GOT FOLK?

TEN YEARS OF FOLKWORKS

By Ross Altman

If you are an opera fan, you pretty much know who your friends are: devotees of Puccini, Mozart, Verdi, and if you are an American, George Gershwin. You also know who your favorite singers are: Pavarotti, Domingo, Carrera, Maria Calas, and if you’re an American, Kathleen Battle and Joan Sutherland; and you know where the great venues are: La Scala, The Met, and the LA Opera House.

But if you are a folk fan, you could live in a musical world uninhabitable by others who would also consider themselves folk music fans—with no interest in what you call “folk.” Singer/songwriters, for example, consider themselves to be playing folk; but old-time musicians can play for hours and never sing a song—nor would they refer to it as folk, but rather traditional music. Ask a folklorist what it is, though, and they will have no problem telling you it is “real folk music”—i.e., transmitted orally, passed down from generation to generation within well-defined communities, and found in many variants resulting from “the folk process.”

But don’t ask them about Bulgarian folk music—they would then refer you to an “ethnomusicologist”—someone who studies the folk music of other cultures than the Anglo or African-American one they were born into.

That is what makes L.A.’s free folk magazine FolkWorks stand out even among such publications as Sing Out!, Dirty Linen, and Emily Friedman’s late Chicago-based Come For to Sing: for FolkWorks truly covers the waterfront—with feature articles, columns, interviews and a multi-dimensional calendar that embrace the totality of folk music, dance and storytelling. In a typical issue FolkWorks will range from international folk ensembles to classic old-time fiddlers, contemporary singer-songwriters (recently featured at Folktacular), local cowboy bands, hobo minstrels, storytelling festivals and a wide array of contradance, folk dance and world music events that make Los Angeles a microcosm of the global village.

Got Folk? Now in their tenth year and counting, FolkWorks has answered yes. Rooted in the connections with the local contradance, old-time and Irish music communities, the branches quickly grew to include other ethnic dances, jams, storytelling, sing-alongs, open mics and concerts, (from house concerts to Performing Arts Centers) and, of course, the festivals and free summer series, all of which FolkWorks lists in its expanded calendar of Folk Happenings in Southern California. Does the LA Times or LA Weekly cover folk? Rarely will you find a listing for Bluegrass or Old-Time, for Celtic, Klezmer, African, not to mention all the dancing – Contra, International, Cajun, Hungarian, Scandinavian and more. All of these are listed in the FolkWorks calendar—. But Steve and Leda soon realized the need to surround it with a genuine magazine to address all of these folk constituencies, with CD reviews, a variety of columns exploring the backgrounds and personalities of their performers, interviews and feature articles that would weave—in “Banjo Fred” Starner’s lovely phrase—a patchwork quilt of folk themes and streams.

January, 2001 may not have seemed a propitious time to start a folk magazine: Just a month before Alan Stone laid out their first issue, KPFK cancelled Howard and Roz Larman’s 31-year old show Folkscene—which required a little rebellion to eventually reinstate. Indeed, in their very first issue editor/publishers Leda and Steve Shapiro weighed in with a mission-defining editorial on behalf of the show: Folk Music is “the People’s” music. It is about the trials and tribulations of ordinary people…It is about the real joys of life, not the sugar coated pabulum that we are handed by the corporate media. It is the music of Stan Rogers, Kate Wolf, U. Utah Phillips, Pete Seeger, Dougie MacLean, Solas, Liz Carrol, Bill Monroe as well as the music of the not so well known; people getting together and jamming because they love the music; people playing for dances and people dancing.

Despite the Wicked Tinkers’ Warren Casey’s warning, “Don’t you know that Folk Music is illegal in Los Angeles?” what neither of them may have quite realized, was that FolkWorks was an idea whose time had come. There was a genuine community waiting to rally round this flagship publication—the Country Dance and Song Society who provided them non-profit status beneath its umbrella, graphic designer and layout artist Alan Stone, distributor Stan Smith (who faithfully picked up every bi-monthly issue of 12,000 copies in his pickup truck and shlepped them over to their Sherman Oaks garage), logo creator Tim Steinmeier and more writers than you could fit on the Left Bank.

You will meet many of them in this special summer issue—both new acquaintances and old friends.

Steve and Leda Shapiro found a way to marry the marvel of modern computer technology to a very old-fashioned passion for the written word, and ten years later FolkWorks, like the Little Engine That Could, is still chugging along. Though now primarily an e-zine every once in a while old ghosts of literary magazines past still haunt their dreams and whisper to them at 3:00 in the morning, “Don’t you want to hold me in your arms again? It’s time for one more hard copy. Call the printer!”

Dear Reader, as FolkWorks enters its second decade, you may count on one thing: No one bailed us out; no one had to organize a tea party to protest our being taken over by big government; and, though occasionally tempted, no one could quite bring themselves to pull the plug. We the people who love folk music, dance and storytelling, with Leda and Steve at the helm, kept this going.

Perhaps we were too small to fail. Or perhaps love pulled us through. As Bill Staines wrote, “So here’s a song for all the lovers, here’s a tune that they all can share, may they dance all night to the fiddle and the banjo, the way we did at the Roseville Fair.”

Ross Altman may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. You can see him at: Gelencser House Concert Series in Claremont, Saturday, July 17, 7:30pm This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.