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Folk Music Festivals Rock!

September 26, 2007


OK, they don't rock. What is rock, anyway? Isn't rock a slightly aggressive, seductive sound that comes from an alienated working class, right? It's not family music. Maybe the larger part of the alienation is the segregation of puberty and pre-marriage mating rituals. Which is fine...if and when it works for you...watch out for the hangover and beer goggles, though! Ha...but back to folk music! ...And, ya know, folk music actually covers ALL the bases...

A couple weeks ago we went to the Earthwork Music "Harvest Gathering" music festival up north near our trailer.

We've been to a few folk music fests but none since the kids have been bigger. It's time again!

We're on the look-out for wholesome sociable activities for the kids, where they can have fun and learn things, too. And the same goes for ourselves!

In general we avoid "sit down and listen" types of events. We like being more active. And less organized.

These weekend camp-out music fests fill the bill in all respects just fine.

But offhand it seems that a rule might be "the smaller the better."

Michigan is home to several famous fests---with more sprouting up all the time. It's quite a phenomenon!

In Michigan we seem to largely have a cross between the oldfashioned folk music gatherings of rural areas, with their barn dances and fiddling contests and such, and the hippy gatherings of the Grateful Dead era. Oh, let's add the indy rock movement into the mix as well, why not. OK, and the new breed of "whisky punk" country revival bands.

The bigger fests all also bring in plenty of World Music---artists from other countries. TexMex might be the closest base to touch, followed by Celtic music.

Earthwork Music is an upcoming, growing, thriving young people's folk music label collective based out of Lake City, near Cadillac. (Check em out for yourself at: earthworkmusic.com.) Their Harvest Gathering is held at the family farm of one of the main members, Seth Bernard. And you know that Daisy May is one of the organizers also. The "Earthwork" Farm has been going strong for decades (I think) in a true hippy mode, with various people living on the farm in various buildings and trailers, pitching in with the many farm projects.

When we arrived and first walked around the big old farm (of at least 100 acres), getting our bearings, we found the big old sawmill---with a huge round blade about 4 feet tall. We saw a herd of Scottish Highland longhorns out back. A sugar shack for maple syrup boiling. A bee house apiary for processing honey. And much more. A big barn. A fieldstone house with add-on's.

The place had been turned into a true music fest, with stages and vendor tents and campgrounds in shady glades.


I'd say about 500 people were there, making it actually one of the smaller events. The big old grandaddy, Wheatland, has 10k+ people attend. We were told that this Earthwork Gathering was only about a third as large a couple years ago. It was basically just a big potluck then. Probably that's our best size event but, hey, when you procrastinate that's what you get! I've been hearing about this event for a few years. It was the 6th annual event.

The music was very nice and local, with musicians from around the state. The food was local, too, from organic farms in the area. 2 meals were served daily, with lines to eat then to wash your own dishes. It worked great! The food was wonderfully good. Top notch. Great variety. Them cooks can cook! This rural folk music scene, of course, is strongly connected to the rural farmers. The modern farmers have left their roots, but the organic crowd stays tight to the roots music. One of the fun rules was that the (volunteer) kitchen staff had to be serenaded every hour.

We're going to start volunteering at these events ourselves. (If you do a few hours you get your entry fee back.) We may also start hosting booths for our OYB and LazyGal goodies! Work and play go together, eh?

I liked the hip indy flare to some of the bands. I heard a trumpet mixed in with an acoustic guitar band---a new thing I hear in some hip bands these days, like Cake---from folks from the Kalamazoo "Hey! Burner" label (http://www.myspace.com/markduval). Then there's the ethereal type of country sound of Orpheum Bell, which reminded me a bit of indy bands like Belle & Sebastian, a vibe that is catching on. Orpheum Bell had the neat aspect of gypsie polka added to their mix, with a gravelly Tom Waitsy singer. And great outfits throughout. www.myspace.com/orpheumbell.

What I like about a lot of the music of this scene is the slide guitar work of Captain Midnight---you'll find him sitting in on most every act. In every city. Where newstyle roots country is played. How does he do it? drewhoward.com. Whenever I hear his slide I know a hot new roots-country sound is around.

I note that this fest didn't have skills tents at this point---they were going to but weather concerns affected things---maybe next year---or maybe that's just one thing that a smaller fest might not come up with.

Our own college town of East Lansing back downstate has a huge Folk Fest every year---free music on 4 or so stages in the streets and in nearby parks, food and ethnic booths, a big bike parking facility, etc. One of their stages is fully booked for dancing music---and the style of dancing is taught for a half hour or so before each new act comes on. What great fun! For all ages! It's great when a fest includes a goodly bit of music you can really and truly dance to---like waltzes or the various 2-steps. Then there are the more regular contra-dance nights that happen a few places around this region every weekend---which have live bands and also feature pre-dance instruction. Those are wonderful for the chance to dance with everyone in the course of an evening. What fun as well! --And great for kids, too.

(Pic courtesy Heidi Browning: www.flickr.com/photos/heidis_snapshots/sets/72157602169855151/.)

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