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A man sits in a chair with a small banjo
Eli Smith of The Down Hill Strugglers during the "Treasures from the Archives Roadshow" Homegrown Concert Series performance, September 25, 2015. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Brooklyn Folk Festival Turns 10: Q&A with Eli Smith

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A little over a decade ago, Brooklyn-based musician and promoter, Eli Smith, merged his passion for folk music with the inspiration he got from the community of artists calling New York City home and created the Brooklyn Folk Festival. Along the ten-year journey of the Festival, Eli has engaged the American Folklife Center in numerous ways, doing research into the history of folk music, learning songs from the collections, and brainstorming with staff on ways to excite interest in our holdings. The following post is a Q&A between Eli and AFC staff member, John Fenn, that touches on several of these topics.

John Fenn: Tell me about your relationship to folk/traditional musics.

Eli Smith: I became interested in Folk/Traditional music when I was a teenager, growing up in New York City, in Greenwich Village. I heard recordings of Woody Guthrie and Mississippi John Hurt. And then the New Lost City Ramblers. And I read their liner notes and followed their sources. The Harry Smith Anthology was reissued on CD by Smithsonian Folkways when I was in high school, and I got that. It was a revelation for me, like it has been for so many people. When I heard that range of music–it was completely unlike anything I had heard before on the radio, television or from my friends! And these were the kind of sounds that I’d been searching or hoping for, without even knowing it. Also the Deep River of Song series of Lomax recordings was being issued back then on CD, and those were also a revelation to me, along with the amazing reissues of music of old 78s on the Yazoo label.

Eli Smith and his band, The Down Hill Strugglers, performing with John Cohen during the Brooklyn Folk Festival. Photo by Brian Geltner.

That kind of down home, grassroots music was the music that I wanted to hear and spoke in the voice that I wanted to hear. I followed the music, listening as much as I could, learning about the musicians and the styles and sounds. I learned how to play the guitar, and banjo and harmonica, some mandolin and fiddle, other instruments. Exploring the history of the music in my own neighborhood, going back into the 1960s but even earlier—the 1950s, 1940s, 1930s–and connecting with older generations of musicians and cultural workers in my area was important for me. I was inspired by the work that the Friends of Old Time Music group had done, Ralph Rinzler, John Cohen, Izzy Young and others. They played the music themselves, but were also devoted to presenting it and perpetuating the music by, among other things, bringing it to audiences and issuing recordings.

JF: What was the inspiration for launching the festival?

ES: I thought of the Brooklyn Folk Festival in 2008 and we had our first festival in the spring of 2009. There was such a good scene of musicians in New York City at that time (and now) that I felt we needed a yearly festival to properly present the music and give it an annual focal point. I wanted these wonderful musicians, who I felt were not receiving their due, to have an opportunity to play for a large audience and to help spread awareness and understanding about the music. I also felt, and still feel, that most music festivals that are calling themselves “folk” festivals are not presenting a true range of “folk” music, or a proper folk festival. Most folk festivals are actually singer-songwriter/indie rock festivals. It’s false advertising! I wanted a folk festival that was more in line with the early Newport Folk Festivals or University of Chicago Folk Festivals from back in the early 1960s. By that I mean, I wanted to present a folk festival that was really counter cultural – folk music being a cornerstone of the American counter culture–and a festival that really represented the huge diversity and deep roots inherent in the idea of folk music. We have made that our goal at the Brooklyn Folk Festival. And our 10th festival is coming right up, April 6-8th!

Amythyst Kiah on stage at the Brooklyn Folk Festival. Photo by Brian Geltner.

JF: The festival celebrates 10 years running this year…what’s the biggest surprise to you about that? What’s changed over the years?

ES: I’m somewhat surprised that we managed to keep the festival going for ten years. That’s a long stretch, especially for an event here in New York where things can be pretty tough. But I have to say, the time has flown by! The festival remains vibrant and we intend to keep it going. I produce the festival with the Jalopy Theatre & School of Music which is the home for folk and traditional music in New York City today. The first two years, the festival was at the Jalopy, but it out grew our small space. We have moved to successively larger venues, and are now at St. Ann’s Church, a beautiful Gothic cathedral-type building in Brooklyn Heights. This space has allowed the festival to expand: two stages, an area for dances and workshops, film screenings, and new this year, we have the first ever Brooklyn Fiddle Contest. In past years we have had harmonica competitions, which have always been really fun, and then there’s our “Banjo Toss”–a banjo throwing competition that is both fun and absurd! Who can throw a banjo, attached to a rope, the farthest into the Gowanus Canal?

JF: How did the Archives Roadshow come about?

ES: The collections at the AFC are so amazing and inspiring to me and my friends in our music scene here in New York.  But they could, of course, be better known and utilized by the general public. The AFC is one of the best things that our government does: assembling and maintaining this archive for any interested person to use and get knowledge. Since “folk” and traditional music is generally shut out of the national cultural conversation in the media, etc., I thought the best way, or a way, to bring this information to people was by hitting the road and touring with it–bringing it directly to audiences.

John Cohen talks about his collection in front of AFC’s banner exhibit at Brooklyn College. Photo by Ray Allen.

Through conversations with Nancy Groce and Todd Harvey at the AFC, we established this idea of making a visual display that could be easily transported to different venues, combined with a touring group of musicians, whose work has been profoundly influenced by the collections at the AFC.

These musicians would play pieces they had learned from the AFC’s collections, and speak about those recordings, their history and their own relationship to them. We wanted to bring the music, directly to audiences, live and in person! The idea was to make it exciting, immediate and relatable to people, and hopefully inspire them to visit the AFC in person. Or, at the very least, look at the online collections.



JF: What is your connection to the American Folklife Center and our collections?

ES: I have done research over the years at the AFC, both for my own edification and knowledge as a musician, but also to compile and release the album “Lost Train Blues: John & Alan Lomax and the Early Folk Music Collections at the Library of Congress” on the Jalopy Records label. I connected with the AFC just by making the trip to Washington and showing up there. Everyone was so great, welcoming and knowledgeable when I came to do research.

JF: Favorite discovery or item in the AFC Archives?

ES: That’s a huge question, hard to answer. I will say that I loved hearing more of Jess Morris’ playing, the great Texas fiddler. I really enjoyed hearing everything that he recorded with John Lomax back in 1942 (listen to an example below). I have loved exploring more of the recordings that Sidney Robertson Cowell made, like those Ruby and Oliver Hughes, or Willard Rhodes’ recordings, for example of Cherokee Christian hymns, like those of the Hallmark family in Oklahoma. Also hearing the Gant Family was amazing.  And Jesse Wadley’s recordings. But there’s so, so much! It’s crazy.

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