from John Song-Gatherer.
A Sorta Long Essay About the Spring Gulch Folk Festival, 2017.
What follows is the result of Jamie’s and my attendance at the Spring Gulch Folk Festival (run by Michael Blumfeld, MC’d by his proud – and rightly so – father, Andy Blumfeld, who was one of the original group of Philadelphia folkies who conspired to bring about the Philadelphia Folksong Society and its consequent Philadelphia Folk Festival). I’m combining this with my interpretation of the Love vs Money leitmotif of your lovely Woodsongs 3, about which I recently sent you my review, as a follow-up to my review of Woodsongs 2. Ta-da!
Before I go any further, of course, I will have to note that Jamie and I left the festival prematurely, as I’d run into a wall of exhaustion, having over-estimated my recovery from this past year’s various illness, of which you probably have heard enough (Ye Olde Man’s Litany, sheesh). So, take this with the necessary grain or two of salt, throw that over your left shoulder, and let me begin and go on, of course, from there….
The Spring Gulch Folk Festival came to our attention while we were planning a weekend getaway, to test my convalescence from the above issues. Old friends Bob Yahn (who has made a lovely career out of being a folk festival photographer) and his consort, Jodi Lamhut, had arranged festival passes for us, so what better way to check out the Amish country of Jamie’s home state – Pennsylvania, south central, around Lancaster and York – than this act of generosity by old friends, with of course a tip of our hats to Michael and his father?
Given that lineage, we expected nothing less than a varied survey across the wide range of meanings of “folk” music, at a high level of excellence. It’s exactly what we got. However, we ran into unexpected trials getting there, and somehow that sank in as part of the story. Prologue over, get in the car….
Running north from DC, via Interstate 83, around Baltimore’s Beltway and on up to PA, we found we’d started at the perfect time to catch the surf of commuters fleeing work for the mountains and beaches on Friday afternoon. Tell you the truth, after a while all we could hear was Joni Mitchell’s great lament, “They paved Paradise, put up a parking lot…” The parking lot was the Interstate, drivers with one eye on their iPhones and a finger in the air for fellow commuters, heart-attacks racing to catch up with one another at the next red light, police cruisers wailing along both verges of the highway carrying with them other first-responders – firetrucks, ambulances – to the distant exits where incident after incident provided warnings of the future fates for the sheepil on iPhones…..
But guess what? When we finally, ungratefully, ditched the farm-to-market Interstates and began to hum along the back roads of Amish country, the roads were clear and – OK, don’t believe me – smooth sailing. First real sign of Amish culture was a horse-and-buggy clip-clopping along, straw-hatted young lad at the reins, demure young lassie by his side, hands primly in her lap, long purple dress to her ankles…. Next sign: as we rounded a curve under the trees, they opened out to an Amish baseball game – men in suspenders, boys pitching and catching, out in the outfield – and along the third base line, a train of little Amish children in toy locomotive buggies. We were headed for tranquility.
Not quite, of course. The motel reservation that Siri promised us was four miles from the festival took us all around the barn before we finally pulled into the Spring Gulch Campground, just in time for the start of the evening’s program, a sweet, contralto-voiced young singer dressed all in black, elegant behind the microphone, singing her heart out for the hillside of campers, the main audience for this lovely, community-based event. Kirstin Maxwell – a young lady to remember. Five stars were beginning to form in our minds.
We located Jodi and Bob, down near the right hand of the stage at the bottom of the hill, tarp already spread, and put up our chairs while Andy Braunfeld performed his expected job of being a goofy MC with mildly bad jokes, while the next band got ready to take over, a line of monitors all across stage front, wing to wing. Five minutes of sound-check, a couple of tuning jokes, and yes, Blue Highway, IBMA-award-winning bluegrass band, took over the festival, from left to right, with nearest us an incredible young Dobro player with Mike Auldridge licks – subtle backup one minute, driving lead next — on Blue Highway’s storm-along set. We weren’t the only ones with bulging eyes and pricked-up ears – the photographers rushed the stage to catch young Garvin Largen before he got away.
The rest of the band took turns ragging him, in time-honored style, happily pointing out that, at age 21, he was two years younger than the band has been together. But the banjo-picker, from the left hand end of the lineup, made sure to come all the way down the line to cop a duo with Garvin, and the rest of the band were gleeful at their youthful star.
This was bluegrass, of course, the result – in this case – of about a (conservative?) hundred years of parkin’ lot pickin’ and singin’ sessions, and Blue Highway fer sure earned their spurs the hard way. The hillside was on its feet, applauding and dancing, almost immediately the first fiddlin’ and mandolin pickin’ sprang to life in front of them. The central trio around the front mikes – Tim Stafford, guitarist, lead singer, now college professor on the history of bluegrass, Wayne Taylor – bushy mustache, bald head glistening under the stage lights, electric bass providing the metronome for the band while he bounced jokes in all directions, himself included (“Boxers or briefs…? It depends…!”), and fiddler/mandolin player Sean Lane mostly played a rippling backup, but also ripped off a couple of breaks with young Garvin that proved this was a band, not a bunch of soloists, and the night was well begun.
