Folk Music’s New Genre Benders

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.

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