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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

What People Mean When They Say Folk

“It’s good music,” Amy Rishell says “Music that’s been passed down through generations.” And, as one of the several thousand people who attended the Boston Folk Festival the weekend of September 22 and 23, Amy should know. Young and old, the Boston Folk Festival brought in grandparents, grandchildren, baby boomers and Gen X-ers, enough to ensure that folk music would continue to be passed down – through several generations at once.

From traditional rhythms and melodies to newly minted songs by up-and-coming songwriters, this year’s Boston Folk Festival had it all. With over 40 artists performing in nine different venues all around campus (not to mention a plaza full of delicious international cuisine) there was surely something to please everyone.

Boston native Vance Gilbert opened the day at 11 a.m., with an hour’s worth of song. Once he set up his audience with a few catchy – and gut-bustingly funny – songs, he let into edgier songs like “Just Can’t Go Like That” and “If These Teardrops Had Wings.” The hour flew by too quickly, but I’m told that after a set of gigs which will take him to Texas, Gilbert will return to Massachusetts in late October.

The Ryan Lounge was packed with a standing room only crowd who came to watch a quartet of well-known folk-artists pay tribute to Bob Dylan, both as homage to his 60th birthday earlier this year and his most recent album, “Love and Theft,” Dylan’s 43rd album. He’s been recording longer than many, if not most, of the artists who played this weekend have been alive. Dylan’s shadow shouldn’t fall over the quartet of musicians, many of whom carry a legacy in their own right: Tim O’Brien, for instance, is one of the foremost bluesgrass artists in the country. Darrell Scott, who frequently plays with O’Brien, has been studio guitarist on over 60 albums (take that, Dylan!) and has three albums of his own material. Chris Smither has played with the likes of Bonnie Raitt and B.B. King, while Jimmy LaFave, whose mandolin and fiddle accompanied the other three guitarists – has been likened to a Texan Van Morrison.

The four played as if they had shared the stage for years, segueing between songs with an almost casual ease. Rather than walk the easy path of Dylan standards, the foursome explored some of the less-frequently covered Dylan songs. There was a reflective “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power),” an energetic “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” and an upbeat “Maggie’s Farm,” which LaFave described as having “all the elements of a bluesgrass song: farm, family, and angst.”

In one of the few nods to recent events, LaFave also sang one of Dylan’s early peace-protest songs, “With God On Our Sides,” which takes the listener through a succession of wars and a succession of ever-changing enemies: “I’ve learned to hate Russians all through my whole life/If another war starts it’s them we must fight…” It was not too difficult to recall Mohammed ben Atiq, who spoke in the same room at the university’s Teach-In a week and a half before, and the racially-motivated retaliations against Arab-Americans following the terrorist attacks of September 11, or to draw to mind the T-shirts out now which read “bin Laden Sucks!” or “Nuke Osama,” and to consider whom we are now training ourselves to hate.

Folk music has long been associated peaceful protest and community building. David Roth, who played in the McCormack Cafeteria (transformed for the Folk Festival into the Rose Garden Coffeehouse) carries that legacy forward. Described by some as a blend of comedian Jerry Seinfeld, songwriter James Taylor, and union organizer Joe Hill, Roth displayed a tenderness, warmth, and complexity in his songs. “Rising In Love,” for example, puts an old spin on a familiar phrase: “I’m not falling at all; I’m rising in love.” Roth recollected for the audience his journey to Corvalis, Washington to play for the Hewlett-Packard Corporation – in their cafeteria, as it turned out. “These were people who had never seen a live folk musician before,” he quipped. Like Vance Gilbert, Roth will return in late Oct. to play in Needham.

But perhaps Mohamed Kalifa Kamara and the Spirit of Africa represented best what folk music means. While Mohamed himself was born in West Guinea, Africa, the Spirit of Africa includes band members born in Madagascar, Senegal, and Germany. They filled the air with a delightful mix of traditional rhythm and more contemporary melodies, played on a diverse collection of instruments – a modern drum kit side by side with a set of conga drums; saxophone as well as more traditional flute. The small dance floor was filled with dancers, some children, some adults, all having a good time. And perhaps Mohamed’s closing comment to the crowd demonstrates folk music’s all-inclusive nature, its meshing of modern and traditional: “Be sure to visit www.mohamedkalifakamara.com.”