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A Folk Festival Grows in Brooklyn: An Interview with Eli Smith

John Tarleton Apr 19

During the past century, music has become a billion-dollar global industry that makes stars a handful of best-selling artists fabulously wealthy. For Eli Smith, producer of the Brooklyn Folk Festival and host of the Down Home Radio Show, folk music in all its myriad varieties is the antidote to what he calls the “plastic music” of the commercial giants. This weekend, talented grassroots musicians from all over the world will perform at the sixth annual Brooklyn Folk Festival. Before it kicked off, Smith spoke with The Indypendent about this year’s festival.

The Indypendent: What's unique about the Brooklyn Folk Festival in terms of the kinds of music you can find here in New York as well as for people who may come from outside of the city?

Eli Smith: It's an authentic folk festival. A lot of festivals that are labeled folk festivals are really just festivals that feature contemporary singer-songwriters or people that play acoustic guitars but fundamentally play rock or pop, basically. It's nice in New York, you don't really have to import those people from elsewhere, you can find almost everything right here in New York City.

This year we have 30 different bands playing many different styles of music. The festival this year features old time string band music, a type of music that's close to my heart, which is rural American string band music, and we have a number of bands that are coming from out of town, that are coming up from the various parts of the South to play this year.  You'll hear a lot of banjo and fiddle music and old ballads and stuff like that, but also there's music from the Andes, from Balkans and there's a really incredible Indonesian band.

Indy: So when you talk about folk music, you don't just mean traditional rural American music.

ES: Everywhere you go there's this incredible grassroots music that's been around for hundreds or thousands of years and is played by regular people, sometimes just in their homes or in their local communities and who are not well known.

With the mass media, a lot of local music and indigenous music gets eradicated by the music industry and by slick advertising. If you don't preserve and perpetuate local, individual music and forms of cultural expression, you'll never have anywhere to go and you'll never have anywhere to come home to. Everywhere will just be the same.

Indy: Is folk music growing in popularity?

ES: I think it has to just in response to the opposite trend that's happening, which is the homogenization of culture and everything. The more alienated people become due to a culture that doesn't really speak to their emotional lives or people's real psychological needs, as well as being alienated by war and economic recession, I think people look for something authentic.

Indy: How did you become interested in folk music?

ES: I first got into folk music and traditional music and vernacular music when I was a kid. I grew up in Greenwich Village, New York. I come from a left-wing background and there's been a connection for 80 plus years in the United States between folk music and left wing politics. I think that's how I was drawn to it as a kid.

Indy: And that interest has continued through the years?

ES: Definitely. Folk music has taken over my whole life. Since I was in high school, I've been mad for it. So, it's been the focus of my work.

Indy: Why do you think people are drawn to music?

ES: I think music at its best can really speak in the most intimate way to peoples' inner lives and thoughts and feelings. It is much more intimate than even television or film because it's in your mind. Sound is very powerful. It really gets into your heart.

Indy:  So all the more reason why authentic music is important?

ES: Yes and the reason why plastic music is all the more insidious.

Indy: At this year's festival, you’re going to honor Pete Seeger.

ES: We're going to have a tribute to Pete, a sing along. That's what he was so well known for. There were so many facets to his work that you could have a week-long tribute to him and you wouldn't have to repeat yourself or anything. But since we only have a short time at the festival for a tribute, we're going to do a sing along with a family band, a band that's composed of parents and their kids and stuff.

Pete did such amazing work with children and with families and was such an unpretentious person and somebody that was so oriented toward the whole person, I thought it was important to have a family band and have a sing along where people could all join together in the kind of experience because Pete Seeger created almost a secular church service at his concerts where he would get people to feel good about themselves in a musical way and be able to express themselves in a society that tells you that you can't. The arts and music, it is within everyone and that should be encouraged but it's not.

Indy: The folk music of today, is it political in the same way of the folk music you remember from the '30s and '40s or the 1960s?

ES: Well yes and no. I mean there's many different definitions of folk music and many different faces of folk music, one of which is topical songs and songs about specific events or about a specific idea or political cause and yeah that definitely exists. So you'll hear all of that at the Brooklyn Folk Festival. I am actually doing a set of labor songs, songs from the American labor movement, so people can check that out as well.

Indy: Are women strongly represented in folk music today?

ES: In my experience, there are fewer female instrumentalists that seem to play professionally. Maybe I'm wrong. But I think there's equal numbers or more women as men that play for fun. In any case, yeah, there's gonna be a number of really awesome female performers.

Indy: And during the festival there'll be chances for dancing along with the playing?

ES: There's a square dance on Sunday right after the Pete Seeger tribute and that will be a lot of fun.

Indy: One of the signature events of the Brooklyn Folk Festival is the banjo toss contest. Can you describe that and how it came about?

ES: I thought the Brooklyn Folk Festival should have a contest  was uniquely our own. And I came up with the idea of the banjo toss. Basically it's a banjo throwing competition. The venue for the folk festival is near the Gowanus Canal, a waterway in Brooklyn. we tie a rope to a banjo and people will toss it out into the canal. The rope plays out so you can see how far it went and then we haul it back in and the next person throws it again. Whoever throws the banjo the farthest wins a free banjo, a nice, new banjo, not the one they threw. The Gowanus Canal is famously polluted but don’t worry, the contest iis totally safe. We hand out rubber gloves so there’s nothing to worry about.

Indy: Is there anything else you'd like people to know about the festival?

ES:  Well the ticket prices are very reasonable and the afternoon concerts are all ages and the evening concerts are for age 18 and up. There's going to be workshops if you wanted to learn how to play the guitar, the fiddle, the banjo, you could come and take a workshop. And we're going to be screening an incredible film on Sunday about a non-hierarchical matrilineal tribe in Southwestern China that has incredible vocal traditions.

For more, see brooklynfolkfest.com.


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