Happy Birthday: The Nor-FOLK Festival Turns One

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A year ago today, there wasn't a single car in the parking lot of Norfolk's O'Connor Brewing Co. Despite a very wet prognosis, the clouds took a break from giving Hampton Roads a thorough, week-long soaking. That July sun made for an ironic— and welcomed—relief.

What the parking lot was filled with: 10x10 pop-up tents housing banjo makers, artisan vendors, beer pourers, beer drinkers, and, throughout the course of the day, over 2,000 roots music fans. Fourteen bands with fiddles, banjos, mandolins, and acoustic guitars performed on two stages (one inside and one outside). The inaugural event culminated with a powerful performance by Grammy-winning Dom Flemons (former and founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) and his musical partner/multi-instrumentalist Brian Farrow.

If it sounds like it can't get any better, the event was completely free and family friendly. 

Why was this festival founded?

We play in a Hampton Roads-based string band called Brackish Water Jamboree. A stranger on the street would probably describe us as "bluegrass," but we usually tell people we play "old-time" (unless you actually play or listen to old-time music. If that's the case, we'll tell you we play "Americana").

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We founded this festival for a few reasons:

  1. To promote banjos and fiddles in eastern VA. There's not a lot of that going on in this corner of the state. VA has a rich musical heritage that we believe needs to be promulgated. We want to share this heritage with our native and transplanted neighbors and friends. 

  2. To bring more touring roots-music acts to Hampton Roads. For a touring band, Norfolk is an expensive little nook to get to. Assuming no tunnel traffic, we're at best a 3-hour out-of-the-way stop for an act on an i95-run throughRichmond, D.C., Baltimore, Philly, or New York. By helping to grow awareness and demand for roots music, we hope to make Norfolk a contender for more national roots-music acts.

  3. As a band, we've experienced rich relationships we've met performing roots music (both with and for). Brotherly-love, though it can at times seem scarce these days, is alive and well in the roots music scene. We want to foster and grow this among musicians and the audience alike. We want to introduce you to your next favorite band, or your next best friend, and we don't want to charge you for it. Life is hard. Music makes life bearable. Fellowship and music together make life pleasurable. There are enough things you have to pay for and this shouldn't be one of them.

What's different this year?

As we're gearing up for now the 2nd annual NorFOLK Festival (that will take place on August 12th at O'Connor - rain or shine), there's a marked difference in the air, both with regard to the festival offerings, and to the community's excitement and participation. 

  1. We've more than double the amount of bands performing (29 in total) and added a third stage.

  2. We have another internationally-touring headliner: Hackensaw Boys 

  3. We've added banjo and fiddle competitions

  4. The festival now benefits Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters. We never set out to make money on this event. It's completely free. We take 20% of every sponsorship we get and give it directly to the hospital (this year's gracious donors include Davis Law Group PC, Edward Jones, O'Connor Brewing' Co., and Tidewater Bluegrass Music Association). We then host several musical events throughout the year to raise money (admission by donation, and we'll accept pocket lint and spare change). Our costs include a national headliner, regional bands, professional sound companies, videographers, marketing & advertisements, printing, website, and other administrative fees. Any dollar we happen to take in once those are covered goes directly to the hospital.

We're looking forward to the gathering this year, meeting some new friends, and continuing to grow the roots music community in Hampton Roads for years to come. You see the full lineup here, complete with pictures, videos, and audio links. RSVP to the event and like us on Facebook to keep in the know for special giveaways and all of the free roots music events in Hampton Roads. We thank you for your support.

From Banjo to Bajo Sexto: Dan Margolies' International Roots Music Legacy and Free Concert Series

Dr. Dan Margolies is a history professor at Virginia Wesleyan College and though originally from Illinois, he currently calls Norfolk, Virginia his home.  It might not surprise you to learn that someone whose profession is centered around the studying and teaching of yesteryear is so passionate about old time music. But before you typecast him, there are, however, many more interests, pursuits, and accomplishments of Dr. Margolies that likely will surprise you. To briefly mention a few:

He's the founder and Artistic Director of the Festival of Texas Fiddling, which "is the first and only festival dedicated to the full array of ethnic and regional styles of Texas fiddling, all held in a historic dance hall."

He's a clawhammering, banjo-wielding diplomat who's even performed traditional Korean music in Korea

He's a bee man. In addition to raising bees, he's a past president of the Tidewater Beekeepers Association, as well as member of the Beekeepers Guild of Southeastern Virginia. He even created a short-film called Buddha in the Bee Yard for a Buddhist film festival. (He and his banjos provided the soundtrack.)

