For 4 days in February an estimated 4000 mostly acoustic guitars convened in Kansas City, perhaps the largest gathering of acoustic guitars in the world that weekend. They were joined by an array of other “folk” instruments including dobros, fiddles, harmonicas, mandolins, bass fiddles, banjos, the occasional cello and two wayward buzukis (or bouzouki if you prefer) who claimed kinship. It was a fine group accompanied by an array of caretakers, devotees and operators, i.e. players. Most of these performers were also singers and it all made for a joyous sound.
The reason for this august gathering was the 2023 Folk Alliance International (FAI) conference. FAI is an industry conference with no public invited; it is musicians, DJ’s, people who book festivals, clubs and concerts, and other related folks. It is musicians playing for other musicians, so they are doing it mostly for fun. They are not getting paid to do it and, in fact, the musicians have to pay to be there.
Adding to the fun aspect is that this is a gathering of friends and colleagues who are often so busy touring and creating that they don’t see each other that often. As a result there is a lot of spontaneous music. Trading riffs is as common as handshakes were before the great lockdown. Music is not confined to showcase rooms. It happens in hallways, corners, lobbies – everywhere. A particularly coveted location is the stairwell. Perhaps it is the vertical shaft that makes for such interesting acoustics but it is definitely not to be missed. Just pull up a stair tread and hum or play along.
Personally and musically the attendees are as diverse as the instruments. Six of the seven continents were represented encompassing 30 or more countries. It is ostensibly a “folk music” conference but the definition of folk is fluid and vague and that is a good thing. The musical genres represented span country to hip hop, blues to jazz, Québécois to world and a wide spectrum of the folk/Americana idiom. At the core, it is all folk music, meaning music of the people.
While the music and sense of community is wonderful and fun there is something much deeper going on. That sense of community is built on a shared and sharing of history and, like the music, the sharing of this history takes many forms. To gain an understanding of this the best place to start is with the Wisdom of the Elders panel where some of the more experienced members of the community share their wisdom, their struggles, their successes and their scars. As the conference progresses you can learn about the Black Banjo Movement – the effort by black musicians to reclaim the banjo as an historically African-American instrument.
But you will hear the banjo in every genre of folk-related music from Appalachian to traditional, folk to jazz and even in some “experimental” folk. The banjo seems to have become a victim of the culture wars but it is not a Black instrument or a White instrument, it is a people’s instrument.
A different take on history is from the Rev. Robert B Jones Sr, taking you through the development of popular music from blues to boogie woogie to gospel to rock and roll to R&B to hip hop, all based on the same three chords and five notes.
A more traditional approach are the songs that recount historical events. When these events are written in books or related in stories they seldom stay with the listener for long, but a compelling story set to a catchy tune or evocative melody will be sung and passed along and will linger with the audience. Listen to Joe Jencks relate the history of the Winnipeg strike of 1919, or Queen Ester visiting the hollowed ground of the Gettysburg battlefield, or Cary Morin describing the history of the Crow nation. Music keeps history alive. More people will remember “We Shall Overcome” then Taylor Branch’s trilogy on Dr. King.
Perhaps most importantly, music can be a tool to change history, the history we are creating every day. Songs can call out social wrongs and push us to make the changes needed for a more just and human world, as Kelley Hunt does in Bright lights
Such songs are a cry for shared humanity. Four thousand guitars can’t be wrong.
Ron Cooke is the author of a book of short stories and poems entitled Obituaries and Other Lies (available at Amazon); writes a well-received blog (ASSV4U.com/blog); and hosts a weekly radio show called Music They Don’t Want You to Hear on KTAL-LP in Las Cruces, NM. He is also a founding director of A Still Small Voice 4U, a not for profit supporting arts, culture and community that presents folk concerts, sponsors artists, festivals and community groups. Ron is an avid cyclist, racer, blogger, sculptor and ne’er-do-well.
Folk Alliance International Conference 2023
The Largest Gathering of Guitars in the World?