‘A movement that defines the people of the times’

Nick Baker

Performing Folk Festival artists explain significance

“Admit that the waters around you have grown.”

Bob Dylan said that some 45 years ago when he foretold that times were changing. His message was directed at politicians, preachers and parents – the old guard and its values.

The ingredients were simple: a nasally troubadour with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. It was folk music in its truest sense, in tune with the times and in touch with the people.

As Dylan warned, the times a-changed. And the sounds grew.

As part of the 43rd annual Kent State Folk Festival, more than 35 venues will feature performances tomorrow night as part of the Folk Alley ‘Round Town event. Artists performing fit many different designations on musical style, but among them exists a common thread.

“Folk music is a movement that defines the people of the times, and the climate of politics, religion and all those things,” said Xela (“Alex” backwards), guitarist and singer of The Uncanny Xe La, which will be performing at Professors Pub. “And I kinda think that folk is that open forum. That forum needs to be free, even if it’s in the form of rap or in the form of punk or in the form of anything that’s based on the people creating it and the people sharing it.”

Dylan himself picked up an electric guitar and became a pioneer of the increasingly popular folk-rock genre in 1965, a move that was widely panned by folkies.

But what is a folkie today? What do people even consider to be folk music?

Kent State singer and songwriter Abby Kondas will perform at Anthony’s Coffee and Cakes. She performs acoustic songs that could be categorized as anything from indie to folk, but she does not think the categorization is that simple.

“This is a hard question,” Kondas said. “I don’t know if I’m ‘folk’; I don’t know if people consider me ‘folk.’ When people say folk, I pretty much think of the most simplistic but true form of music. It’s honest.”

Ashley Brooke Toussant of Canton first found herself exploring the world of folk while interning at National Public Radio affiliate WKSU-FM. Her exposure to folk music changed drastically while working under a folk music radio host named Jim Blum.

“I went in there thinking of folk music like Bob Dylan, you know, the traditional stuff like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger,” Toussant said. “I liked a little bit of folk music, but then I realized it’s world music.”

Since then, Toussant, who is performing at Scribbles Coffee tomorrow, has delved fully into the realm of folk music, appreciating its subtlety and openness.

“I think folk music is important because a lot of it is just poetry and honesty,” Toussant said. “It never seems contrived to me, and it always seems really colorful, and I think it’s important for people to understand traditional music and people writing their own songs and playing their own instruments.”

The Hiram Rapids Stumblers, who are performing in Acorn Alley, play music that one could best describe as American roots music, music that reaches the traditional sounds of blues, country and American folk.

“We all grew up around this music,” said Mike Lester, the band’s banjo and fiddle player. “We kinda laughed at it before because it was stuff our dads and grandpas liked. We’re kinda like old-time string music with the punk attitude.”

The band evolved from punk roots and saw similarities between the ethos of both punk rock and folk music.

“The first time I heard Minor Threat or something like that, my mind was just blown away,” Lester said. “Something was so fresh and raw. And some of the first old-time music or folk music I heard had that same rawness.”

Matt Scheuermann performs acoustic folk songs under the moniker American War and will be performing this weekend at the Robin Hood. He also fronts a punk band called No Target Audience, which began with a pair of acoustic guitars.

“I grew up listening to punk rock, and I feel like folk and punk have a lot of things in common because they’re more than just genres of music,” Scheuermann said. “It’s almost like a different angle on approaching things, a different aesthetic to approaching any perception of society.”

Scheuermann said he sees folk as the music of the people, whatever music it may be.

“I feel like folk music is really anything that would capture the voice of the working class, or just the people in general,” he said. “It has a lot to do with storytelling, and a voice that wouldn’t normally be able to be heard.”

The spirit of folk music is the spirit of the people. Whether it’s traditional folk, roots music, punk, hip-hop, jazz, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, reggae, the spirit of folk music has manifest itself in all of them through many artists. It comes from the ground up, the grassroots, and it has always been that source which keeps that spirit in the music as time passes.

“There is still a sense of curiosity people have about the world around them.” Xela said. “Good music and storytelling is our forum for these explorations. This is where the people decide for themselves. This is where the most important ingredient still works – freedom. Long live independent music.”

Contact features reporter Nick Baker at [email protected]