The 2023 Brooklyn Folk Festival began on Friday evening, November 17 with a performance on the Main Stage in the Sanctuary of St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church by the Down Hill Strugglers (photo above) consisting of (left to right): Eli Smith, organizer and host of the Folk Festival; Jackson Lynch; and Walker Shepard, son of actor and playwright Sam Shepard and actor Jessica Lange.
The Down Hill Strugglers opened with an instrumental, Woody Guthrie’s “Cowboy Waltz,” and followed that with an uptempo instrumental, the bluegrass classic “Cumberland Gap,” featuring a fiddle duet by Messrs. Lynch and Shepard. They did six songs in total, ending with a lively version of “Saddle Up the Grey.”
Friday evening included a perfomance by singer and songwriter Peggy Seeger, sister of the late Pete Seeger. She appeared electroniclly on a screen on the Main Stage, from her home in London, and did a set that included her songs “The Invisible Woman” and “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer,” and a poignant rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” written by her late husband, Ewan MacColl.
Another Friday evening highlight was an appearance by the Fugs, whose name comes from former Heights resident Norman Mailer’s 1948 debut novel The Naked and the Dead. Based on his experience as a soldier in the Pacific Theater in World War II, the manuscript included what Mailer knew as the language typical of soldiers in wartime. His editor told him that a certain word couldn’t be used if the novel was to avoid being banned as obscene, so Mailer substituted “fug” for the bannable word throughout. The Fugs were founded in 1964 by two Lower East Side poets, Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg. Sanders, center in the photo above, remains with the band. They opened their set with “Slum Goddess,” a song from their first album. The set included “CIA Man” and a spirited rendition of “Kill for Peace.” Reflecting Sanders’ identity as a poet, they also did a lovely rendition of “How Sweet I Roamed,” based on a poem by William Blake, and closed with a musical adaptation of the final stanza of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach.
Saturday afternoon started with a sea shanty sing-along led by Ken Schatz. He led a few rousing numbers, then invited audience members forward for a turn. One of these, Olivia Harding (photo above), led us in singing one of my favorites, “Haul Away, Joe.”
Upstairs in the Workshop Room musician and record producer Peter K. Siegel and musician and writer Elijah Wald discussed making records for the Folkways label and dealings, mostly pleasant, with its co-founder Moses Asch. Siegel also demonstrated his skill on banjo (photo above).
Several events during the Festival concerened tha legacy of Harry Smith, described in Wikipedia as “an artist, experimental filmmaker, bohemian, mystic, record collector, hoarder, student of anthropology and a Neo-Gnostic bishop.” His best known contribution to music is his compilation of the Anthology of American Folk Music, released by Folkways Records in 1952, which greatlyinfluenced the folk music revival of the 1960s qnd ’70s. In the Workshop Room John Szwed (photo above) read from his newly published Cosmic Scholar: The Life and Times of Harry Smith.
One aspect of Harry Smith’s work that fascinated me, given my interest in the connections between music and the visual arts is the series of paintings he made that were based on jazz pieces ke liked. In the photo above are two of them: “Algo Bueno” and “Koko.” In these paintings, each image represents a note in the song.
Saturday evening, on the Main Stage. Kashiah Hunter and the Sacred Sounds, from Atlanta, did a rollicking set of Gospel songs that climaxed with a frenetic “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” with a lead vocal by a tall woman in a red top whom Hunter called to the stage but whose name I didn’t get. This had many from the audience up and dancing.
On the Main Stage Sunday, Brooklyn native Ramblin’ Jack Elliott did a set interspersed with stories about the songs and other musicians who influenced him or whom he influenced. Prominrent among the latter is Bob Dylan. Jack sang two Dylan songs, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” As for influencers, he did a lively version of Jesse Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues.” He concluded with his own song, “Arthritis Blues.”
Arthritis is a thing to miss
It will leave you walking
With a double twist
And it’s all kinds of trouble
Going to find you somehow
Unfortunately, I can relate.
There were many other acts worthy of mention, a few of which were: Brooklyn’s own banjo and guitar genius Nora Brown; South Texas’ Felipe Perez y Sus Polkeros (Felipe could make sounds from an accordion I’d never heard before); pioneer bluegrass woman Alice Gerrard; and a performance of Songs of Slavery and Emancipation by a group of singers led by Dr. Kathy Bullock.
The 2023 Brooklyn Folk Festival was a great success, drawing capacity audiences. I look forward to its return next year.