did away with the outdoor stuff, brought everything inside, we cut down our venues and tried to keep everything within a one block radius. We are trying to think how to keep people in close proximity to each other. If people do want to jam, they will be able to run into each other or you will walk by someone who is jamming and say, ‘hey, I’m going to join in.’”
In order to get people involved the festival includes free workshops to enhance your skills on anything from penny whistle to banjo, along with story-telling sessions, jam sessions, and dance lessons. The point here is to let loose and to have fun. Brenda says, if anything, folks can expect to be surprised and to have fun. “If you stick around at any venue you are going to be forced to participate, forced to dance.”
While this invitation to participate is important, this is a music festival and there will be plenty of quality bands to enjoy this weekend. Sticking with their theme on inclusivity, Brenda thinks, “Folks who attend can expect all sorts of different things.” She explains that, “We don’t have a single person who books so it is not a single artistic vision. We have a booking committee which makes for craziness, but also makes for real richness in terms of the way that we approach booking.
“If you are expecting singer-songwriting because that is what you think of when you think of a folk musician, you are going to see that because we have some of those folks here. If you are thinking of old-time music and floor thumpin’ yee-haw kind of music, you are going to see some of that too, because that is what I book. If you are looking for folk-rock or indie-rock with a folk edge you are going to get some of that. So really, the performers will appeal to almost every single segment of our population.”
While most of the acts at the festival are local, there are some great out of town shows to check out as well. Headlining this list for me is the wonderfully talented Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three, who play an instantly likeable blend of old-time and bluegrass. LaFarge has an honest voice dripping of the blues and a back-up band straight out of the early 1900s. They really are a can’t-miss act.
All of the festival’s activities are free Saturday during the morning and afternoon from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. (including Pokey’s set at 4pm). Whether you buy a ticket for $25 or take advantage of the free events, this really is sure to be a weekend about community and a chance to see all that the Champaign-Urbana folk scene has to offer.
For more information, including the full schedule, visit their website.