They’ve played all over the world, these guys, and the hillside crowd was only too glad to welcome them to their camp-ground.. At one point, the central trio gave a demonstration of something close to a capella bluegrass gospel that had the hair on the back of a lot of hands standing on end. Five star festival already, and the night was just begun with a roar.
The next act, however, a local gal gone Nashville by way of Boston, took the stage away, cowboy boots and short dress, a la Iris DeMent, to give us a real change of pace: jazz-influenced maybe-autobiographical songs about a series of tragically ex boyfriends, delivered in a voice that leapt up and down at least three octaves. Eyes popping, jaws on the deck once more, photographers in a mad rush for the front and both sides of the stage. Liz Longley, blonde hair flying, had us all going and long gone. At one point, she called out, “It’s alright, Ma – I’m not that bad!” Shades of Dylan? You bet. Her switching off from one elegant guitar to another and back was more highly-polished craft and art. Another five stars!
I bet you thought she was the headliner, am I right? But then Chris Smithers, blue shirt, brown mane of hair, hound-dog eyes and crooked smile, sauntered onstage, got that sound bidniss taken care of, and was long gone, rolling, rhythmic runs with all of his many fingers rippling up and down the neck of his geetar, sardonic reflections of the life of the bluesman in the 21st century flowing from both sides of his mouth, and you knew who was leader of this pack. Amazing set, and a crowd that went wild for him, so he got a long, standing ovation that finally got Andy Blaumfeld to plead with him for an encore, and he sat down with a sleepy grin…. What he gave us was Blind Willie McTell reborn with the real deal blues. When he got to the line, “I ain’t good-lookin’ but I’m some woman’s angel-child”? (I mean, is that fair…? ) a group of women who had been dancing and whooping along, down past stage right, let out a collective whoop, and the set ended with Chris bowing and bowing his way offstage with a wide grin. Maybe he escaped those wild women’s clutches… You never can tell.
What can you say? You just can’t keep on handing out five stars all night, can you? But avuncular Andy was up to the task, thanking everyone for being such a happy audience and pointing ‘way up the hill, under the trees, where a big camp-fire session was about to get underway and might last all night, who knew? Tarps and chairs and instrument chairs all across the hillside – what are you talkin’, pickin’ and singin’ all night long? – and the crowd melted in minutes, clearing the way for Chris and Co. to make their getaways.
But of course, having been through three night sleep deprivation clinics enough times in our short lives, we managed to make it to our car after saying goodnight to our friends, finding our way through deserted Amish towns – horses and buggies put up for the night, all good Amish lads and lassies snug in separate beds – and so to our own bed. The Rodeway Inn in Axton – that was our goal, and we were there by midnight ourselves.
`Saturday morning, fresh if cloudy, twenty degrees cooler than muggy Friday, greeted us as we rolled out of bed, showered, had breakfast, and made it to Spring Gulch by noon, when the program was scheduled to kick off with John Flynn himself, offering a Family Concert for all the hillside’s children.
Oops. Seems a lot of those children, having persuaded Dad and Mom to let then dance around the campfire till well past their bedtimes, were not ready for singalong and dance around this early in the afternoon. No problem. After a couple of kids’ songs as promised, John, expert veteran of the festival circuit, launched into the perfect song for the hillside of saggy adults: “We All Live in a Yellow Submarine…” Bet yore bippy we do! These ex-hippy farmers and camping veterans weren’t about to let John Flynn have all the fun! Their own verses – their own songs – their own ideas – to fill out the submarine’s launching took over, and from then on, John Flynn had them all in the palms of his hands.
Soon enough, he got them to listen for a minute while he laid out the backstory of the next ditty: Miss Kirtsel’s second grade class, and the impatient young boy who wanted his song to be sung, and had his way with John, the teacher and his classmates (a bit of editing, natch). “My Little Brother’s for Sale!/ Nothing but a three-year-old heart attack!” Daddy’s glee and Mom’s horror on the hillside were swept away in fits of giggles everywhere, and by now the kiddies were dancing, running in circles, falling all over one another in front of the stage. Perfectomundo!!
Maybe the highlight of his set was about to happen, but you had to be careful, because maybe it involved a word you couldn’t say, let alone sing. Meh… we were among friends by now….
