Inquiring Minds: Sharing a Passion for Folk Music, Live from Brooklyn

An earlier version of this interview, conducted by John Fenn of the American Folklife Center, was published on “Folklife Today,” the center’s blog.

Eli Smith (center) with his band, the Down Hill Strugglers. Photo by M. Smith.

A little over a decade ago, Brooklyn-based musician and promoter Eli Smith merged his passion for folk music with the inspiration he gets from fellow New York City artists and created the Brooklyn Folk Festival. Since then, Smith has engaged the Library’s 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 the center’s holdings. Here Smith answers questions from John Fenn of the AFC about the festival and collaborating with the Folklife Center.

Tell me about your relationship to folk and traditional music.

I became interested when I was a teenager, growing up in Greenwich Village. I heard recordings of Woody Guthrie and Mississippi John Hurt, as well as the New Lost City Ramblers. I read the liner notes and followed their sources. Smithsonian Folkways reissued the Harry Smith Anthology when I was in high school, and I got that. It was a revelation for me. When I heard that range of music—it was completely unlike anything I had heard before!

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.

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, 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 was important for me. 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.

What inspired you to launch the festival?

There was such a good scene of musicians in New York City when I first thought of the festival in 2008 (and now) that I felt we needed a yearly festival to properly present the music. 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. 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.

 What surprises you most about the festival, 10 years on?

I’m somewhat surprised that we managed to keep the festival going for 10 years. That’s a long stretch, especially for an event 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 and 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 outgrew 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, the first-ever Brooklyn Fiddle Contest.

Tell us about the Archives Roadshow.

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 by the public.

Through conversations with Nancy Groce and Todd Harvey of 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 the 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.

What other connections do you have to the AFC?

I have done research at the AFC, for my own edification and knowledge as a musician, but also to compile and release on the Jalopy Records label the album “Lost Train Blues: John and Alan Lomax and the Early Folk Music Collections at the Library of Congress.” Everyone at the AFC is so great, welcoming and knowledgeable when I come to do research.

What is your favorite discovery from the AFC archives?

That’s hard to answer. I loved hearing more of Jess Morris’ playing, the great Texas fiddler. I really enjoyed hearing everything he recorded with John Lomax back in 1942 (listen to an example below). I have also loved exploring recordings that Sidney Robertson Cowell made, or Willard Rhodes’ recordings of, for example, Cherokee Christian hymns. Also hearing the Gant Family was amazing.  And Jesse Wadley’s recordings. But there’s so, so much! It’s crazy.

 

Native American Heritage Month: Preserving Songs and Stories of the Past

Judith Gray joined the staff of the American Folklife Center in 1983 with a goal in mind: she wanted to work on the Federal Cylinder Project. The Folklife Center launched the project four years earlier to preserve early field recordings of the sung and spoken traditions of Native American communities. Ethnographers had made the recordings on […]

Inquiring Minds: Shining a Light on a Folk Music Original

Born into one of folk music’s foremost families, Peggy Seeger has been a leading voice of the Anglo-American folk revival for more than 60 years. As a singer, songwriter, instrumentalist and political activist, Seeger is viewed as having forged an unconventional and artistically vibrant path. In “Peggy Seeger: A Life of Music, Love and Politics,” […]

New Online: Rhode Island Folklife Project Collection

This is a guest post by folklife specialist Ann Hoog. The American Folklife Center is pleased to announce the online release of the Rhode Island Folklife Project Collection. Between 1977 and 1997, the AFC conducted 25 ethnographic field projects and cultural surveys in various parts of the United States, resulting in a rich body of […]

New Online: Collecting Web Comics and Culture

This post first appeared in the September–October issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine. The issue is titled “Comics: An American History!” and is available in its entirety online. Two new online collections capture contemporary culture as it is consumed, via the web. The millions of items in Library of Congress collections chronicle human […]

Inquiring Minds: Folklife Center Shines a Light on the Skiffle Craze

When Stephen Winick of the American Folklife Center learned about Billy Bragg’s 2016 album, “Shine a Light,” he quickly contacted the album’s publicist to invite the English singer-songwriter to speak at the Library. The reason: the album, recorded with American folksinger Joe Henry, includes several songs known to the world thanks to recordings in the […]

National Tell-a-Joke Day: Listen to the Earliest Recording of One!

This is a guest post by American Folklife Center archivist Kelly Revak. An expanded version appeared in “Folklife Today,” the center’s blog. Did you know that today is National Tell-a-Joke-Day? Neither did I, until one of my colleagues informed me. But it is timely, because I believe I have found the earliest audio recording of […]

Inquiring Minds: Chinese Opera in North America

In her new book, “Chinatown Opera Theater in North America,” music scholar Nancy Yunhwa Rao tells the story of how Chinatown opera, performed initially to entertain Chinese immigrants, developed into an important part of America’s musical culture. Drawing on new Chinese- and English-language research—including sources at the Library of Congress—she unmasks the backstage world of […]

Pic of the Week: Celebrating the Music of Hawaii

Ledward “Led” Kaapana delighted an audience in the Coolidge Auditorium on July 6 with traditional music from Hawaii. A master of the Hawaiian ukulele and slack key guitar, Kaapana has performed in Hawaii and beyond for more than 40 years, perpetuating the musical style and repertoire of his home village, Kalapana, in the southernmost district of […]