Thursday, January 28, 2010

All Kinds of Folk: A Great Weekend of Music

More on the elevating power of art--

I went to an amazing concert last weekend.  The World Folk Music Association (WFMA) held its 24th annual Benefit Concert Weekend at the marvelous Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, and the theme this year was The Women of Folk Music.   The Birch was full of faithful fans of the folk genre and fans of some of the many award-winning artists, but did anyone go away not having become fans of them all?  Not me! And I only made it to the Saturday night show, while many folkies were there for both nights.

Photo of Finale

It was a privilege to hear Carolyn Hester, an early 60s classic Greenwich Village folksinger and balladeer (homegrown in the heart of Texas), who in 1964 was on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post for their “Folk Music Fad” story. (Joke’s on them—folk’s proved to be no fad!)  She had the then-unknown 19-year-old Bob Dylan play on one of her albums, her producer snapped him up for the label and, as they say, the rest is history. Carolyn’s long white hair flowed just as beautifully as her long blonde hair used to.

Two trios made it a lively night.  I’d heard Hot Soup before and love their acoustic action, especially all the ceramic drums Jennie Avila brought. Herdman, Hills & Mangsen first recorded as a trio in 1990 and have all done solo projects, so this was a reunion much welcomed by the crowd.   There is something about the power of harmony that just lifts the soul…

I was especially wowed by four acts.  I had heard LEA perform before, but her rendition of "Follow the Drinking Gourd," an old spiritual guiding slaves to use the Underground Railroad, gave me chills, and everyone loved the songs she had written, her music now much inspired by her two young children, as well as designed to inspire them.

The Nields were the find of the night for me.  Western Massachusetts-based Nerissa and Katryna Nields are offspring of folkie parents who surely must be proud of their daughters and what they have done with the form.  I loved both of them but oh my god, Katryna had such presence and such projection, really belting it out on songs like “When I’m Here,” written by Nerissa, and “Ain’t That Good News” by soul singer Sam Cooke. 

Touring coffeehouses and festivals since 1991, they’re now also moms who have recently released a kids CD, so I was happy to meet them afterwards and grab a copy for review in Washington Parent, since they’re coming back here in April to Jammin’ Java, where they’ll do an afternoon kids’ show and an evening adult show I don’t want to miss.  

SONiA, formerly of disappear fear, is a Baltimore-based phenom who really rocked the evening. Her most haunting performance was "By My Silence," based on the poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller about the Holocaust.  SONiA sings and composes in English, Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic as evidenced by songs she performed from her CD, "tango”.  She just won the OutMusic Award for Outstanding International Song 2009 for her song “Shorashim,” and has won the GLAAD Award for best album, a distinction she shares with the likes of Elton John. And her tours of the Middle East have led to the creation of a nonprofit, Guitars for Peace, that donates guitars and other musical instruments to children in war-torn countries (particularly, but not limited to, the Middle East).

Doris Justis was a revelation, her sweet sopranos soaring in her duo performance with Sean McGhee, who she’s performed with for 25 years in Side by Side. 

A tribute to the late, beloved Irish folk musician Liam Clancy featured Grace Griffith and Lynn Hollyfield. Grace’s speaking voice is just as mellifluous as her singing voice, a pleasure to listen to.   The performance was particularly inspiring knowing Grace has Parkinson ’s disease, barely noticeable to anyone in the audience not aware of it, and not diminishing her voice or stage presence a whit.  (There’s a PD Notebook on Grace’s website,, for those interested in learning more about how she faces this challenge.)

I am so happy to have reconnected years ago to my folkie roots.  I went from sitting in the basement of musician friends’ homes and other gathering places in high school in New England, singing along as they played Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young songs on acoustic guitar, to sitting in the basement at house concerts in Maryland surrounded by old hippies, and young folk enthusiasts.  I am reminded that folk music is not only beautiful to listen to, it is a voice of protest, for social justice and about creating peace in our world.  And tonight, we were there again for the music, and for the cause.

For more on women singers/songwriters, check out my profile “These Moms Make Music,” on LEA, Lori Kelley and Laura Baron, which appeared in the January 2010 issue of Washington Parent magazine.

P.S. Kudos to my pal Shelley Caplan, formally recognized in the concert program as “Green Room Guru” for her tireless catering of all that great food for musicians at this and other folk music events. 


  1. I enjoyed the folk music lesson and trip down a memory lane or two! Did you see many young people there or is folk music just a thing for people in the gray areas these days?

  2. Oh, no, Pat, in fact I should have made it clearer that there were in fact younger people both on the stage and in the audience! That's the mission of WFMA and all of us, to ensure the genre moves down the generations, and that they also shape it as their own. The house concerts I go to often feature young and rising talent.