The folks who keep folk music alive in D.C.
You might croon to the blues, soak up soul, tap to a clawhammer banjo or sing four-part harmony.
You could listen to a Balkan women’s ensemble, Tibetan nomad music, New Zealand percussive music or a Chinese dulcimer called a yang qin.
To get your juices flowing, you can try dancing: square, Cuban salsa, English country, Irish or Norwegian.
These are some highlights of the events presented by the Folklore Society of Greater Washington (FSGW) — a local group devoted to folk music from sea shanties to polkas, bluegrass to ballads.
Since 1964, the society has staged more than 200 events each year all over the Washington metropolitan region, including live concerts by local and touring artists, folk dances, waltzes, storytelling events, jams, sings, workshops and three festivals. Events attract anywhere from 15 to 1,000 fans.
But the Folklore Society is much more than music, said Charlie Baum, its current chair of programs and concerts.
“It’s great exercise and a great way to meet people. The concerts are social events,” Baum said.
The society recruits performers from folk festivals, other folk societies, radio and websites. During the pandemic, however, events have been online, and in early 2022 they’re likely to be both in-person and online.
If there’s a pandemic silver lining, it’s that online events have broadened the organization’s reach, notes Baum. And COVID restrictions inspired a new format: Online, attendees can converse with artists before or after performances.
The FSGW traces its genesis to 1964, a time when Washington had a thriving folk music scene. “People usually sit around and sing on spring and summer evenings” in Dupont Circle, reported Hootenanny magazine, and folk music was all over the radio, in nightclubs, coffeehouses, concerts and hootenannies.
Founders included Chuck and Nan Perdue, Jonathan Eberhart, Lani Herrman, Joe Hickerson, Mike Rivers, Helen Schneyer and Andy Wallace — people who wanted to foster traditions that were not gaining traction in the mid-1960s commercial folk boom.
Longtime folk music radio host and society member Mary Cliff recalled, “It was in 1965 that Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival. So those who really loved the old-time and ethnic music decided they needed something to preserve it and separate it from the commercialized pop-folk.”
Defining the genre
What is folk music exactly? That question elicits multiple definitions.
“A good songwriter will tell you a great story,” Cliff explained. “It’s our history, our culture. It’s roots music, like the Gullah traditions of the South Carolina coast and the second lines of New Orleans, to Tex-Mex and hillbilly music.” (A second line is a guest parade at a wedding or funeral, usually led by a brass band.)
In its early years, FSGW sponsored concerts by artists like Mike Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, the Clancy Brothers and Hazel Dickens. They held the first Washington Folk Festival in 1977, a one-day event so popular that the next year they expanded it to two days.
It now takes place annually the first weekend after Memorial Day in Glen Echo Park and attracts up to several thousand people. In 1978, the society began gospel sings, and in 1979, they caroled through the Metro subway.
Performances mushroomed over the years, most by artists unknown to most people except the “folkies.” In 1980, typical concert prices were $4 for non-members. Today, ticket prices vary, and many are free. In 1965, annual dues were $5; today, they’re $25.
Why folk music?
With today’s explosion of musical genres seemingly blasting out of every electronic platform, why promote folk music?
“A lot of people are interested in what we provide. Some sing. Some love to dance,” said Baum, who joined FSGW in 1986 when he moved to the D.C. area from Connecticut. In college at Yale, he sang Sacred Harp music and performed in the Russian Chorus.
Baum and other longtime society members have been passionate about folk music for decades. One of their goals is to provide folk artists a platform to perform before a niche audience.
Rivers says that the group showcases “a lot of good songs that nobody would otherwise hear.” On the other hand, he admits, “It’s not for everybody. It’s a form of music that doesn’t lend itself to being adopted into the hip-hop, rap culture.”
Rob Hinkal, executive director of a “sister organization” in the area, Focus Music, believes that folk music “is a place that we are giving voice to every person. It’s storytelling,” he said.
Because their performances can be profoundly moving, Hinkal’s organization works to help folk singer-songwriters survive.
“[Folk concerts are] a singalong and group experience, listening to a story and participating — not in a giant crowd in a jumping-up-and-down kind of way, but sitting down and listening.”
For more information about the society, visit fsgw.org.