He's presented public shows with and is currently producing an album for conjunto and tejano music masters Lorenzo Martinez and Ramon “Rabbit” Sanchez.

And he even plays the bajo sexto himself:

With all of those extracurriculars, you wonder how he finds time to teach. One of his courses, “Music and Folk Culture of the Southern Appalachians,” actually sprouted a concert series. In support of the course, Dan founded the Virginia Wesleyan College Old Time Concert Series, now in its 11th year. The 2017 series will begin this week and continue through January. The lineup is as follows:

 

The Easy Winners (Seth Swingle's Full Band)  | Wed., January 11th, 7:30 pm |

Banjo Virtuoso Seth Swingle | Thurs., January 12th, 7:30 pm |

Fiddler and Folklorist Joseph Decosimo | Wed., January 18th, 7:30 pm |

The Sunny Mountain Serenaders | Thurs., January 19th, 7:30 pm |

All concerts are free, open to the public, and held at Virginia Wesleyan College's Blocker Auditorium.

Dan was kind enough to share some background on his musical experiences, and what led to his current musical pursuits, including this concert series.  

Paul Bidanset: How'd you first come into roots music?

Dan Margolies: I grew up in the listening to country and bluegrass, Hank Williams and Bill Monroe, going to bluegrass festivals, and that sort of stuff. So I was familiar with a good amount, but it wasn’t until I was 19 or 20 that I ran across real old hillbilly recordings from the 1920s of B.F. Shelton and Shortbuckle Roark recordings, those were the first two. And that just blew my mind. From there I just started getting as many old recordings as I could This was all pre-internet so it required a lot of digging and sending for things by mail. Got an old Tommy Jarrell LP, and that was it really.  Then a boss of mine, who was a old timey blues player, told me that if I liked the old time stuff I should play it. He gave me a banjo to learn to play and that was that.

PB: What are your thoughts on roots music's importance and role within history and the community?

DM: There is an old saying that old time music is better than it sounds, which I think describes the vibe of the music perfectly. Kind of indicates how important and meaningful the whole community of old time musicians is, and how vital the associated and ineffable old timey stuff that goes with music is as well. The singularity and weirdness of it. It is a real diaspora of people in the middle of the homogenizing mass culture we find ourselves, not to mention the toxic environment mainstream society is descending into at the moment. On top of that, I am a big believer in regional distinctiveness and in fostering the sustainability of traditional cultures, especially distinctive music cultures. This is a handcrafted effort of people creating something real.  Cultures get sustained because people make an effort and they participate and become involved. Playing music and joining a real community of people rather than just consuming or living one’s life in front of the internet or merely swiping at social media like a rodent. Also, I like the idea of bringing old time music to Tidewater since there is basically none of it and there needs to be.

PB: How did you become so involved in the Texas folk music scene, working with such prominent conjunto musicians?

DM: I spend a lot of time in Texas because it is the home of conjunto music, which I play and which I also write about. I have written several articles about it and am working on a book on conjunto music and cultural sustainability. I have been working with Santiago Jimenez, Jr., one of the great traditional accordionists, for a number of years on his memoir. I have done a number of projects as a consultant with Texas Folklife in Austin over the past few years. I started the Festival of Texas Fiddling in 2014, working initially under a partnership of two organizations, Texas Folklife and Texas Dance Hall Preservation, Inc. We ran the festival in that way for two years and now the Festival has become a stand alone non profit running independently. The Festival of Texas Fiddling is the only one in Texas dedicated to the full array of regional and ethnic fiddling styles in the state. It is a great time with some of the best music in the world, you should come down for it. Finally, I am also producing a cd of old school conjunto from two master musicians (also my mentors and friends) Lorenzo Martinez (accordion) and Rabbit Sanchez (bajo sexto) for Spring Fed Records in Tennessee. This is the first conjunto release for the label, which mostly has released old time music. This cd will be out in February. We are having release shows in Austin and San Antonio in February and in Nashville in March.

PB: Are there any common links you've noticed between old time, American folk, or Appalachian and that of Tejano and conjunto?

DM: Without any doubt Texas-Mexican conjunto music must be placed as one of the principal vernacular folk musics of the United States, alongside Appalachian old time music, Cajun and Zydeco music, blues, jazz, bluegrass, and western swing.  Conjunto is the least known of the Southern music styles that also came to commercial prominence in the first decades of the twentieth century, and it is one which has never fully been incorporated into this canon either in the marketplace, in the U.S. popular mindset, or in the scholarly literature. I think the absence is mostly due to a combination of ethnocentrism and ignorance.  Unlike those other genres, conjunto has remained very regional and it remains an extremely vibrant music and dance tradition.

