Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Campus Folk Scene, Then and Now

Yesterday The Southern Folklife Collection posted a Facebook link to a wonderful resource: the University of Illinois Campus Folksong Club Oral History Project. Here's folklorist Tracie Wilson's introduction to the Club's work:
The Campus Folksong Club was active on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus from the early 1960s through the early 1970s. During its height in the 1960s, the CFC had over 500 members-making it an astonishingly large student organization and an important force in bringing culture from Illinois and beyond to the UI campus. Folk music scholar Neil Rosenberg describes the Campus Folksong Club as "one of the most vigorous of the many university folksong clubs during the sixties."

The CFC's activities were groundbreaking in that UI students documented and collected field recordings of local musicians in Illinois, a task, which at the time, was generally conducted by professional folklorists. The CFC also helped "to overcome town/gown tension by encouraging local singers to treasure their wares" (Green 1993: 61). According to traditional musician Lyle Mayfield from Greenville, Illinois, "we learned that we weren't hillbillies, we were folk musicians." The CFC was also unique in its commitment to a variety of traditional music ranging from gospel and blues to old-time Appalachian and Ozark music, as well as ethnic music from outside the United States. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Doc Watson, and the New Lost City Ramblers were among the best known musicians that the CFC brought to the UI campus.
There is a lot of great material to explore on the the site, including a number of interviews and research guides. It is amazing how the students active in the Club branched out to leave lasting marks in the fields of folklore, music and art. Dr. Archie Green, the club's advisor, wrote a series of seminal folklore articles and helped to found the American Folklife Center. One favorite musician of the Club, Glenn Ohrlin, is still a regular highlight of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. (see our search bar for previous coverage of the Gathering)

While there are too many other examples to mention in one short article, it's a statement on the life-altering effect of this Club that, after leaving campus and embarking on different careers, many are still traditional musicians and active participants in their local arts scenes. Long before college students started talking about a "DIY" aesthetic, these individuals were booking shows, conducting field recordings, releasing albums, and learning to play traditional music. 

...which leads us to considering how their children and grandchildren are carrying forward this tradition. Greater access to recording technology and media platforms has insured that any first-year college student could track down (legally or not) the recordings of Doc Watson or the Carter Family, and could follow that impulse to discover the groundbreaking reissue work being done by Dust-to-Digital, Mississippi Records, and Twos & Fews (and many others).

There is a great deal to be said about the different challenges and confluences raised by this generational juxtaposition--and I hope to talk to some folks more intimately connected to these issues over the next few months, and to share those discussions here. 

As a writer with a rural perspective, and also a love for many non-traditional art forms, I'm very intrigued by how current artists are interpreting the relationship between "traditional" and "modern" artistic expression, how they've come to see many traditional methods (as agrarians have been saying for decades) as a lens into our contemporary lives.

Sam Amidon is a musician who is considering all of these issues, and producing some stunning and profoundly moving work; he is the product of a Vermont folk-singing family and close friends with modern composer Nico Muhly and a host of other avant-garde musicians, some of whom run an outstanding record label called Bedroom Community. How does one play traditional music after the advent of punk rock, minimalism, electronic music, and the wide-open fields of information and reference on the internet? Although these influences could be blended together into some pretty distasteful stew, Mr. Amidon's music somehow seems both cognizant of these issues and, at the same time, unpretentious and directly honest. 

Here's are two videos. The first was filmed during Bedroom Community's "Whale Watching Tour," a joint series of concerts featuring many of these musicians on stage together. The second clip is a live performance by Mr. Amidon from the recently-concluded South by Southwest festival, at the Lawn Party sponsored by Other Music (an amazing NYC record store) and Dig For Fire (an amazing arts and storytelling collaborative group):

Sam Amidon - How come that Blood (live) from Bedroom Community on Vimeo.