September-October 2008

The Folk Community

By Barry Smiler

I just got back from the Kindred Gathering. If you play mountain dulcimer maybe you already know about this event. Every summer for the last 34 years, somebody in the dulcimer gang, somewhere on the West Coast, throws something between a big party and a small festival. All sorts of people come from all over the place to hang out, see old friends, eat fabulously good food, and oh yeah play music together. It's nonstop Great Stuff going on from early morning till way later than I stay up any more.

This year it was in California for a change, so I could get there. It had been quite a while for me, and things change, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Long story short, I had a great time. I was made welcome by old friends and met many new ones. Much sharing on many levels. To me, events like this, and the lovely people there, are what all this folk stuff is all about. But what is it exactly?

Sure, the music was great. There were some wonderful jams and sessions, and the instant-combinations of the Band Scramble came up with a lot of delightful tunes, including a few that were nothing short of incredible. But it wasn't the music alone that made it so good.

The setting was pretty great too. This year it was along the Northern California coast, in the redwoods, near the beach. Spectacular scenery and beautiful weather. Lots of places to stroll or just hang out, sip on homebrewed beer (or homemade sarsaparilla for the younger set), watch the day go by. But it wasn't the setting that did it, either.

In the end, for me, it's the community. You know how some kinds of events have a character of their own? Why is that? Sure, specific events and festivals often have unique elements, after all that's part of the producer's craft, offering things that aren't available from other events, and that's much of the fun and creative part of producing an event in the first place. But see, there's two kinds of unique elements. There's spectacle stuff, and there's people stuff. Spectacle stuff is like ooh and aah and lookit that, wow cool, what a great ride. It's lots of fun. But it's temporary. The not-temporary stuff are the people elements, the parts where you feel all connected to what's going on and everyone else there. Spectacle is cool, but for me, it's the people parts that really make it fly.

Here's an example. Over the years I've learned that I can go to any contradance in the country and I'll feel perfectly at home, because of the kind of people who come, and how gracious they generally are, and how they are willing to treat me kindly even if we've never met before. It's a great feeling and I deeply appreciate the generosity of the community that offers it.

Now, I'm not saying it's all instant family here. I'm reminded of a contradancer whose brother contracted leukemia and put out a plea to the dance community for people to be tested as possible bone marrow donors, which the brother desperately needed. Not one dancer responded. None. Maybe because death was just too icky to contemplate? Hard to say. Perhaps the lesson here is that community generosity has its limits. Well, I suppose so does everything else.

But within those limits, there is certainly something. Here's another story, and in fairness and balance, this is another contradancer story. About ten years ago a woman from Santa Monica wanted to go to the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle. Folklife is a wonderful event ... and wonderfully huge. It's four solid days over Memorial Day weekend, a mile square, two dozen simultaneous stages, and at least a quarter million attendees. With all those people, hotels are booked solid months in advance, and she needed a place to stay. She knew nobody in Seattle so she asked some dance friends if maybe they could help. Sure enough, someone knew someone, and put everyone in touch, and she was promised a place to stay. Mind you, she had no idea where that would be. The plan was that she'd fly up the night before Folklife began, show up that night at the Seattle contradance, find her contact (whom she had never met before), and only then learn where she was staying that night, and for the weekend. When coworkers asked her where she was staying, she told them she had no idea, and they told her she was nuts. Would you fly 1500 miles on that basis? Well, she did, and it all worked out perfectly, and everyone had a great time.

I hadn't been to the Kindred Gathering for a good ten years. Often as not it's in the Pacific Northwest, and between the distance and my far-too-busy life (yeah, I'm working on that) I just hadn't been in way too long. But this year it was in California and I could make it. Even after so long an absence I was remembered, appreciated, and made to feel welcome. As I mentioned above, much generosity both of spirit and of material things. Sure, I'm a former concert producer and I'd had good professional relations with many people there, but that wasn't it. Looking around, everyone was being treated like that, all the time.

What is this thing called community? It's more than just shared interests, shared sensibility. It's a willingness to look out for each other, help each other, acknowledge each other, care for each other. It has its limits, sure, but perhaps part of being in a community is knowing where those limits are. Appreciating peoples' generosity while respecting their right to set boundaries on their generosity, at their own comfort level.

Back in the day, "community" meant the people you lived physically close to, because in those days of limited communication the people you lived near were the ones you knew best. Today, we live in a time when we interact less and less with members of our local physical community, causing concern in some quarters that the connections that bind us as a society are falling apart, and anguishing over where that might lead. What the anguishers miss, I think, is how community is evolving. Our communication-based communities of choice are still going strong, and this quirky beast we call the Folk Community is a perfectly good example.

Humans are social animals. We can't help but look for ways to connect with fellow travelers. Whether on the street, on the dance floor, or on the computer, we are hardwired to seek common ground. The tools we use to seek community may change, but the impulse remains the same. It's easily overlooked, too, because in our culture it's the individual striving for unique achievement that gets all the good press. But where would unique achievement be without the unsung base of community on which it can stand?

So here's to community, be it Folk or whatever else works for you. It's a big part of what makes us who we are, and worth acknowledging for that. Sláinte! Salud! Yeghes da!

Barry Smiler is a former touring musician, retired concert producer, and all around great guy. In his doddering senescence he still retains a few opinions, and occasionally offers them in places like this. You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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