John and his family, it would seem, were down in Florida, where John had a gig, His 9-year-old got a big hunger to get in the water with these humongous manatees…. After lecturing the lad on his accepted duty of looking after the safety of the children and so on , John claimed he provided the final solution to the kankedort. Are you ready? You know it…” Ask. Your. Mother!” OK, you coulda bin more… politically correct or sumpn… But the whole incident provided John with the best song on his children’s CD: “A Manatee Sneezed on Me!” (You may think it’s funny,/ You may think it’s cute/ But it’s not…!” The kids in front of the stage were falling into one another’s arms, howling – “He said snot!!” And the Moms, Dads and assorted Miss Kirtsels in the audience were rolling on the ground, pounding the grass all around. “Snot! He said snot!”
Now, I’m going to put to the side the glee with which John’s fine set ended, and I’m gonna take a breath, and I’m gonna break my neck by whipping it over my left shoulder, and I’m gonna ask the question that I want to dominate —or at least share the stage with – the rest of this wonderful – yes, five star! – festival….
Love versus Money. There’s things you do for love, and you give them away, happily sharing your love with your world. We all know that. It’s bliss, is what it is. Then there’s…. making a living. Money. What pays the rent and puts gas in the battered old van and new strings on the guitars. Funny thing. If enough other people love what you’ll give away for free, and insist on paying you for it, that living threatens to become a killing – No kidding! You’ve all seen it, I know, all of you still reading and wondering where the happy crowd went to. Love versus money. The Garden of Song, versus The Bidniss Office – agents, managers, bookers, plastic. I’m not gonna pursue this to Fred Eaglesmith’s mournful litany, “Alcohol and Pills,” though I’ll admit that’s just a horizon event. Just this: If Miss Kirtsel – or The Principal – or the Festival Booker – or the City Fathers – are too dreffly shocked, shocked, do you hear? – at That Word – or That Joke – or That Idea….. The worst kind of censorship is self-censorship, Mchael. When you close off part of your imagination to walk between the lines, or stop at the edge of the box – what happens to Love?
John Flynn, God bless him, is expert at choosing his spots, picking his crowd, playing and teasing people into giggles and into being happy with their minds, imaginations and hearts. What about the up-and-comers? What about the stars of the folkie world, or the young musicians who have discovered the possible living you could make singing in classrooms or for school assemblies? What about freedom of expression in America?
Sorry – that one got past the censor. I’m in trouble, I know. Won’t be the first time, right? Oh well, meh and hoo boy…. So you and I agree about this kind of thing, and we’re working on keeping America the land of the free? I love you guys!
Let’s go to the rest of that Saturday afternoon concert, courtesy of the Braunfelds, and to the Saturday night and onwards. Let’s see how far along we can get, courtesy of more fine musicians than you can shake a stick at (and don’t forget the craftspeople and the Hoola-Hoop Contest, and the face-painting and the lessons in tie-dyeing T-shirts, all along the sides of this hillside camp-ground, all weekend long. We’re all in this together, all of us Song-Gatherers and Gardeners of Children. For true.)
Oh. By the Way. You can Google The Spring Gulf Folk Festival’s website, and see where this is going. Even if you were there, that campfire smoke, you know…?
Ever hear of the No Good Girls? A trio of angelic-voiced, cowboy-booted, floral micro-dress wearing country gals? They sound even better than that, hand on my heart. While I was running around, chasing down some other people for something approaching a story like what you’re reading, they were serenading the hillside with song after song, lifting them up and away into the woods and creeks around us. If you missed them – your bad.
Or how about the Adam Ezra Group – Sarah, a classically-trained fiddler, hair down to her elbows and hips, whipping Charlie Daniels into shape – a Jimi Hendrix mad-man of a leader, on his knees behind the mikes, that guitar flailed away at, ready to burst into flame – a tip-top keyboard that the fiddler couldn’t help teasing by running her fingers up and down his scale – a drummer, encouraged into madness by that Jimi Hendrix guy who helped him beat his cymbals into shape, before everyone cleared out and gave the drummer room for a thunderous, hissing, booming solo like Gene Krupa would have killed for? Never heard of them?? But… they play 200 gigs a year, put something like 80,000 miles on the van… and they bent the idea of “folk music” so out of shape that folk will waddle for a happy month, happily remembering the experience.
Ah well. Blame who? You came to the concert, right? You danced in front of the stage, lost in your own yellow submarine. You loved ‘em. You’ll go to the next bar, the next college, the next football stadium that they appear in. They’ve been just about everywhere, and they’re going more places in the next five years, too.
Now, there we are. Love Money? Both? Exhausting? Again, where’s that bippy you bet? And that Braunfeld guy – maybe Dad, maybe Son, don’t matter much to me – laid this feast – this… smorgasbord! – in front of you, dinner-time to supper-time, and going on past the kids’ bedtimes too.
I know – I got lost for a bit there. But when you think about it – what do the No Good Girls want to look back on when they’re as white-haired as Emmy Lou Harris? What does Adam Ezra wanna do with next week? And to what extent – here you go – can they keep on keeping on, loving and giving, while battling to keep the Bidniss Office at bay?
