Young People Folking
Brad Wheeler, Globe and Mail, November 22, 2008A genre whose audience had been looking more hip-replacement than hip is working hard to attract new fans, writes Brad Wheeler The homegrown nurturing of talented players and young audiences toward traditional genres is as old as the music they call old-timey. What's encouraging to see is not that young musicians and appreciators are digging the ageless music; it's that the music is being interpreted and built upon in new ways. The nominees for the prizes at tomorrow's Canadian Folk Music Awards in St. John's are a diverse bunch in terms of age and background, often with fresh ideas and spinoffs of what is known as traditional music. The late Oliver Schroer, for example, who died of leukemia last summer, is up for four awards. An eclectic fiddler and composer, Schroer was a committed instructor of young musicians. Win or lose, his legacy is secure. Recent albums from Joan Baez, Richie Havens and Buffy Sainte-Marie remind us that the big-boom audiences of the flower-power era - "the great folk scare of the 1960s," is how Maria Muldaur describes it - are a greying demographic. Pete Seeger, at 89, probably has only 20 or 30 years left in him. So, who picks up the banjo (or the fiddle or the autoharp), and who pays to see the players? Young Folks, These Days A few years ago, Les Siemieniuk was concerned. The Calgary Folk Festival, like other events of its kind, charges no admission for seniors. As boomers begin cashing old-age pensions, the festival's general manager worried about the bottom line. "We needed to develop an audience that was actually buying tickets," he says. There was something else bothering Siemieniuk: Though the Calgary festival is generally successful (it's been going on for 30 years), the four-day event perennially struggled to draw crowds on its opening nights. "We tried throwing headliners at it," says Siemieniuk, "but we could never sell out Thursdays." Elvis Costello, Stompin' Tom Connors, even David Byrne drew only respectable numbers. The reason for the smaller first-night crowds: People work during the week. So, Siemieniuk began targeting fresh-faced audiences. "Kids don't work," was his logic. "When you're 20, you can go out every night." In 2006, he booked Broken Social Scene and home-towner Leslie Feist. Younger crowds came - and bought all the tickets to be had. The Calgary Folk Festival had solved its annual Thursday lull, and at a fraction of the price it had been paying headliners in previous years. (This was in 2006, remember, the year before Feist learned how to count to four). By dealing with their Thursday issues, Calgary organizers helped themselves in another way, too. Teenagers might have showed up for one band on one night, but they were also being exposed to other acts. "They come to see Bedouin Soundclash," says Siemieniuk, referring to the reggae rockers, "and they're blown away by James (Blood) Ulmer, the old blues guy whom they would never cross the street to see if we brought him alone." A crowd is cultivated not only for the festival's other days, but for the years ahead. Skip the Babysitter Not only do seniors get in free to Calgary's folk fest, but children under 12 skip in with no concern either. The policy, standard at such festivals, accommodates parents. Just as importantly, the ankle-biters come year after year - and many continue to show up after they pass age 12. What happens is that some of the kids eventually become volunteers at festivals - in Calgary, and across the country. They work, see some acts, and camp out after, hanging around for some of the late-night jams. The camaraderie carries forward by capturing audiences and building future loyalties. "It develops a sense of responsibility and belonging," says Steve Edge, "and of being a part of it and making it work." Edge is the director of Vancouver's Rogue Folk Club, an organization with no fixed address. By not operating a live-music nightspot or supper club, Edge is able to use all-purpose venues (such as St. James Hall in Kitsilano, B.C.), where all-ages shows are practical. Children under age 5 are let in free, while those under 12 are charged half-price. "It's cheaper to bring them to the show," reasons Edge, "than to hire a babysitter." Family Traditions Unlike jazz, rock, pop or blues, folk is a hand-me-down music, particularly in the Maritimes. The first guitar owned by Stan Rogers, who spent his summers in Canso, N.S., was a handcrafted model, a gift at age 5 from his uncle. Cape Breton fiddler Ashley MacIsaac, a step dancer by the age of 8, learned to play his stringed instrument with help from his father, a paper-mill electrician by trade. The Abrams Brothers, a young bluegrass trio from Kingston, comprised of siblings (John, 18, and James, 15) and a cousin (Elijah, 19), comes from three generations of gospel music and bluegrass. As tykes, the brothers watched their father and grandfather practice on Wednesday evenings, before precociously joining in themselves. Combining traditional Canadian fiddle music, Louvin Brothers harmonies, roots rock and a taste for tailored suits, the Abrams developed their own style. "It's all about bringing our traditional influences to the mass-market genres, but keeping that Abrams Brothers identity," says James, the troupe's guitarist. To that end, the band just released its third album, Blue on Brown, a tribute to the songs of Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie that bears likenesses to the Band and the Louvin Brothers. They've already played the Grand Old Opry stage (in 2005), were a hit at Guelph, Ont.'s Hillside Festival last year, and this spring head to South by Southwest, the legendary music-and-film festival held in Austin, Tex. On Dec. 3, the Abrams launch the album at Toronto's Supermarket, an unconventionally hip venue for a string ensemble. When called the Jonas Brothers of Canadian bluegrass, James Abrams recoils. "If that's something you see, that's okay," he says, diplomatically. "But we're not so much concerned with the glamour of it and the stuff that happens overnight. We're in for the passion, and the long run." Folks Like Us The nominees for the Canadian Folk Awards are all over the board - a mix of institution (Scottish-music crooner Enoch Kent, in the traditional-singer category), urban-roots rock (Toronto's NQ Arbuckle and Luke Doucet, contemporary album) and glam (the ladies of Winnipeg's Chic Gamine, up for a pair of awards). Three of the five contenders for the year's best young performer play the fiddle, carrying on Canada's tradition on that instrument in the age of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. And though inventive young-artist contender Emma Beaton, of Qualicum Beach, B.C., doesn't play the violin, she does play fiddle tunes, fiddle-fast, on her cello. Cellos mimic the fiddle. Bluegrass dresses up in snazzy suits. Old music gets younger. Calgary's festival catches flack when it brings in someone like hip-hop/funk/reggae act Michael Franti. To the mind of Siemieniuk, Franti, with his political bent and sense of collective joy, is as folky as Baez or Seeger. "It's the 21st century," he says. "Let's get over it."