Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Musical Tradition of Storytelling

Most of the content on this website tends to be focused on New York—a choice that makes a lot of sense, as all of the [tk]ers live and work here, and since New York is currently the heart of the publishing world.

Recently, however, Jessica flew out to San Francisco and wrote a blog post about the literary culture thriving there. This weekend, I’m headed to San Francisco myself (and for me, this more or less means going home), but it’s not to visit publishing houses or survey the magazine and journal culture there. Still, I’d like to tell myself that it’s something of a literary journey. I’m going to the tenth anniversary of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, for what promises to be a jet-lagged and intoxicating three days of music.

The first time I went to the festival was in 2005, when I was beginning my junior year of college. It was five years old then, and I mostly went to see Gillian Welch. I remember her performance clearly—or was it the next year’s?—and the moment when she looked out at the foggy meadow in Golden Gate Park and declared it “gothic.” What I don’t remember are any of the other performances, and that’s embarrassing. Looking at the archived schedule now, it’s a knockout: Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Joan Baez, Robert Earl Keen, Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash. Some people I’m excited about—Tim O’Brien—and others my boyfriend is excited about, like Laura Cantrell. (At the time, he was just a friend on whom I had a miserable crush.) Anyway, I’m pretty sure we skipped the second day of the festival and spent the first camped on Gillian Welch’s field for hours and hours, missing some great music, and fine storytelling, along the way.

We went again the next year, this time as a couple, and this time for both days. My sister joined us one day; on another, my boyfriend and I quarrelled, leaving me pouting near the entrance to the meadow while he, wisely, watched a performance by Earl Scruggs. Never again—I hope.

Since then, I’ve learned more about folk music, although I’m still more ignorant than some, and more about concertgoing as well. This weekend, I’ll still gravitate toward bigger names, but this time "bigger names" means not missing out on Doc Watson or Ralph Stanley, both legends. Most of the people who performed in 2005 will be there this weekend, along with some new names—the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings—and some musicians who are indeed “hardly strictly bluegrass,” MC Hammer among them. Patti Smith will be there; so will Elvis Costello; so will Conor Oberst. I’ll try to attend some smaller concerts when I can, mostly in the morning, by bands I haven’t heard of. I won’t bring a blanket, which, to me, only brings frustration as the meadow grows increasingly crowded. I’ll travel light, moving quickly from concert to concert and grabbing five minutes of extra music in the intervals between staggered shows. I’ll look forward to dinners in the Mission at night. I’ll see friends—and it’s funny that friends from college and high school are planning to go independently, signalling just how much the festival has exploded in the last five years (as it had, apparently, in the five years before that)—and hopefully family too, but I won’t let their tastes keep me from seeing the performers I choose.

That’s what I’ve learned about (happy) concertgoing in the last five years. In that time, I’ve seen Welch (and her reversed band with Dave Rawlings, the Dave Rawlings Machine) perform at least five times. I remedied my missed Scruggs show by going to see him in New York. I’ve seen Oberst (with or without the Monsters of Folk) twice; Fountains of Wayne twice; Sarah Lee Guthrie twice; Trombone Shorty once; Baez once; Martin Sexton once; Sharon Jones once. This for someone who had never been to a concert before college—and now I’m flying across the country to see them all again.

Why? Because their concerts are always great. Chances are that this will be my last chance to see Doc Watson, and possibly also Ralph Stanley. This weekend, I’ll hear the stories they have to tell. But with these younger musicians, the concerts themselves become the stories. Like the time we saw Fountains of Wayne in New Jersey, in a crowd composed almost entirely of middle-aged businessmen and prepubescent girls, a crowd that exploded when the band played “Stacy’s Mom.” (One teenager near me: “Finally, a song I know!”) Or when fourteen members of the Guthrie family, if I remember correctly, played the Berkshires on Valentine’s Day weekend. Or when Oberst forgot the lyrics of a song in Berkeley’s Greek Theatre, and his band played to mumbling and then silence for an unbearably long time.

Bluegrass—even when it’s hardly strictly so—is a musical tradition of storytelling. It's music to be shared, and this weekend, it will be, likely with a very large crowd. So this weekend promises to be exhausting, overcrowded, overstimulating . . . and terrifically fun. When I come back from San Francisco, I think I’ll have some stories of my own to share.


  1. Ah, I LOVE Martin Sexton, he is a phenomenal storyteller...

    An interesting sidenote: Everyman's Library will be publishing a collection of Leonard Cohen lyrics as a Pocket Poet book. Not such a fine line between lyrics and poetry, and Cohen is one of the best...

  2. I didn't know about the Leonard Cohen-- that's really fun.