Dan Margolies will be performing with his band Los Abejas del Norte at Brackish Water Jamboree's second annual NorFOLK Festival, Saturday, August 12th, on the grounds of O'Connor Brewing Co.

Dom Flemons Talks Influences (Even Ben Folds), His Beginnings, and the Importance of Roots Music

I first saw Dom Flemons perform at a sit-down listening room outside of DC - captivated, of course, by the authenticity of his sound and the absolute raw and boisterous entertainment coming from just one single man on a stage. He could've been joined by an entire marching band and it wouldn't have risen the energy, excitement, and utter awe of the performance one iota. I thought I was a fan before, but man, after the show, I was born anew. To top it all off, his humility and kindness while greeting fans sets him apart on an entirely different level. He even gave me a banjo lesson on my shoulder...

Needless to say, I was very excited when it turned out he was headlining our inaugural Norfolk Folk Festival (joined by multi-instrumentalist and musical partner Brian Farrow). You don't get many chances to ask such specific questions to an idol.  We hope you enjoy the answers as much as we enjoyed the questions! Without further adieu, Mr. Flemons: 

Paul Bidanset: Many teenage musicians first cut their teeth in high school garage bands,  banging drums and strumming power chords. How did you ultimately come to perform roots music and what initially drew you to it? 

Dom Flemons: The way I came to roots music was a long strange journey.  I started out like anyone a fan of a certain type of music that moved my spirit.  I saw a documentary on TV called “The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and it really opened my mind up to a lot of different types of music.  I saw film of all of these wonderful performers of the past from Louis Jordan and Muddy Waters to Carl Perkins and Jimi Hendrix.  I became a huge Chuck Berry fan.  I became a fan of the Beatles and Tom Petty.  I was also drawn to Bob Dylan’s music and the folk music scene in the early 1960’s.  As I went through high school and all the way through college, I collected records and played in the local coffeehouses in my home state of Arizona. 

I’ve always kept a broad collection of music with me.  Genre lines are important for buying records.  I would hate to have a store that had one bin that just said “Music” on it and leave you to scramble for the record you are looking for.  Yet, after the purchases were made, I found a lot of enjoyment in listening to all of these different schools of thought.  Different voices.  I’ve always love to hear a unique voice in a singer.  As I got into the older styles of music I was attracted to the unique voices of people like Charlie Patton and Howlin’ Wolf.  I also enjoyed Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams.  

As I got into college I got into Alan Lomax’s field recordings.  Not just the ones from the United States but the ones from the UK and Italy.  They had those in my college library.  I got into beat poetry and became a slam poet for several years performing at two national poetry slams.  After doing poetry for a while, I had an inkling to get back into music and that transition landed me into the world of 1920’s and 1930’s blues, hillbilly, jazz and jug band music.  Shortly after I become engrossed in this amazing music I went to a conference on the black and African roots of the banjo, The Black Banjo Gathering of 2005, and I had found my purpose.  I saw that the early songsters I had studied up to that point from Leadbelly to Henry Thomas and Papa Charlie Jackson had been underrepresented in most scholarship up to that point and I wanted to connect the dots I made with the Black Banjo community that placed them in a different context.  I saw that black folk music and white folk music of the 19th century were interrelated and the people who were influenced by these early artists reached back to the folk singers that I first listened to when I was back in high school.

That’s the short version, haha.  As for why I was draw in comes from the fact that roots music presents people’s real voices.  It can be superficial or non-sequitur but at other times it can cut straight to the heart.

PB: While you write and record original songs, the majority of your repertoire consists of your interpretation of traditional numbers and/or songs from the early twentieth century. How would you describe your "mission" as a folk singer? Why is it important that these songs are heard by folks today? 

DF: I pick songs that I think people will enjoy.  That’s first and foremost.  I also pick songs I enjoy as well.  That gives me a space to present my own passion for the music in addition to my own original composition which are based on old styles.  But don’t let it deceive you, I write songs that are not standard compositions.  Try playing one and you will see.  To listen to it may not sound different but it is.  I have to tried to use the influences of the past to understand their styles.  Take WC Handy for example.  He used the folk blues song fragments he heard growing up in Alabama and made compositions that became one of the major ways that blues music became a legitimate music form of the United States.  I’m still early in my career so I don’t know if I will ever achieve the status of someone like Handy but one can always dream.

