I began my formal performing career at age 11 during the Hootenanny Craze of the 1960s. I sang and banged percussion in a “baby Kingston Trio” as the opening act of hootenannies that straddled the Mississippi in Iowa and Illinois. Pretty heady stuff at the time, though I now understand that it was because we were cute more than good. Our limited repertoire drew from traditional Appalachian and Caribbean fare covered by the likes of Pete Seeger– even Dylan hadn’t yet made a real dent in the genre. My folk flirtation ended– as did the Hootenanny Craze– with the invasion of this little British combo called The Beatles, and I squandered my teenage years drumming in bad garage bands.
Fast forward: I picked up a guitar at age 30, started writing songs and more recently entering them in contests. I was recently chosen as a finalist for one held at the Great River Folk Festival in LaCrosse, one of the larger regional events of its kind. It was one of the first of its ilk I’d attended since my “If I Had a Hammer” days– and my, how things have changed. For openers, three-chord songs don’t cut it any more. Even my seven-chord “Dear Mother” sounded rather rudimentary next to the studied compositions of some competitors. While I’ve always considered myself more of a lyricist, hearing their licks made me want to check out of life as I know it and immerse myself in music theory classes– and many more hours of practice. And the festival headliners like instrumental monsters Peter Oshtrushko and Dean Maguire drew inspiration not so much from Pete Seeger as from another outpost in the solar system.
I guess it all boils down to what Louis Armstrong reflected when asked if he played folk music: “I guess so; I play music for folks. Ain’t never heard a horse play the trumpet.” Check out a modern-day folk festival sometime, you may be surprised. And no, I didn’t win– but I sure learned.