There's something in the water in Vermont, or maybe something missing. Known for its independent politics, the state is also a haven for freewheeling 'free folk' musicians who ignore genres, push instruments to the limit, fuse odd new sounds with familiar strains, and otherwise stretch the limitations of the folk 'thing.' What the British music magazine The Wire calls 'New Weird America' is an eclectic assortment of musicians. Regardless of what you call it, there's a movement afoot that's not likely to be contained.
In Wire (Aug. 2003) David Keenan reports on the Brattleboro Free Folk Festival held last May in Brattleboro, Vermont. (True to the looseness that defines the scene, the event's second evening actually took place across the border in a tavern in Amherst, Massachusetts.) The festival brought together drone guitarists from Texas, the heavily rhythmic Boston band Sunburned Hand of the Man, the ethereal, meditative Amherst-based Son of Earth, a 'one-man acid folk project' known as Six Organs of Admittance, the Vermont legends Dredd Foole, and others.
The result was some high-energy music that defies labeling. Pedal steel guitarist Heather Leigh Murray's bloodied fingers testified to one musician's excitement to be playing with others who think outside the lines. 'I am the music,' Murray says, with a gospel singer's conviction: 'I don't even have a choice, I cannot stop.' Sunburned Hand's John Moloney is equally visceral, asserting that his main goal is to get everyone moving. 'Pretentious assholes, arm folders, negative hipcats, they're everywhere and we're out to get them.'
Is this folk music? Maybe so. When it comes down to it, folk is any music sung and played because people want to play it. Folk music is heart and soul, not brain and pocketbook, whether performed solo by a Senegalese kora player, or a group wielding digital samplers, toy pianos, and electric sitars.
Sitars, scratchy 78s, hunting horns, acoustic resonator guitars, and field recordings of traffic over bridges can be found in the wonderfully dense music of Cul de Sac in their 2003 Death of the Sun, recorded in East Albany, Vermont. The group's guitarist, Glenn Jones, cites inspirations ranging all over the map, from the writer-musician John Fahey to Skip James, The Ventures, and the German instrument inventor Hans Reichel. With musicians influenced this diversely, 'free folk' isn't so much a new genre as 'genre mangling,' says Wire's David Keenan. It may be a nightmare for catalogers and shelving clerks, but the sweetly droning, spacey guitar music of Heather Leigh Murray and Christina Carter, who perform as the duo Scorces (and with Tom Carter as the trio Charalambides) is lovely by any name.
Brattleboro's Free-Folk Fest co-organizer Matt Valentine typifies these border crossers. With his partner Erika Elder, he's one of many 'free folk' musicians who record and distribute their own work, sometimes on vinyl, often designing their own record jackets and CD packages. In the case of Son of Earth's Man (Apostasy Recordings), the package is made of hinged balsa marked with a wood-burned drawing.
Son of Earth's Aaron Rosenblum sees himself as part of a modern folk community that looks to the Internet for cross-pollination while bypassing the record industry. 'This is a group of people developing entirely new ways of playing the instruments at hand, or inventing new ones, making music for themselves and those around them,' he says.
There are no firm plans for a free- folk festival this spring, but the scene that orbits loosely around Brattleboro is doing just fine. New Weird America, acid hillbilly, psychedelic folk -- call it what you will. Or just forget the labels and prepare for all contingencies. Happily, the unexpected will emerge.