PB: You started off early in your career with lots of busking and street performances. With your success, you've moved on to large, iconic stages all around the world. Has this street performance origin impacted the way you approach your performance on stage today?

DF: Busking helps a performer understand how to please an audience.  While most times we are taught that it isn’t about that, musical performance is about that no what.  Even if you ignore the audience, you are on stage and that in itself is a statement of performance art. 

But unlike the big rock star stages of the world, busking is on the street corner where you must convince someone to drop some money in your bucket or hat.  People don’t have to do anything for you and when you busk you know this.  Any street performer knows days when the money was great and when it was not.  There are a lot of variables.  When are people out on the street, when do they have money, what songs do they want to hear?  These are things you get to know very fast when you busk.  After getting a couple of days on the street, the pretention of music goes out the door.  You even have to adjust your voice to fit the open street.  Which buildings resonate right and how far do they carry your sound.  How loud to you need to sing.

Finally, how well can you sell your song.  Most times a street performer plays songs people know because people can connect with that.  Original material is hard because you have to sell it for the first time and that can be hard.  I used to do impressions and that caught people’s ears.  They would say, “Wow you sound just like” and drop a dollar into my hat. 

PB: Your friend and musical partner Brian Farrow will be performing with you at the festival. How did you two come to know one another? How has he impacted your approach as a musician and entertainer? 

DF: Brian Farrow!  I met him at a festival I was playing a few years back.  He knew my work and spotted me and asked to jam.  At that moment I was looking for a second person to join me on stage.  Brian was into and he left working with the Hackensaw Boys to work with me.  Though I had hired him to play bass with me, Brian has taken a passion for the fiddle which I have encouraged and feature in the show.  It has been a pleasure to work with such a talented young man.  We have a lot of fun on stage and as Brian has busked on the street a lot himself, he is not afraid to joke around with me while giving the folks the show.

PB: Who would you say your largest two musical influences have been, either living or deceased?

DF: I would say for deceased, Leadbelly.  His voice and 12 string guitar have been an inspiration for since the beginning when Bob Dylan references him on “Song For Woody” his tribute to Woody Guthrie. 

Until recently I would have mentioned my late friend James “Boo” Hanks who was from Buffalo Junction, VA.  He just passed away early this year in 2016.  I learned a lot about fingerpicking from Boo and scatting too if you can believe that.

I could go on and on about these two men but I would recommend folk look up other articles where I talk about them in depth.

PB: You hail from Arizona. What was it about the culture and identity of North Carolina that made you set up your new home there?

DF: I was drawn to the musical traditions of North Carolina from the beginning.  Doc Watson, Bascom Lamar Lundsford, Elizabeth Cotton, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk.  Ben Folds haha!  It has always been a hotbed for music of all kinds not just old-time music.  When opportunity came for me to move out to NC and play music with Joe Thompson I jumped on it.  I also started work on creating the Carolina Chocolate Drops at that time which was a group focused on presenting Joe’s music.  I had admired so many artists from North Carolina it was a no-brainer for me to break new ground in the scholarship of black string bands.  I then found I loved the State as well.  I lived in New York City for several years in Manhattan and Brooklyn but I found NC a great place to come back to cool down from all of the excitement of traveling.  

PB: Are there any VA artists in your record collection?

DF: Tons!  John Jackson!  E.C. Ball!  Gene Vincent!  Archie Edwards!

Virginia is another hotbed of music of all types.  I will mention the Blue Ridge Institute’s “Non-Blues Secular Black Music” record as an early resource for me.  Floyd, VA is an old-time music mecca.  The Carter Family! 

There are a lot of directions to look for the music of Virginia.  Hobart Smith is another one that comes to mind.  Even in the old time music world Joel Walker Sweeney, one of the first blackface minstrel to incorporate the African banjo into his show came from Appomattox, VA which in itself has a heavy history that the music reflects.

PB: Will this be your first time coming to the eastern VA/Hampton Roads area?

DF: I will say that this will be the first time I will be spending some time in the area.  I have come through several times in my travel but like most places I am just passing through going to the next show.  I plan to do a couple of days in the area hitting one of the beaches to chose from and enjoy a bit of the summer time before the touring season picks up again. 

PB: You recently starred in Old Crow Medicine Show's music video for Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer. Was that half as much fun as it looked? How did you end up with that gig?

