ALL FOLKED OUT
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Everyone is abuzz about Bob Dylan playing at the Newport Folk Festival this weekend, but no matter what happened back in 1965, it's really no big deal. Dylan will play anywhere. A few years ago, you could barely go to a bar mitzvah without hearing him and his boys do a set. But I just came back from the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, and no matter what happens in Newport, my opinion is that folk music is all folked out.
Let me tell you about Falcon Ridge. Every year the festival takes over a gorgeous stretch of rolling farmland in Hillside, N.Y., and turns it into a tented hippie heaven. This year, it attracted almost 20,000 people.
Hippies come in two tiers these days, the older and grayer long-haired crowd, and the young 'uns with their dreads, piercings, tattoos and wild hair colors. Tie-dye has mostly been replaced by Thai-dye, otherwise known as batik, but the clothing vibe is the same: long skirts or sarongs and tiny tops.
And bare feet. Everywhere you look you see toes. Elongated toes, twisted toes, bejeweled toes, sunburned toes, hairy toes, horny toes, painted toes, wriggly toes, curled toes, dirty toes, young toes, old toes, men's toes, women's toes, children's toes. It's a toe festival as well as a folk festival.
Falcon Ridge is easily the most politically correct place on earth. They have signers for every performance, and a special section down front is kept free for the hearing-impaired. Right next to it is a tented space for the wheelchair crowd. Woe to anyone without a disability who tries to sit there.
There is a first aid tent manned by the "Merry Medics," where you can get aspirin, cold water and "bug juice" to replenish your electrolytes. There is a special tent for children's entertainment - 50 kids in a conga line is a happy sight.
Out of consideration for the performers, people aren't allowed to walk in front of the stage while a song is being played. And just before the Friday night set, the announcer said, "If you're Jewish, we're lighting the Sabbath candles at the bridge."
An annoying amount of self-righteousness and moral superiority comes with political correctness, and nothing makes me more ornery than being told I have to be "a good person" for a whole weekend. It makes me want to get a "Kick a Cripple Today" bumper sticker and put it next to the sign that says "ASL spoken here."
Falcon Ridge is more than music - it's a hippie mall. There are rows of tents filled with hand-crafted jewelry, pottery, drums, tie-dye, handmade sandals, guitars, crystals, and things you hoped you would never again see in your lifetime, like hemp macramé.
The food court offers everything from Jamaican goat curry to Jewish teriyaki and potato pancakes, although recently, sausage bombs, pizza and fried dough have crept in.
Costumed refugees from the Bread and Puppet Theatre walk around on stilts, jugglers abound, and people fly kites, play Frisbee and hackysack.
"This is gathering of the tribe that we all belong to... Falcon Ridge is what the world should be," said one of the most annoying performers of the weekend, Pete Kennedy, who, with his wife Maura, makes up a duo called the Kennedys.
Outside of the Kennedys, the music was not so much bad, but dull. (I missed Ani DiFranco on Sunday; she might have changed my mind.) The Nields turned in a strong set, and so did De Vinci's Notebook and Eddie from Ohio. Nightingale, a Vermont band, did a beautiful job playing French-Canadian folk songs in mournful minor keys. Greg Brown was his usual fine self, and Chris Smither played beautifully - but then, he always does. There was also a moving tribute to the recently departed - and sorely missed - Dave Carter. The rest of the music - and there was a lot of it - was mostly background.
In the end, though, it was not the mediocre music as much as the mediocre politics that bothered me.
For example, Maura Kennedy said, "I'm not happy with our government, and I'm sure many of you aren't, too. And I was looking for a sign. And then, last night, we saw the moon come up full and fuzzy and red. Then a fox ran in front of us. It stopped and we made eye contact for a second. And I knew - that was my sign."
Yes, folks, the level of political discourse in folk has sunk so low that a fox might be a sign that George W. Bush will remember that he didn't win the election, do the honorable thing and resign.
A friend whispered in my ear, "When a fox stops and stares at me, it usually means it's rabid."
According to The New York Times, Dylan once said, "I always thought that one man, the lone balladeer with the guitar, could blow and entire army off the stage if he knew what he was doing."
Once I believed that, too. But it never happened. Dylan was booed off the stage at Newport in 1965 because a) he only played three songs, or b) because those songs were electric and people thought he was leaving his roots, or c) because the sound system sucked. His politics disappeared from his music shortly afterward.
But speaking of the power of a lone balladeer, one moment at Falcon Ridge moved me. During a Saturday workshop, the musicians sang national anthems - America's, Canada's, France's. Then someone started singing Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" - the real American national anthem.
That's when I thought, wistfully, that it's not about foxes, mysticism, political correctness, bare feet, protesting in front of the post office or wishful thinking.
It's about action. What can we do to make the vast majority of Americans turn off their television sets, look around, understand that America truly is their land, and take it back? Then those armies had better watch out.
Until we can answer my question, I'm afraid that folk music, like politics, will remain all folked out.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.