I don’t know the answers to them Big Questions. I got lucky, in finding out how to ask some of the questions, with the help if friends like the Braunfelds and Michael Johnathon, and like the musicians I’m using to sketch out the ideas I’m driving at here.
So let me turn to two acts who fill out where I’m driving, both of them onstage at the 2017 version of the Spring Gulch Folk Festival.
First, let’s take a listen to Mark Mandeville and his travelling companion, Raianne Richards. It happens they’ve got a new CD – Google! — *Grain by Grain.* It also happens both of them are music teachers in the public schools, from places like Rainanne’s hometown, Webster, Mass, to Mark’s life-work, proud school kids in the rock and roll band they asked for and he gave them (“Find out what a child wants to learn, and then help them learn it,” right?). Next to them, I’m gonna put two young doods from the mountains of South-Western Virginia, Sam Gleaves and Tyler Hughes. One of them is also a Berea College grad, the other an habituee of Dr Ralph Stanley’s favorite Applebee Restaurant; I’m talking mountain music, not bluegrass in this case, and in the care of Mark and Raianne, either, I guess Americana is the handiest label, though of course – as y’all know – labels… I dunno. Can’t live with labels, gotta use labels to communicate or to block communication, am I right?
Grettin’ kinda high-falutin,; huh? (Or as Mark Mandeville reports, what the courteous old lady in the retirement home said to indicate sweet disagreement, “Isn’t that a pickle!”
Take these lovely, lush songs that Mark and Raianne sing on their most recent CD, *Chain by Chain.* Break your heart in places, bend your mind in others. Both of them clearly love language, in Mark’s case with some fascinatingly Shakespearean twists. Raianne, apart from her setting of Webster, Mass., in the same rust-belt that regrettably Hillary Clinton responded to so clumsily last Fall, also has a lovely clarinet to accompany and a clear, voice to harmonize with Mark. H’mmm. Does some kinda Bidniss Office lie ahead, to swoop them up in its arms and put contracts in the tracks awaiting them? I don’t know; they’ve got good friends and fans waiting to hear them, and for the moment, maybe that’s all anyone can ask.
Sam and Tyler are maybe another case entirely. I bet you remember the late Dave Carter, partnered with Tracy Grammer until his tragically early passing from us. He had an IQ right up there, and I guess a philosophical take on hillbilly life joined to it. I could be wrong; I hear lots of Dave Carter in their songs, even in their singing from the mountains they grew up in. Real partners, their voices blending in beautiful melodies and harmonies you just have to hear – well, of course I’m talking five stars yet again! – they also have musical tastes ranging from Tom T Hall to Ola Belle Reed, from crystal streams and little rapids in the woods to flat-footing old guys to wondering if the world is yet ready to accept the extensions of human rights currently sweeping big cities but maybe not the lonely hillsides they come from. That’s a steady acceptance that the political is personal and vice versa; it’s an open-handed reaching out of love, in some ways maybe like Mark and Raianne’s, but maybe in other directions too, in the name of human rights.
One way they communicate past the old labels, of course, is having mentors like Kathy Fink and Marcy Marker, who clearly had pellucid vision behind their help in production and mixing of this, Sam and Tyler’s latest CD. Apart from the guys’ own skills with banjo, fiddle and guitar – an entire old-time band in two people? – there’s a studio-full of other musicians helping them deliver here, autoharp and mouth-harp. Did they push their luck in their repertoire? Well, certainly Tom T Hall and Ola Belle Reed make excellent stepping stones across these clear pools. What they make of mountain music like, “When We Love,” and “Mister Rabbit” – the former a meditation upon human love, the other a quasi-comic parable about how God’s creations are indeed God’s blessed creations – I think you have to hear. Really hear. And see what you are offered here.
As I say, some people might have been a bit mind-boggled at hearing their lovely, devoted singing in front of supposed rednecks and horny-handed farmers. But, you know, remember that yellow submarine? And we all live there, true?
- Ask yourself – does the future look good for these young musicians – well, John Flynn claims to be 60, but I dunno about that – as they offer love and court the risks of money in their lives on the road? I mean, don’t ask me – I think I know what my answer is.
I’ll tell you something else. To judge by the hillside reception of every single one of them — we’re tearing down the fences and we’re making new friends in sunny fields. America – you heard it here – is in excellent hands, to judge by this crop of fine folk musicians culled by Mike and Andy Braunfeld. Tip o the hat to both of you. Really.
I could go on, but I shudder to do a word-count on this piece already. If you want to discuss it, after listening one more time to your own favorite folkies – broadly defined, OK, OK – I bet you could get a friendly campfire where you could have a good time this Summer and onwards, listening and playing. For me – I gotta go. See you around, and I mean that –
John Song-Gatherer McLaughlin