Curtain Call

When you connect to something artistically it can produce an emotional response as strong as religious faith. Sometimes, for me, those responses are physical. My mother would tell stories of how hard it was to bring me to Sunday Mass when I was a baby. When the music at Mass was “sad” I would cry throughout the service. When the music was “happy” I would smile and be joyful. 

As an artist and performer, I try to take what I love and make it accessible to others. I’m drawn to music that creates a physical or emotional response in me. As an artist I am a niche of a niche of a niche. However, I listen to and enjoy a wide variety of music and musical styles. 

I recently went to the Folk Alliance International Conference (FAI) where 1,100+ musicians gathered, along with representatives of performing venues, folk music societies, house concerts, folk festivals, booking agents and others involved with the folk music landscape. The conference has Official Showcases, an Exhibit Hall, and Panels for everyone who attends. For four nights there are 80 Private Showcases concurrently running performances between 10:30 PM to 3:00 AM the next morning. 

I performed at several Private Showcases in at the recent FAI conference. Out of 80 Private Showcases there were two that focused on artists performing songs that they didn’t compose. The majority of showcases were focused for artists who identify themselves as a singer songwriter.

The Kerry Blech Traditional Room was hosted by Andy Cohen. The primary focus was on artists who perform Traditional Folk Music. Andy told me only six artists (out of several hundred submissions) identified themselves as playing any traditional folk music. 

Jefferson Berry created and hosted a new theme for a Private Showcase called Covering Your Friends. At the Covering Your Friends showcase you cannot perform any songs you wrote. I performed two songs written by friends and then told the stories behind why I learned their songs. 

What concerns me is a strong bias that everything must be constantly new. Fewer venues, folk festivals, house concerts accept artists who perform anything other than their own original songs. Only a few artists learn and perform the music of others. 

There is a thread that is being pulled. As a thread is pulled, removed, and discarded the fabric is changed. When enough threads are removed fraying becomes visible and at some point, the fabric will be unusable. 

I have spent my time learning about the music of the past. I learned the context and language, I learned from books, old recordings, libraries, the music of musicians who have passed. I play a few “cover” songs, songs that were once on popular radio. But I don’t consider most of the music I perform as “covers”. After all, very few describe Yo-Yo Ma as playing Bach covers. 

Speaking of Johann Sebastian Bach, he was not considered a great composer in his lifetime (1685 - 1750). Bach’s music was labeled old fashioned and unimportant. When Bach died his heirs did very little to preserve the music he had written. 

Seventy-five years later the composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847) re-discovered Bach’s music. Mendelssohn personally championed a revival of Bach’s works and brought them to a greater audience. If Mendelssohn had performed only his own compositions, Bach would have been a minor footnote in music history instead of being thought of as one of the Big Three along with Mozart and Beethoven.  

The passion of a few has enriched so many. That is what history teaches. There are always lessons to be learned from the past.  

For me all music has the capability to enrich. But does enrichment depend upon everything to be new? I wonder what will happen if we no longer hear the artists who learn a little piece of the obscure? 

When I was at Providence College in the 1970s, Father Haller taught a course called Basic Musicianship.  What stuck with me for the past 50 years?  Fr Haller pointed out if you do not like a style of music, it is because you don’t know enough about it. I wonder if we will get to the point where we no longer hear it. 

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