Friday, May 21, 2010

Down Home Radio

 tin-type photograph of The Dust Busters by Bill Steber

Last week, in our coverage of The Black Banjo Gathering,  we mentioned the extraordinary Down Home Radio Show. With the weekend approaching, we thought it would be a good time to return to the Show and to the work of its founder Eli Smith. Grab a cool drink and get comfortable: you'll want to spend some time wading your feet in all this great music and all these resources. 

Like Nathan Salsburg and Lance Ledbetter, Mr. Smith is an integral part of a new generation of musicians and folklorists who are using twenty-first century technologies to both preserve traditions and to get the word out about artists who are carrying them forward. There's no better testament to how these tools can bring together urban and rural communities than Mr. Smith's Brooklyn Folk Festival, which is running all  this weekend at The Jalopy Theater. Featuring thirty-one artists over this long weekend, the Festival is covering an amazing gamut of musical forms, offering "old-time music, blues, pre-blues, jug band music, New Orleans jazz, folk style songwriting, Greek, African and Mexican folk music and dance with concerts, workshops, and a Sunday afternoon square dance."

Many of the artists on stage this weekend have already been introduced to audiences by The Down Home Radio Show, which can be downloaded for podcast or steamed online. It was founded in 2006 by Mr. Smith and, in the early episodes, was co-hosted by the late Henrietta Yurchenco, a visionary ethnomusicologist and broadcaster who brought the likes of Leadbelly, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie to audiences. This excerpt from the Show's introductory press release seems even more prescient today:
Down Home Radio will make this music, often drawn from obscure field recordings or other out of the way sources, readily accessible to the general public. “Listen at the roots, with a mind for detail. Given this information, you will no longer accept stereotypes of or fall for clichés about our cultural past. Let this program be your introduction and a continuing guide to this trove of material. For musicians and fans of music alike you will find a fresh and clear perspective in your evolving appreciation and critique of music,” said Smith. 

In times of crisis such as the Great Depression of the 1930’s and the world revolutions of the 1960’s folk music, both as a mirror and a hammer, has come to the fore and played an important role in cultural movements and movements for social and political change. Today, as we are once again in an economic and political crisis, Down Home Radio hopes to offer traditional vernacular music as both a spring board for innovation and as a candid lens with which to view, appreciate and participate in our culture.
The lens metaphor has recently been applied literally, as Down Home TV has become a component of the Show's online presence. Below is one segment with Jerron "Blind Boy" Patton filmed by Chris Low:

There's almost five years worth of radio shows on the site. Mr. Smith's most recent conversations have been with George Gibson, a banjo player from Eastern Kentucky (see his recordings for June Appal and his contributions on Dust-to-Digital's amazing Art of Field Recording, Volume II) as well as with Clifton Hicks, an extraordinarily talented young banjo player from North Carolina. 

Aside from all of these projects, Eli Smith is also a member of The Dust Busters, an old-time string band that is "influenced and inspired by the direct fusion of Scots-Irish and African music that took place in Appalachia, the Western states and the Deep South from the earliest colonial times through the Second World War." Check out their myspace page for a generous selection of streaming songs. 

Here's a nice video that speaks to how the established generation of advocates for folk culture are engaging with the next: as The Dust Busters were rehearsing for an appearance on WNYC they were joined in Washington Square by John Cohen, of the legendary New Lost City Ramblers (also see our post/video on his participation in The Madison County Project).