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Peace Or Protest? Folk Music Faces A Divided America

KANSAS CITY, KS, (HAVIGHURST)  --  Folk Alliance International chose the theme for its 29th conference - Forbidden Folk: Activism In Art - a year and a half ago, when Donald Trump was given zero chance of winning the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency. His victory was a seismic event for the country, and artists across all genres are asking themselves how to respond.

Strolling the halls and exhibits at Folk Alliance, anger and frustration seemed like the farthest things from anybody's mind. I saw a Klezmer brass band in the lobby. Strangers gathered around a piano for an impromptu jam session. And old friends visited and compared notes. Yet the upheaval of American politics lurked outside, seeping in on the occasional TV screen or in the news flood of Twitter.

While there's no generalizing about the incredibly diverse music, it's safe to say that by and large, the folk music crowd here ranged from left of center to militant socialist. Many were talking about their disdain for the nationalism, xenophobia and sexism displayed by the new president. But how to write and sing about it?

The first person I stopped to ask about what's trending was well-known folk DJ Art Menius.

“My show is The Revolution Starts Now: The Topical Song Show on WCON in Carrboro, North Carolina. Every Tuesday I play topical, political and historical songs and when I started the show I was so much relying on the classics of Woody Guthrie, Almanac Singers, Pete Seeger, ‘60s stuff, Peter Paul and Mary, but in the last year especially, I’m overwhelmed with material. With the digital age, people are writing protest and topical songs the day of. I got a Bowling Green Massacre song in that afternoon. So I play sometimes as many as three songs on a show that are less than a week old. It’s all over the map. I get everything from the ‘let’s all work together, we’re one people’ to ‘let’s impeach the president.’”

Taking the first of those two paths was Nashville songwriter Korby Lenker, who this week had a freshly minted song he co-wrote with Nora Jane Struthers premiere in video form at NPR's World Cafe web site.

"The debate if I could characterize it is a lot of talking at. Facebook posts are talking at. You don't win converts on Facebook so much. That was where my heart was when I sat down with Nora Jane. And so we were like what can we say taht might actually be helpful and something that might create an actual conversation. What would be cool is if people would just sit down together. We don't even have to talk. Or we can talk about football but we'll have a meal together and remember that the person who thinks differently than you is a person. So that was the impetus for the song we wrote called “Let's Just Have Supper.”
"I felt like this song was true to what I'm trying to do with my music in general. Which is like, something about music is that it is a thing that brings people together. But I feel like my strategy isn't THE strategy. It's what I feel l ike I can do and it's true to me. Obviously there are tons of upset artists and scared artists, wondering what's going to happen.

Singer/songwriter Megan Jean was more inclined to tackle controversies directly, but not without keen sense of wanting to be effective by reaching out to audiences that aren't predisposed to agree with her. She and her husband Bryne Klay tour as Megan Jean and the Klay Family Band out of Charleston SC. She's been writing and singing protest songs all her life, and for obvious reasons she's more motivated than ever. That said, she's been honing an approach tuned to the times.

“We're always try to go for that universal human message that sort of transcends literal speak which I think is key because you turn so many people off. As much as I love Woody Guthrie it's hard to get up in a dive bar in Augusta, Georgia and sing “all you fascists bound to lose” and they're sitting in front of you. You have to find a more tactful and egalitarian way to say these things. You have to make people entertained. It's like Joan Baez said on Birmingham Sunday I'm going to sing so softly you won't get upset. It's going to be so beautiful, this message. So that's what we try to do. We try to code it in a way that tries to get people thinking and going ‘What am I hearing right now?’ But not in a way where they feel like they're being preached at because I don't like to be preached at.”

Her partner Byrne said where they sing is as important as what they sing.

“You’ve got to go and get in front of people. Donald Trump won the election because he went to places where people felt they weren’t being heard. He went there and said I hear you. When Megan and I started touting ten years ago that’s exactly how we built our career. We played in bars that were a little out of the way but people were like oh nothing comes here. And music is an amazing olive branch. If people like what you’re doing – if they like the way you sing – it really doesn’t matter – you’ve got to have pretty extreme views for them to write you off.”

Megan Jean said she also believes in bolstering the band's outreach with a tool that was not even a dream of the 1960s folk movement.

“It’s in your music and your social media presence as well. Because you have to interact with your fans online. And I find that’s where the real work is done. I’ve been talking to one specific gal that voted for Trump that is a lesbian and a former service person and we’ve been having quite a dialogue. I have dedicated the time, and she’s asked me, ‘Am I the only Trumper you know?’ and I said “No, but I think that you’re going to get it. I really do.’ This is because she came to one of my shows in a dive bar where nobody’s from nowhere – it started with a dialogue in a bar over music and it had nothing to do with these issues and now, look we’re talking online and bringing that into our real lives.”

