June 15, 2016

Bringing Folk Back to Norfolk

by Jim Newsom

Once upon a time there was the ODU Folk Festival. For fourteen years beginning in 1972, Old Dominion University teamed up with the organization now known as Tidewater Friends of Acoustic Music to bring together regional acoustic acts, nationally known folkies and roots music artists before there was a name for the genre. In the mid ‘80s, Festevents rechristened it the Norfolk Folk Festival and put it on at Waterside and Town Point Park for the next few years.

Paul Bidanset is too young to remember that history. But he and his band Brackish Water Jamboree are recapturing the old spirit for a new era with the 2016 Norfolk Folk Festival at O’Connor Brewing on Saturday, July 2nd.

“We’ve got this fantastic local folk community,” he told me recently, “passionate people who are genuinely interested in music. I was thinking there’s a whole lot of talent around here and a whole lot of folks that enjoy this type of music. Why not corral them all together and also go to some others who aren’t aware of this kind of music. I know how much it’s altered my life coming into this kind of music. I used to play drums in a rock band and now I’m playing banjo!”

The festival will feature a dozen acts spanning the breadth of acoustic music, with Dom Flemons, cofounder of the Grammy winning Carolina Chocolate Drops, topping the bill. He and his former band were a major force in the resurgence of roots music, music played on real instruments by people with real, unaltered human voices.

“I’m glad about that,” he said in a recent telephone conversation. “I see more young people coming around. Now that we’re no longer the fresh faces out there, it’s kinda nice to be somebody in the history books but still be moving, still be very young compared to everybody that I learned from.

“If you turn on the radio, you’ve got to turn on the classic rock station to hear instruments for the most part. Most of it is divas, hip hop is electronic music. I think it is novel for some people to see one person onstage doing their thing. I started my career being of the mindset that bands are what’s selling, but now I see the opposite happening in some degree.”

Flemons was a percussionist in his school band in Phoenix, Arizona, but started playing guitar and harmonica as a teenager.

“At first I was trying to do stuff like the singer-songwriters of the early ‘70s,” he said. “I have a degree in English so I did a lot of different types of writing. But I thought I’d give up on writing because I’m not gonna be a Paul Simon or a Smokey Robinson. But after that, I started finding song styles. I took some blues, some early rock and roll. I took a bunch of different forms and tried to sound like that. I write the words out and then try and find a form that makes sense for it.”

Dom Flemons calls himself “the American Songster.” He explained what that means:

“A songster, in the tradition, is someone who plays a variety of music for the different communities that they’re there for. I first heard the term in a book by Paul Oliver called Songsters and Saints. He described the term as something that applied to musicians who did styles of music that predated the blues. Like Leadbelly, who is someone I heard through Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. He was a songster. I also started hearing Mississippi John Hurt, Mance Lipscomb, Lightning Hopkins; then in the ‘20s there was Papa Charlie Jackson, Henry Thomas, Jim Jackson, Peg Leg Powell. These were guys on the fringes of blues scholarship, but their songs I found more interesting.

“Then I ran into the Blue Ridge Institute’s music, the non-blues secular black music album with early banjo songs. I didn’t really know much more about it until 2005 when I went to the Black Banjo Gathering. And all of a sudden I found where all of those guys took string band music and transitioned to guitar based blues. Then you add horns to it, and you get the early jazz that Jelly Roll Morton talks about. So I brought all of those things together in my work, trying to make a nice combination of sounds and styles. I write things, I’ll do traditional ones or rearrange old numbers; I try to keep a nice patchwork.”

The Norfolk Folk Festival promises a nice patchwork of music as well. With a little help from a lot of friends, Paul Bidanset envisions a day for “celebrating the music and the community that we have, growing it to folks who aren’t aware of it, and putting Norfolk and Hampton Roads as more of a contender for national acts. It would be great to get some momentum going, and what better way to do it!”

Norfolk Folk Festival
Saturday, July 2 – O’Connor Brewing Company
Featuring Dom Flemons and
Brackish Water Jamboree – Zak Vincent – Acredale – Dikon & Vallet – Seph Custer – Logan Vath – Troy Breslow – Gratiot Lake Road – Two Dollar Bill Band – The Whiskey Wells – Mountaintide

copyright © 2016 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.