Long before Elvis’ hips, Hendrix’s flaming Strat anthems and whatever other oft-cited pop-culture paradigm shifts you cite often, folk music was the genuine voice and vehicle of revolution, an underground news service and a rallying cry. With its well-worn populist forms, folk lends itself to narrative, to the transmission of cultural currents and the safekeeping of experiences and traditions that might otherwise be trampled and forgotten. Folk’s revolutionary calling in the 20th century was paradoxical: the daring to question the inevitability of progress and its hard-sell assumptions of universal betterment. Folk is radical in its critique, reactionary in its prescriptions.
Unlike in pop and rock, change within the mainstream folk music tradition itself does not typically happen via revolution and overthrow. The new generation does not oust the last, which must then sit in social limbo until it comes ripe for retro revival. The old folks come along, as do the grandkids. Change does happen, but more through family accretion and a creeping assimilation of the new – one often met with caution and reserve. Preservation and resistance are enmeshed in the mission of folk music, giving it a rhythm of change somewhat out of sync with the rest of the pop culture.
The second annual Winter Hoot at the Ashokan Center offers up a focused and thoughtfully curated lineup of new folk luminaries and Catskill stalwarts, most with local connections and national credentials. The Hoot’s organizers, the Americana duo Mike + Ruthy, have crafted this roster with a kind of cultural perfect pitch, balancing tradition and innovation in a way that expresses folk and roots music’s complex and somewhat counterintuitive relationship with tradition and change.
Often in folk, the way forward is back, and this is its chief difference from its cousin, the country music genre. When 21st-century country music kids want to hip up and relevate, they gate the snares, crank the amps and explore the judicious use of the vocoder and jingoistic rapping, aiming for the now and finally arriving, after much study, to the early 1990s. But in folk, young acts often explore new ground by reaching further into the past for “fresh” – meaning older, weirder and less familiar – source materials, icons and identities.
And you end up with more delicious folk paradox. Consider Mike + Ruthy themselves, whose whispery close harmonies are deployed atop all manner of folk, blues and jangle pop settings. At this stage of their career, they are closer to the old guard than to New Wave; but in their sound, they come off like the progressives and the fusionists, the assimilators and pop conspirators of this scene – whereas some of the younger acts on the bill seem to have arrived straight from the hills via time machine or Alan Lomax’s field mics.
The Hoot’s three days give us Mike + Ruthy as well as their progenitor, Jay Ungar, and Molly Mason; music for kids by Grammy-nominated Elizabeth Mitchell and music by kids, the ubiquitous kids of Paul Green’s Rock Academy; winking, stylized roots rummaging by Brooklyn’s the Sweetback Sisters; and the earnest, earthy acoustic folk of the young men in North Carolina’s Deep Chatham.
In addition to three days of music, find local food and beer, a community farmers’ market, guided hikes and blacksmith classes (provided by Ashokan Center environmental educators), an Environmental Fair, crafts and much more. The event is a fundraiser for the Ashokan Center’s Environmental Education programs for regional schools. Proceeds help kids attend programs in nature, history, music and art. The Hoot is only in its second season, but it is heir to the lasting legacy of Catskill roots music and to the folk music tradition of activism, community and resistance.
Winter Hoot, February 7-9, $45, kids 12 & under/volunteers free, onsite lodging available, Ashokan Center, 477 Beaverkill Road, Olivebridge; www.homeofthehoot.com.