For all the clatter of New York’s mechanized soundscape, an earthy twang can still be distinguished through the grinding steel, honking horns and buzzing technology. Whether plucked on an old guitar in the subway or blown through wheezy harmonicas in Washington Square Park, the city’s storied folk sound still keeps time with the urban rhythm.
The hootenanny of the year, The Brooklyn Folk Festival, thrown each year by the Jalopy Theatre and Down Home Radio Show, goes beyond the familiar jugs, fiddles and banjos of American folk. The 30 bands of this year’s edition demonstrate a global perspective of folk, including performances of Indonesian Gamelan, North Indian classical and Chinese acapella.
Festival co-producer Eli Smith considers the festival more authentic than most, along the lines of the influential Newport and University of Chicago folk festivals in the 1960s. “There are a lot of festivals out there today advertised as ‘folk,’” he points out, “but only present singer-songwriters and forms of rock derived from it.”
This year’s festival focuses on old time string band music from the United States and is bringing dozens of performers from the South. For the musicians themselves, the three days, beginning April 18, offer more than just a chance to show off musicianship, it allows them to pay tribute to the spirit. “It's about community, plain and simple,” Ernesto Gomez, guitarist and singer in Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues, explains. “It's the people's music.” Perhaps the most impassioned tribute this year is a group singing along led by the Jenkins Family band dedicated to folk icon Pete Seeger, who died last year.
Although the festival’s popularity has forced it to change venues several times in its six-year history, the Bell House, a converted 1920’s warehouse in Gowanus, remains host this year. In addition to the music, vocal and instrumental workshops taking place, there's also square dancing and film screenings — plus the famous Banjo Toss contest, in which participants compete on distance.