DF: Funny thing, I have been a fan of Old Crow for years since I was playing back in Arizona.  Since then I‘ve gotten to know the guys and I have opened up for Old Crow about dozen times or so.  I was about to let everyone in my crew go for Thanksgiving 2014 when I get a call from Ketch asking if I wanted to be in their music video.  Knowing that it was going to be a great time I called my crew back to work and we got down to Nashville on two wheels and made that video.  It was a wonderful time! 

PB: For the gear nerds in attendance, what sort of instruments can we expect to see you playing at the festival? (make? model? year?)

DF: Well two of the guitars I keep with me on stage are my ladder braced guitar from Fraulini Guitars.  It is a medium sized parlor body with a regular parlor neck.  I’ve also started bringing out my old Original Hound Dog Resonator that played all the time years ago.  It is still my favorite guitar to play.  I’ll of course bring my good friend Big Head Joe, the giant 6-string guitar-banjo with its 18’ banjo head.  I’ll have harmonicas, bones, quills and few other tricks up my sleeve.

PB: Are there any particular new roots artists on the scene today that you are particularly excited about?

DF: The Americana and acoustic field has expanded so much that its hard to keep up with everything happening in the scene.  Main person I’ve seen that impressed me was the young country blues singer Jontavius Willis.  He has a great sound.  Great player and singer and he is so young I can’t wait to see what he will be up to in a few years.  I dig Willie Watson, Pokey LaFarge.  I saw a fellow named Vadou Game recently that knocked me out.  He’s not acoustic but he has a rooted sound as a musician from Togo in African.

PB: If you had to recommend three "must listen to" artists for a new roots music fan, what would they be?

DF: I would recommend these releases:

Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas

Hank Williams

Chuck Berry

Also the CD set:

Before The Blues v.1-3

Catch Dom headlining the (free)  inaugural Norfolk Folk Festival, Saturday July 2nd, in the parking lot of O'Connor Brewing Company (211 W 24th St, Norfolk, VA 23517)!

Introducing: The NorFOLK Festival

Roots music is always found at the crossroads of music and culture - at the melting pots. The crossroads of Scots-Irish Appalachian settlers (fiddles and guitars) and African Americans (the African-native banjo) resulted oldtime music, with one of its many branches being bluegrass. The crossroads of bluegrass, ragtime, blues, and many other southern and western folk genres, led to country music. It's inherent in its very name: roots music - music that germinated and led to a new sound. 

You could certainly make the case that "roots" is more of an adjective than a genre, but colloquially,  "roots" music in today's American musical landscape more generally refers to music of a bygone era. It's a bit of an umbrella term referring to music that is ingrained with the style and instruments of an earlier, perhaps simpler time. It's a catchall that might refer to bands playing folk, Americana, honky-tonk - the list goes on.  You might see more mandolins than electric guitars, and probably a few more banjos than drum sets. But, we're not here to define what roots music is or what roots music is not - just to give a bit of an "on average" stage setting.

Why the NorFOLK Festival?

Why not, say, Norfolk Roots Festival? Folk means people. Every aspect of this festival is for the people. We can attest firsthand to the amazing musicians in Tidewater and throughout Virginia, and to the high quality friendships and fellowship that come from knowing them . We aim to further bring the community together around this music so people will make memories, forge friendships, and hopefully discover new passions in bands they otherwise wouldn't have heard of, or an instrument they otherwise wouldn't have been motivated to learn ( we'd also be lying if we didn't mention that the wonderful pun of "NorFOLK" didn't play a role in the naming...). Also, because this festival is for the people, admission will be completely free. 

Why Norfolk?

Hampton Roads isn't a big contender for many nationally touring roots music acts. The major corridors don't go through the area, and acts don't always make the trip all the way to our coastal corner. There are certainly some very talented national roots music acts coming to Hampton Roads, but not with the same frequency as to Richmond, Raleigh, or D.C. We'd like to create another reason to bring national talent to the area, and hopefully increase demand in and overall awareness of Hampton Roads as a tour stop for future acts.

The mission of Norfolk Folk Festival is threefold: 

  1. Help foster and facilitate the community of roots music and its fans within Hampton Roads
  2. Recognize and celebrate local and regional roots music performers
  3. Bring national roots music talent to the area

The festival, held July 2, 2016, is presented by Brackish Water Jamboree and hosted on the grounds of O'Connor Brewing. Stay tuned for the lineup.  It's being finalized and should be announced within the coming weeks. We're all very excited. Thank you for reading and we hope to see you out there.

- Paul Bidanset, Founder

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