Aengus Finnan

Folk Alliance itself now seems prescient in having set its Activism In Art theme well in advance of Trump's nomination.

“It was eerily timed but regardless of the results of the past year I think what has happened in this country and the implementation of some of the policies and laws and ideas. It amplified our theme.”

That's Aengus Finnan, executive director of Folk Alliance.

“All of the ways that folk music was in the forefront of the civil rights movement and the pacifist movement and many movements in the iconic days of folk music when the folk singer was on the front of the picket line and at those demonstration – all of those issues are still real. And whether it’s racial injustice or economic disparity or issues of refugees or the environment. They’re all the same issues that were the issues of the 60s and the 70s and the 80s. So the theme was really a call to action for our community to reflect on the role of folk music and the power and potential of the artist to take that time on stage to really share what they think and to not worry that by being expressive of their concerns or their values that they’re going to ostracize themselves from an audience.”

That said, the artist also has an obligation to in essence read the room - to develop strategies for being received and heard. As Billy Bragg, Folk Alliance keynote speaker, put this weekend in a panel on Music, Politics and Activism, he regularly advises young artists to beware of the problem of "too much protest, not enough song." Again, Aengus Finnan:

“There is a time to be against something in a way that expresses the disbelief or the outrage or the upset of a people, and then there’s a point where that collaborative grassroots community level collective buy-in is required and finding ways to have conversation and to be bipartisan in some instances but just broader in thinking so that everyone is involved in the conversation. Because presenting something in the way that just makes the other side defensive or push back inevitably results in an us-and-them approach. The nature of folk music is such that it’s about storytelling and capturing ideas in a way that when well crafted allows everyone to look at it from perhaps a different perspective than their own.”

Wild Ponies

Nashville songwriters represent a microcosm of the Folk Alliance artist army, with a number of projects and protests taking shape. Fiddler Rachel Baiman, half of Folk Alliance showcase band 10 String Symphony has organized Folk Fights Back shows at the Family Wash that raise money for progressive causes including Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. And Doug Williams, who performed at Folk Alliance with his wife Telisha as the country roots duo Wild Ponies, is wrapping up production on a multi-artist compilation called Songs of Love and Protest: Strange Freedom.  Doug Williams:

“We all feel like we wanted to say something. You know there's a sense of helplessness that washes over you when this happened. We were all just surprised and we wanted to do something. So Telisha and I contacted him and started working on this record. You can't just sit back and let it happen. And I think everybody kind of felt the same way - wanted to contribute.

Q: What about the range of approaches these artists took to what they had to say?

It's pretty wide. Amy Speace and Whitt Hill wrote this amazing song that's kind of trying to reach out to their neighbors and kind of say "Where Do We Go From Here" is their song. And how do we connect with each other. And then we've got a song by Steve Poltz called "God I'll Trade You Donald Trump for Leonard Cohen" which is a little more in your face. And Tim Easton wrote one that's a little more in your face. So it's a wide range of trying to reach out and find some common ground and figure out what went wrong all the way to your standard protest song of the sixties.”

Doug and Telisha Williams came to Nashville from rural Martinsville Virginia, so they're not out of touch coastal elites, progressive though they may be. Doug said as long as they've been writing, some of their material has come out political, but in an understated way.

“Our song "Twenty Point Two" which was several records ago is the story about the unemployment rate in our small town. And we've always found that the more honest and the truer you can be - the more specific and detailed - the deeper you go into reality and the things that are happening around you, the more universal, oddly enough, the songs and the the themes become. And more people can identify and connect with them on a different level. So we've always tried to do that and be as honest in our songwriting as we can. And all of our songs have always had a point of view, but you know we have Republican fans. And we have people who know our politics well. And they can still connect to our music and connect to us as people.”

The Wild Ponies contributed "Love Is Not A Sin" to the Songs of Love and Protest collection. It's both political and personal. Doug Williams:

“About two years ago oddly enough we wrote a song for this guy who was at the time just this average every day governor of Indiana. We had no idea what was going to happen to him. But he had just passed the Religious Freedom bill in the state of Indiana and we wrote a song for him called Love Is Not A Sin. And we kind of described the qualities of love. It's kind of a pro equality song. So we're putting it on the record and hope Mike Pence hears it and loves it. We'd love to hear his take on it!”

NOTE: This story and our companion Folk Alliance showcase roundup was made possible in part by The Bluegrass Situation, where it is cross-posted.

Follow Craig at @chavighurst