Art Works Blog

Folk Music and Community

by Glenn Moomau

Glenn Moomau. Photo by Sam Holden

When I heard that self-described “guitar man” Warner Williams was to be included in this year’s class of the NEA’s National Heritage Fellows, I called my best friend down in Montgomery County, Maryland, to ask after the now eighty-year-old musician. My buddy reported that he had just seen Williams that week, playing at the bus stop in Olney for whomever cared to listen. That made perfect sense. The guitar man was conducting business as has been usual for him over the past half century, performing for his community in whatever venue he finds himself.

For me, one of folk music’s defining characteristics is unmediated presentation---the performer not distanced from the audience as happens in recordings, televised performances, and large live venues. Folk music is necessarily local, scaled down, and communal in nature.

It’s fair to say that no sane, self-employed musician would turn down the opportunity to play before a bigger audience and make more money. But the creative force of American folk music---whether it comes from the African-inspired fife and drum bands of northern Mississippi or the Oklahoma Dust Bowl childhood of Woody Guthrie---springs from the community. That may seem less true in the digital age, with the reproduction of recorded music having reached the state where deejays now create mixes---essentially new material---from previously recorded tracks, and every recording ever produced is now available from a website, much of it as free content. Certainly the very notion of community has expanded past local and national geography, class, and culture. But I would argue that the quintessential American folk musician has always been the solo guitarist/singer playing the smallest, least formal venues---bars, parties, protests, and street corners. In addition to accompanying the voice with rhythm and melody, the guitar’s added benefit is its portability and volume, even without electronic amplification. Times have always been tough for most musicians, but in any economic climate, the lone guitarist can actually scrape out a living since he doesn’t have to pay anyone else, need carry little equipment, and can play anywhere.

The small scale of the performance, its informality and unpretentious venue, doesn’t just create community between performer and audience, it is the essence of communal life that many of us ache for when we encounter the isolation of contemporary suburban living that separates citizens by highways, giant shopping malls, and atomized family life. It is, however, only natural to wonder if folk arts that depend upon community support even matter in an age where we don’t have to leave our living rooms to be entertained by globalized media and social networks.

I play music every Friday night in a small bar next to my home in Baltimore. With no stage, my roots music quartet sets up by the front door, and the listening audience is no more than a few dozen. Strangers who show up often don’t know what to make of the scene. They stop when they enter the door, a look of concern on their faces, as if they may have interrupted something. We wave them in, and once inside, they realize that they’re welcome in this intimate space. When I go around between sets asking for donations to supplement what the bar pays us, I remind (and thank) our patrons that they make this magical collaboration happen. On Sunday afternoons, when the bar hosts its weekly hootenanny, the audience/performer dichotomy breaks down even further as sometimes as many as fifteen players are gathered around strumming bluegrass and country tunes.

I love that gig and the community spirit it represents. It’s a far cry from my experiences as a youth: I can still recall that sick feeling of being trapped in the sterile suburbs. As teens thirty years ago, we used to rip suicidally along the upper county’s still rural roads, blasting Led Zeppelin out of busted car stereo speakers. We were worse than bored. We were searching for something that might move us out of the stultifying alienation of public school, part-time jobs, and consumer materialism that appeared to be our bleak inheritance.

One summer evening, we were roaring through the hamlet of Mt. Zion when we spotted a man sitting out by the road on a folding chair playing the guitar. We made a U-turn and stopped to check him out. It was a few years before I learned his name, but the musician was Warner Williams, then just entertaining a small group of neighbors, having yet to be “discovered” a few years later by academic folklorists as one of the last of the Piedmont-style guitarists. My friends and I weren’t very astute listeners but we sat there with the car’s windows down, too shy to get out, and dug some fantastic singing and playing by Williams.

This accidental encounter was startling. No one in my tony suburb sat by the roadside and played music. No one did much of anything on my street’s front yards but enter and exit houses. I didn’t know any adult musicians---certainly none could afford to live in my neighborhood---and music was a cultural commodity for which you paid, whether by listening to commercials between playlists on the radio, buying recordings, or purchasing tickets to supersized rock concerts.

If I had been a decade older, I would have recognized that what Williams was playing was a blend of archaic styles---string band, country blues, ragtime, even traditional 19th-century ballads---which is, in essence, what constitutes African-American, Piedmont-style blues. It’s the blues style that reached its highest popularity on the Southeastern coast during the Great Depression and one of the styles that Williams would have heard as a child. On later occasions when I heard Williams perform, he included a few jazz standards and Hank Williams covers in the mix, and it made sense that in interviews Williams stated that like many fine artists, he was at heart a bricoleur who had built his repertoire on the songs he encountered during his youth from family, other musicians, and recordings.

Williams has gained a deservedly wider audience and opportunities to gig, record, and travel. Yet he’s never stopped playing for his neighbors in Mt. Zion or the Olney bus stop or anywhere else where his services are needed. To our culture’s credit, there are still thousands of musicians like Warner Williams who are both repositories of music knowledge and community entertainers, and our great waves of immigration have brought us even more rich traditions than the already established Hispanic, African, and Anglo-inspired folk forms. When you see one of these solo performers, whether playing on the street, in a small bar, or at a family reunion picnic, remember that even in this noisy, distracted age, the communal knowledge passed down through folk musicians is something that no digital algorithm can yet replicate.

Glenn Moomau is the author of Ted Nugent Condominium, a memoir. His fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared  in storySouth, Link, Bomb, Living Blues, and The Washington Post, among other publications. He teaches writing at American University.

Like the blues? So do we. Visit our NEA National Heritage Fellows page to learn more about some of the blues musicians who have received the award, including Koko Taylor, B.B. King, Henry Gray, and 2011 honoree Warner Williams.

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