Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Gary Thomas reports from Broadstairs Folk Week in England

Today we are happy to welcome as our first guest blogger senior VOA correspondent Gary Thomas, who is also accomplished and seasoned performer of folk and traditional music in the Washington, DC area.

Here is his report (with links I've added) from the week-long Broadstairs Folk Festival in Great Britain.

August 10th 2009
Broadstairs, England

It's summer here in the Northern Hemisphere, and for many music lovers, that means festival time. There are scores of music festivals catering to just about every taste – rock, classical, jazz, and folk.

As a hardcore folkie, I have been going to folk music festivals for many years. My usual haunt has been the Philadelphia Folk Festival -- the longest-running uninterrupted folk festival in the U.S., I believe.

But this year I am trying something different. I am in the lovely seaside resort town of Broadstairs, England, for Broadstairs Folk Week. Broadstairs is particularly intriguing this year because this year's festival has a distinctly American twang. There is a great emphasis on musical cross-pollination between England and America, how ballads and songs came to America with the earliest settlers and in some cases crossed back over again in a reimagined form.

Many songs and tunes brought over by the English, Scots, and Irish emigrants who took to the wilderness of early America were rediscovered by folk musicologists many years later in the early 20th century. The great English folk collector Cecil Sharp came to the mountains of Appalachia in the early 1900s and found to his astonishment many of the same tunes, or recognizable variants, of traditional English folk songs. The mountains served as a musical time capsule. But more on that in a later blog.

There is also other indigenous American music -- a touch of bluegrass, a dash of spicy zydeco, a pinch of country -- in this British musical gumbo.

There are noticeable differences between American and British folk music festivals. Most American festivals are large outdoor gatherings that take advantage of American summer weather. But English weather is often cool and rainy, even in the summer. So many British festivals are, like Broadstairs, village-based. The large outdoor concert stages seen at American festivals are not at Broadstairs. Most of the concerts or workshops are in parish halls, community centers, and, yes, in the pubs. Yes, there is beer -- good English cask ales -- not only in the pubs but sold at other concert venues. Alcohol is banned -- at least officially -- at many American festival. I have seen little drunkeness here. But the audiences, at least at this festival, seem to be older than the young crowds I have seen at American festivals.

That is not to say there are not large outdoor folk festivals. The Cambridge Folk Festival is a large popular festival, as is the Cropredy Festival (very popular with fans of the great folk-rock group Fairport Convention).

Like those festivals, there is a campsite here, but many people opt to stay in houses or apartments for the duration.

The smaller indoor venues make for smaller workshops and mini-concerts. There are scores of them throughout the weeklong festival on everything from Irish concertina to American jug band music. What I find is that these are truly educational. They are not mini-concerts. They are workshops where you participate and learn. And many of the performers this year are Americans who are mingling, musically and socially, with English counterparts. Not well-known names in America -- the biggest marquee performer here is Australian songwriter Eric Bogle. But really fine musicians, including a friend and neighbor from Arlington, VA, blues guitarist Rick Franklin.

And I have found some SERIOUSLY good musicians here, people who play American fiddle tunes as well as Irish, Scots, and, of course, English ones. The free-for-all music sessions in the pubs are a joy of musical participatory democracy.

Oh, BTW, the weather has been astoundingly good in this charming town on the English coast, sunny and pleasantly warm. It would be welcome festival weather in America.

More later,

Gary Thomas

No comments: