Providence's Alternative Source!

Just folk?
Singer-songwriters who branch out, and the fans who don't love them

Bob Dylan

If Bob Dylan has revenge fantasies -- and who doesn't? -- maybe this is one of them: he takes the stage at the Newport Folk Festival next Saturday, August 3, with just an acoustic guitar.

That would be payback for the hubbub his last Newport gig, in 1965, generated. That performance has become legendary, more for twisted perceptions about what happened than for what actually occurred. The myth is that Dylan was booed from the stage for going electric, for plugging a Stratocaster into an amp and recruiting Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield, Sam Lay, Jerome Arnold, and Barry Goldberg to back him up playing songs from his first rock-and-roll album, Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia).

The truth is that Dylan left the stage after playing for just 15 minutes because the hastily assembled band knew only two songs. That's what pissed people off. After sitting

through 45-minute sets from the likes of Texas songster Mance Lipscomb and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, damned if Dylan's fans were going to let him slip away so quickly.

The myth persists that a repentant Dylan returned to the stage with just an acoustic guitar to play a solo "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Actually, he played the song at the urging of Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul & Mary, who suggested he do something to appease the frustrated crowd.

Of course, the shock of Dylan's electricity did piss off some purists. Perhaps none more than festival organizers Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax. Seeger, a hardcore folksinger who'd been pals with Woody Guthrie, was allegedly so livid, he attempted to unplug the group. And musicologist Lomax was so disrespectful of Dylan's new approach as he introduced the band that Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, confronted him when he came off stage and the two portly men dived into a fistfight.

Amy Ray

"Nobody except maybe a few of the New York folk mafia made a big deal about the Dylan electric thing," says folk musician Geoff Muldaur, who played the festival that year with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and will return this year on his own. "By then, everybody was starting to do it, but in the years since, this is all we hear about. It was a real non-event. I mean, Dylan already had `Like a Rolling Stone' on the radio."

Apparently the folk mafia had strong connections, because its version of the story became popularized, and, true or not, it remains part of the historic fabric of the Newport Folk Festival, which returns to that Rhode Island city's Fort Adams State Park and Viking Hotel next Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. What's surprising is that 37 years after Dylan started making his music crackle, the issue of going electric -- or, to put it more accurately, reaching for a more expansive sonic palette -- remains charged.

For singer-songwriters, especially those who have established themselves in the world of folk or acoustic music, it is a challenge knotted by issues of tradition, audience loyalty, economics, creative growth, and musical ability. And it can affect artists at all stages of their careers and at all echelons of the business.

"The difference in the reactions we get from our fans between making an acoustic record and an electric record is like night and day," says Amy Ray, half of the shed-filling singer-songwriter duo Indigo Girls, who are veterans of past Newport Festivals. "People are really open-minded in our audience, but they were not as accepting of the record we did in 1999, Come On Now Social [Epic], mixing Appalachian-style music with a lot of sound processing and sort-of-edgy guitars."

Even fewer followed Ray into the churning all-electric waters of her 2001 solo debut, Stag (Daemon), a full-throttle rock album that drafted punk-feminist outfit the Butchies as her band. It didn't matter that the Butchies had opened for Indigo Girls shows, or that the duo have aimed to broaden their fans' tastes by bringing an eclectic array of opening acts on tour with them for years.

Bill Morrissey

Ray explains that "artists equate growth with experimenting and not stagnating. Sometimes that means becoming a better songwriter. You can grow just by getting better at what you're doing. But sometimes you search for growth by changing instruments. A lot of our audience discovered us through our acoustic work. When you have a core audience, you have a relationship with them that's based on certain things. When you change those things, you're asking people to stay with you, and you're lucky if they do. It's like having a restaurant you like and they change the menu. It's still good, but it's different, and you may not like it as much."

Ray appears utterly unaffected by her solo album's cult-level sales. In fact, she seems to have anticipated them, for she chose to release the CD on her own independent label. "The people who were gonna be into Stag were into it, and the people who weren't I didn't hear from."

Of course, after 20 years of a highly successful recording career with Indigo Girls, Ray can afford to take her solo debut's lesser reception in stride. But what about the artists who operate at a different economic tier -- at the coffeehouse and small-club and theater level where most singer-songwriters earn their living, or at least try to? Those spaces have a reputation for audiences who welcome new talent and who listen closely to both words and music -- no small thing once you've heard the roar of voices drowning out a band at a local rock club as they attempt a quiet ballad.

"When I won the [Somerville-based] Acoustic Underground competition in 1995, I played the bouzouki, an acoustic instrument, and I felt that I got classified as a folk performer on the basis of that," says Merrie Amsterburg, who has released two albums on the Cambridge-based Rounder label's rock-inclined Zoë imprint. "Those audiences have been very supportive . . . they're very warm to new performers and interested in hearing people who can write good songs. There's more of a grassroots network of clubs and promoters in the folk world too, which is more supportive for touring. It's cheaper and easier to tour in smaller venues to promote your records than touring with a full band and playing pop-music venues."

The flip side is that those same audiences and promoters tend to impose conditions on their love. "They tend to be very critical and are very protective of the identity of the music they like," offers James O'Brien, a Jamaica Plain-based singer and guitarist who lives a triple life in the regional folk world. He's in the early stages of a promising career as a performer. He's the booking agent for Worcester's Java Hut. And he's a volunteer at Harvard Square's historic Club Passim, where he has a hand in production, publicity, and management.

"Scrutiny was a real consideration when I moved from being a solo acoustic performer, with just my voice and guitar, to a duo with a drummer," he recounts. "Without a lot of time passing, I was receiving the opinions of people who'd seen us saying, `We think this works, but we're not sure about that. We'll see how it develops.' Most people, when they find a performer they like, are just looking for the same experience whenever they see them. If you start as a solo artist and suddenly add another piece, and then another, it changes the parameters of the performance. It changes the flow and intimacy level. People like to see a unique performance that presents some sense of the time and space they're in, and if that gets compromised in some way, that is probably the kiss of death for a folk performer. Nonetheless, you can't play the same set every night like a rock band might on tour. Folk audiences want a performance from an artist that applies to the room they're in and the night they're in it, and yet they want there to be something familiar and consistent about it too."

Patty Griffin

Bill Morrissey, another Newport veteran, is the poet laureate of New England folk music, with nine albums on Rounder's Philo label. He observes that "for a scene that blossomed in the '60s, when everything was about change, folk audiences are a conservative group. They want all the work to be done for them rather than to be challenged. And there are some songwriters, who I won't name, who have learned to play that card. I mean, I've been doing this for 35 years, so I can hear what these performers are doing. I know the chord changes that work, and these guys will play 'em every time because they know it's safe as milk. I wouldn't pay to hear that, but plenty of people do. Give me somebody who's going to go for a weird guitar line or put different voicings on their chords."

Folk radio and record labels are also conservative, according to Morrissey. "What gets the most airplay for me is songs where there's me and a bass player, and the more progressive shows play some other things. The album I did in New Orleans with a horn section, [1996's] You'll Never Get to Heaven, probably got the least airplay."

With a chuckle, Morrissey recounts the time he told one of the owners of his record label that he was interested in making an album with the rock group Morphine. "His face just drained of all color. He was horrified. `How could we market that?' "

Indeed, any blurring of genres or categories seems to confuse or at least alienate music-business professionals, whether they're selling CDs, radio advertising or club admissions. What's ironic is that today's performers have been exposed to a wider variety of music than ever before, from Bulgarian female choirs to Arabic rai to rusty-tractor blues and the sleek sonic tinkerings of electronic ambient music. And musicians are almost by definition intrigued by unfamiliar sounds -- sometimes enough to experiment with them. Thus the lines are constantly crossed.

Today, even the term "folk music" has taken on a different context. When people talk about contemporary folk musicians, they usually mean singer-songwriters and are referring to artists closer in spirit to Dylan's full-band approach than to Woody Guthrie's lone-wolf troubadouring. But "folk music" most accurately describes traditional acoustic music, where longstanding sounds and ways of singing and playing are the backbone of its identity. And it's within that realm that resistance to change dies hardest.

"That's a fact of life," says Rounder co-founder Marian Leighton-Levy. "Change is problematic in any traditionally based art form, whether it's a bluegrass band that has the audacity to add drums or something else. There's a perception among certain fans that you are selling out if you don't strictly adhere to the rules they conceive of as defining your idiom. Years ago, the idea of women like Alison Krauss and Laurie Lewis leading bluegrass bands would have been inconceivable because it was such a male-dominated field. You could call that sexism, but I don't think that, traditionally, bluegrass fans think of it that way. Right now Natalie MacMaster has developed a way of playing and arranging her music that's taking Canadian fiddle-based music to a larger audience, and I'm certain she encounters some resistance from her traditional fan base." Leighton considers this philosophical tug-of-war between artists and a segment of their fans as "part of the creative tension that exists when you're playing any form of traditionally based music and are trying to move forward as an artist."

But as Amy Ray's experiences attest, evolution can be prickly even for singer-songwriters working in contemporary styles. In the course of several interviews for this essay, Patty Griffin's 1998 album Flaming Red (A&M) came up as a kind of case study. To my ears -- conditioned to rock, jazz, blues, folk, country, electronic music, and all variants of godawful or God-blessed noise -- it's a beautiful and daring recording that blends smart, articulate songwriting with lovely and at times almost psychedelic electric textural music. Yet it's a soccer ball in the world of singer-songwriters, booted about the field of opinion by fans and foes.

"Patty Griffin's first album [1996's Living with Ghosts (A&M)] was very personal and delicate and fell into the mainstream folk audience's lap very comfortably," says O'Brien, who's an astute observer of the singer-songwriter scene. "I got the feeling a lot of the audience took Flaming Red, which was much more electric, almost as a betrayal or reacted with a feeling like having one's child leave. It hurt her numbers, and I think the new album, 1,000 Kisses (Ato), is kind of a band-aid event for her. Perhaps she was injured by the fact that her last record had been rejected and she was left with the option of making a record that will sell." Indeed, 1,000 Kisses does seem like a retrenchment toward her more acoustic sound.

Griffin's publicist said she was busy working on new recordings and thus unavailable for comment, but others offered their thoughts. Veteran Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, who has had little trouble crossing the borders of acoustic and electric music over the decades (and who'll play the Newport festival next Sunday), calls Flaming Red "exceptional" but wonders whether audiences weren't confused by the contrast with Living with Ghosts, or whether something as ephemeral as timing wasn't a factor. "Sometimes it can be as simple as that, at least that's what I've observed over 30 years of doing this. That's the sort of problem you solve with time. You carry on, and after a while people figure out, `Oh yeah, Patty does this, and she does that.' If you have a track record of a half-dozen albums and you make a change, you'll lose some people but probably gain some new fans, and it will all kind of even out in the end. But if you're new, it's riskier. When all the people who supported you when you arrived as an unknown hear you do something new that they weren't expecting, then there's a problem."

Cockburn's observation can, however, also apply to well-established artists. Suzanne Vega's 1987 album Solitude Standing (A&M) propelled her to the apex of the singer-songwriter scene. The single "Luka" hit #3 on the pop charts and the album sold more than a half-million copies. A remix single and album of "Tom's Diner" further enhanced her pop credibility. Five years later, when Vega embarked on two sonically experimental CDs with producer Mitchell Froom, 99.9[[ring]]F and Nine Objects of Desire (both on A&M), neither disc achieved that level of success.

But are the failures of artists who try to expand or alter their musical direction the fault of conservative audiences or their own flawed musicianship? Perhaps Vega's albums could have found a better sense of direction within their expanded palette (though, again, I consider them her most interesting work). And Griffin's vocals on Flaming Red might have been higher in its mix, a complaint registered by several sources.

"In general when we talk about singer-songwriters, aren't we dealing with poets who use music?" Geoff Muldaur asks. "And if we're dealing with poets who use music, how musical would you expect them to be in general? Dylan happened to be not only a great songwriter but a great singer, which he's rarely given credit for, and had a kind of musicianship that was really special. A lot of singer-songwriters don't have that sort of musicianship. It takes a human being with a special talent to strike the right balance with this stuff. I mean, you can't throw a bunch of monkeys in a room with typewriters, or, in this case, in a digital studio, and expect something special."

The issue, according to Bob Jones, long-time producer of the Newport Folk Festival, is not so much musical direction as presentation. "What happens is that a singer-songwriter decides they need to step out in some way, and for many of them this means they suddenly need a band, and particularly drums, or that they're going to experiment with sounds on their records. And I think that very many of them have very little concept of how this is supposed to work.

"First, they need to recruit players who are sympathetic to their genre -- who understand that the song has to come through whatever's being played. I've gone to hear numerous singer-songwriters and you can't understand what they're saying. I've told these performers, `If you were a poet, which, basically, you are, you wouldn't write stuff down in a way that people couldn't read. You have to think about the people in your audience the same way. You're telling them something, and you have to understand how to do it in a way that they can understand you.'

"The ones who are apt to get away with trying things in different ways are incredibly strong singers who can overpower whatever else is around them, like Melissa Ferrick or Ani DiFranco. They just power ahead, but eventually they also need to learn all the other elements of what it takes to make great music and put together the right band.

"A master of that is Lucinda Williams. In my mind, she has learned the whole process, from recording to really singing to knowing exactly which instruments and which players are right to play with her."

Indeed, DiFranco and Williams in particular have shown their ability to bring audiences along on all of their artistic journeys, whether the road has led to dalliances with hip-hop, solo performances, rocking bands, subtle country arrangements, or dusty pit stops in blues and alternative rock. So has Dar Williams, who plays Newport on Sunday. Her star has continued to rise as she's toughened her lyrics and diversified her sound with such flourishes as Hammond B-3 organ and banjo and strengthened the role and the volume of her rhythm section, which is especially stomping on last year's Out There Live (Razor & Tie).

Williams believes that risking relationships with audiences, radio, and other supporters may be unavoidable -- a requirement, perhaps, of artistry. "In this era, we are encouraged to stick to one label, to adhere to one path or belief. After September 11, I've even come to believe there's something very anti-terrorist about figuring out who you are within your work and life and trying to create a live-and-let live environment as you move forward. And you hope that other people will move with you, or at least understand where you're going. In a sense, I think that an artist who tries to grow and shares that with the world, as opposed to accepting what's expected of them or jumping on a commercial bandwagon, is really making a statement, which is what artists are supposed do."

Issue Date: July 25 - 31, 2002