by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
July 31, 2003
FOLK MUSIC AWAKENS TO ITS RADICAL ROOTS
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Old folkies never die, they just go to Falcon Ridge. And this year Holly Near was there to awaken them from a long, long sleep.
The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, N.Y., celebrated its 15th anniversary last weekend with record crowds (well over 20,000 people), a massive tent tenement of campers, and a surprisingly awakened political consciousness.
It's no secret that folk music enthusiasts of all ages - and at Falcon Ridge there were as many young people under the age 30 as there were oldsters who began their sentences with, "I was at the original Woodstock" - believe in a political agenda which regards social change and social justice as positive things.
But in recent years, folk music - or its bastard offspring, singer-songwriter music - has been more about witty stage patter, exciting harmonies and biographical navel-gazing than the blood-and-guts defiance of the 1960s and 1970s.
Acoustic music fans are usually gentle folk who want to be thought of as "good people." All bets are off, however, when it comes to getting close to the stage. This year the festival organizers ruled that no tarps could be put down in front of the main stage before 9:30 a.m., although all the important acts play after dinner. Still, people began waiting on line at 6 a.m., and when they were finally allowed into the main stage area, there was a stampede.
"Damn lefty hypocrites," muttered the woman next to me. "Don't bomb Iraq, they say, but they'll kill you to get closer to the stage."
Apart from being close to their musical heroes - and if they didn't buy so many CDs and concert tickets, some of these people might be arrested for stalking - folkies are usually more interested in anger management than in raging against the machine.
The times, however, they are a' changin'. Liberals, progressives, radicals, Buddhists and many others know that the soul of the (heavily armed) United States is up for grabs in the next election, and there is deep concern.
The festival's seminal concert, therefore, was a workshop entitled "Study War No More." And it was no coincidence that two Sixties workhorses, Near and Tom Paxton, participated.
Most of the performers approached the idea of peace idealistically, if not metaphorically. The Nields sang, "Everyone wants a little sweetness, nothing wrong, nothing wrong, nothing wrong." Lucy Kaplansky sang, "The promised land is just across another line in the sand." Paxton sang, "Peace will come, and let it begin with me."
Greg Brown put it simply, "I want my country back.... I don't feel at home here anymore."
The red-headed Near, however, was on fire. She has devoted her life to political activism, and has been in the forefront of the struggles for civil rights, feminism and gay and lesbian liberation. She has made real change happen before, and she knows how to do it again. She came to the festival with an action plan.
At a time when radical born-again Christians are invading the Middle East to convert Muslims to Christ, and are tearing down the treasured wall of separation between church and state back home, it was thrilling to hear Near, in a voice that pierced the mountains, sing "I ain't afraid of your Jaweh, I ain't afraid of your Allah, I ain't afraid of your Jesus. I'm afraid of what you do in the name of your God."
Near's message, however, was essentially positive.
"This is the only planet we know of where life is, and we get to be here, and if we don't wake up every morning in awe at the magic of it, we're missing something," she said.
Her centerpiece song was "Planet Called Home," from her 2000 CD, "Edge." She calls the song a "fantasy," although it is set in a time when the earth is facing grave danger. Somehow, hundreds of people emerge out of nowhere to save it.
"If each one did just one thing beautifully, complex life on earth might not die," she sang. "Some adopted small girls from China. Some lived high in the branches of trees. Some died as martyrs, some lived as healers, some bravely walked with a dreadful disease. They mingled among each class and each culture. Not one of them could be identified. But together they altered just enough moments..."
The song was important enough to Near that she sang it on two stages on two days, each time exhorting her audiences to bring "social change" records to dinner parties instead of wine and to stimulate discussions wherever they are.
As it often happens at folk festivals, Woody Guthrie's great song, "This Land is Your Land," was evoked several times as a replacement for "The Star-Spangled Banner." But this time, when son Arlo Guthrie, along with his own son, daughter, son-in-law and grandson sang it to close out the big Saturday evening show, it took on special meaning.
"Nobody living can ever stop me," they sang, "As I go walking the freedom highway. Nobody living can ever stop me. This land was made for you and me."
That's for you and me, you understand, not just for the Bush family. I may never understand why ordinary people participating in the democratic process is considered "radical," but I'm with Brown - I want my country back. If you do too, then take Near's advice. Get out and talk to people, do one thing beautifully that makes the world a slightly better place, and, for God's sake, vote.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.