Cynics may be forgiven for imagining the Brooklyn Folk Festival as an expression of the prevailing mania for old-time kitsch. Examples of this phenomenon—in apartment décor, food production, fashion, booze culture, and so on—need not be rehashed here. Thankfully, the festival isn’t one of them. The festival’s seventh annual installment, held this year at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights, was a serious display of musicianship, enthusiasm, and, lurking around the edges, ethnomusicological preservation. Its emphasis on old-time and traditional music felt like an antidote to the crass commercialism and relentless cultural innovation—real or imagined—of our contemporary moment. In fact it was a small joy to spend a weekend in church, luxuriating in the sounds of banjos and fiddles and mandolins, as performers brought new life to songs that have passed through the hands of many generations.
There were murder ballads, Delta blues, spirituals, rags, banjo breakdowns, fiddle reels, country blues, jug bands, string bands, and more from the great body of North American vernacular music. The festival had its inclusive, ecumenical side as well, and sprinkled throughout were original compositions, at least one drum machine, a pipe organ recital, and a country duo, the Cactus Blossoms, whose fraternal harmonies would impress even the Louvin Brothers. The message of the weekend, never stated but quite apparent, was that folk music, whatever shape it might assume, is a vital force of art and musical communion—or at least, it can be, when taken up by talented performers. And of those, the Brooklyn Folk Festival had no shortage.
Eli Smith, a Brooklyn-based musician and folk music promoter, organized the first festival in cooperation with Geoff and Lynette Wiley, owners of the Jalopy Theater in Red Hook, and the three of them have continued that partnership into the present. Smith performed with his old time string band, the Down Hill Strugglers, and also served as MC; his amiable, informal manner set the tone for the weekend. (Announcing King Isto’s Tropical String Band: “Here’s a group that needs no introduction, because they already know each other [...] They’re taking NYC’s tropical string band scene by storm.”) The crowd, mostly white and cross-generational, was a subdued but appreciative bunch. It was the kind of audience that broke out in scattered applause at the mention of Reverend Gary Davis, listened politely to whomever was on stage, and bore torturous hours in the hard wooden pews with grace. Its decorum was broken only by the occasional whoop, holler, and shrieking child. An exception occurred on Saturday night, when Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens, offering classic gospel with authority and verve, triggered much dancing in the aisles and in St. Ann’s perilously antique balconies. Paradoxically, theirs was the least church-like performance of the festival, in contrast to the rest of the weekend, when the audience was more likely to sit in quiet contemplation of secular banjos.
It was hard not to feel contemplative in such a setting. St. Ann’s is a gothic revival church built in the 1840s, and is by turns a serene, moody, and jarring venue. The stage was constructed in front of the altar, from which rose the church’s ornate, illuminated reredos, and, above that, a towering stained-glass window. The acoustics were excellent, and the right combinations of sound resonating across the vaulted ceilings, and light filtering through the stained glass, made for some transcendent moments. One of these came on Saturday, at dusk, when the duo Four o’clock Flowers performed Charley Patton’s “I Know My Time Ain’t Long” and seemed to activate all the psychic residue left over from the church’s 168 years of funeral services. There were many such moments, spooky or thrilling or calming, but all gratifying.
The church setting, perhaps unavoidably, also gave the impression that performers and attendees were there to worship—which was basically the case. Younger performers, with a few exceptions, seemed to treat the songs as sacred objects. They played with a seriousness of purpose and kept one eye on the altar. But the older performers were more relaxed, pleased just to preach the good word. This was noticeable of veteran folklorists and musicians John Cohen and Art Rosenbaum, along with Suzy and Eric Thompson from California, who inhabited their material in a free and easy way. Ditto for Peter Stampfel, whose group ably represented folk music’s ’60s psychedelic moment. Pat Conte, from Long Island, conjured up an ethereal set that drew the shadows out from the vaulted ceilings and dusty corners. It was resplendent and vaguely blasphemous. I thought he’d be struck by lightning.
For all its beauty, St. Ann’s gothic interior seemed always on the verge of swallowing up the performers, banjos and all. It was not just a matter of scale. The gothic architectural tradition transmits an aesthetics of domination: it encodes into built structures, through the sheer amount of labor and wealth sunk into their construction, an assertion of ecclesiastical power over the common people and divine power over humble mortals. Folk music, if anything, represents an opposite, and even opposing aesthetic, one that celebrates the anonymous toilers whose lives were wicked away in the building of such churches, and all monuments to gods and kings and nations the world over. What does it mean, then, to hold a folk music festival in a building like St. Ann’s? What did it mean when Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, a young blues musician, filled that church from pulpit to pipe organ with a raucous harmonica solo? I can tell you how it felt—it felt audacious and insurgent and sacred at the same time, and somewhat strange, as the best of this music must be. And that meant it was true.
SCOTT BORCHERT has written for Southwest Review, Monthly Review, The Rumpus, and PopMatters, among other publications, and lives in New Jersey.