Fun With Folk: Day 2 of the Boston Folk Festival

MiMi Yeh

September 22 saw the latter half the Boston Folk Festival and even more talented performers, proving that some of the best was yet to come. I started the day off by sampling some of the field stage food vendors, specifically, Café of India. I enjoyed the spicy chicken tika masala, mixed with basmati rice and vegetarian samosas. With a full belly and renewed strength (breakfast is the most important meal), I attended one of the first coffee house event of the day, a performance by Mindy Jostyn.

Jostyn’s style is almost indescribable. She is an eccentric with no predictable pattern to her performances, lyrics, or stage persona. Jostyn has an easy, bantering relationship with the crowd. As she performs, even her instruments are varied enough to include not only the standard acoustic guitar but a harmonica, violin, and accordion as well.

She takes the time to explain each of her songs and, as live performances go, she interests the crowd not only with her creativity but with an explanation of her thought processes as well. In “Rock City Road”, she tells a fast-paced tale of a fall from idealism. The name itself originates from a road running through Woodstock, New York. The suggestion for the formerly nameless tune came from a listener in New York via her website

The subject matter of her music ran from Eleanor Roosevelt to Cain and Abel. In discussing Roosevelt’s story, she tells of how Franklin Delano Roosevelt had an affair with Eleanor’s secretary, and how she was the last to know. Through this whimsical look at one of history’s most famous figures, she manages to interweave her thoughts on love and the complications that follow.

I ran into the next performer, Janice Allen, at the gazebo. Clad in a brilliant green and yellow print dress and matching headwear, she mixes African American folk music with gospel style vocals, accompanied by drums of all shapes and sizes. Allen hales from the South Carolina islands where the dialect, called Gullah, remained uniquely African in culture, tradition, and flavor. Gullah is a mix of a number of African dialects into a common language that allows former slaves to communicate with one another.

She manages to engage adults and children alike with her question and answer style of singing. With gentle teasing and encouragement, she drew out most of the otherwise shy creatures within the crowd. Soon she had them in a large circle, confessing their bad habits (i.e. nailbiting), playing games, and dancing like chickens.

One game she played with the crowd involved folding a piece of cloth. Since slaves were not allowed to touch or give affection to one another, in order to break their wills more easily, they devised a method of keeping close without needing physical contact. People would sing as one person took care to fold a cloth little by little and hand it off to another person. That would continue until everyone had had a chance to hold and fold the cloth. The bundling of the cloth symbolized the sharing of not only feeling but also support and, in that way, they were able to transcend the rules of their masters. Allen passes on this bit of history and, in so doing, brings all involved closer to the meaning behind the music.

Later, on the plaza stage, was “Swing Set” (Mindy Jostyn, Mark Erelli, and Rust Farm): a collection of country tunes with a swing beat, a style otherwise known as Western Swing. In watching this, I felt as if I were inside listening in on one big jam session with the informal, friendly bantering between the players. It is rare to find that kind of chemistry and coherence within performances and between performers themselves. With the easy give and take that took place with Erelli, Jostyn, and Rusted Farm, one would imagine that they had been playing together for years.

Jostyn started the crowd off with a “neo-swing bar song” discussing a man who “walked like he was born to be seen”. The set continued from there with covers of George Jones’ “You’re Still On My Mind” and culminated with several couples getting up and flying around to the beat of the rhythm.

“Swing Set” was followed by another collaborative performance, this time called “Songs Across Generations” (Bill Staines, Cheryl Wheeler, and Rachael Davis). Among the many things I learned, Staines grew up in the town where Fiestaware was invented. Although they performed together on most songs, they remained more distinguishable from one another than those of “Swing Set”, perhaps due to their smaller size.

Davis performed “Eight Foot Window”, a song she had co-authored with a friend at the University of Michigan. Though it was a music school, students were not permitted to play their instruments in their rooms and the practice rooms closed by midnight. They had spent a week’s worth of evenings trying to play and the only room open was room eight, hence the designation “Eight Foot Window”. Within Davis’ little build lurks the voice of a diva, though her sound is gentle rather than overpowering.

Cheryl Wheeler spoke of the first record she owned, bought at the age of six, (“Lovey Dovey” on an old forty-five) and how she has loved music ever since. She confessed to hearing music in her head all the time while growing up. She had the ability to play music within the confines of her mind as she lay awake at night. She “counted twos and fours instead of counting sheep.” Wheeler admits that, “Even as I was sitting in school, I was grooving in my chair.” Her enthusiasm for her art shows in her playing.

For my first time going to the Boston Folk Festival and being exposed in-depth to the folk genre, I enjoyed myself. I definitely look forward to going to see it next year.