Folk Alliance International Conference Celebrates The Power Of Song

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John Fullbright performing Friday night at Folk Alliance. Photo by Lynne Margolis

In one of the scariest political climates in our nation’s history, artists and speakers appearing at the 29th annual Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City, Mo., have been trying to provide as much encouragement as possible to each other and anyone hoping to resist the erosion of civil rights in America.

On Friday, that encouragement included “Freedom Sings: the Music They Didn’t Want You to Hear,” a look at how music has been used to protest injustice or ignite social movements throughout our history. It also included a speech by folk singer and activist Ani DiFranco, and a moment in which hundreds of conference participants, fronted by DiFranco and Saturday keynote speaker Billy Bragg, posed for a photo while raising fists and the most popular piece of goodie-bag swag — pocket Constitutions.

Created nearly two decades ago at Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe by presenter Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center and dean of Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Media and Entertainment, the ever-evolving Freedom Sings program featured Kim Richey, Dan Navarro, Jeff Black, Amy Speace and other artists performing classic songs that fueled change.

“A surprising number of moments throughout American history are fueled by the power of music,” Paulson noted. That’s due, in part, because the founding fathers provided us with the constitutional right to free speech and freedom of expression — a right that’s stronger here than in any other country.

It was exercised against the Vietnam war with songs such as Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” sung by Richey, and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” sung by SONiA disappear fear — with the revised lyric, “The answer ain’t blowin’ in the wind/the answer is in the listenin’.”

Amy Speace gorgeously sang Janis Ian’s anti-racism screed, “Society’s Child”; Greg Reich delivered John Prine’s humorous “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore.” Paulson, a former USA Today editor, then addressed the media’s anti-student, pro-National Guard response after four students were killed during a May 4, 1970 protest at Kent State University.

“When we share that story on campuses today, tears roll down the eyes of young people who cannot conceive that someone would come on their campus and shoot them,” he said, before telling the story of how Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young pulled a rising hit, “Teach Your Children,” to replace it with “Ohio.”

Addressing misogyny in music, Paulson noted it far predated rap. He called Paul Anka’s “(You’re) Having My Baby” “the most sexist, most inane, most offensive song ever recorded” (thankfully, no one sang it), mentioned the violence in The Beatles’ “Run for Your Life,” and observed that the Rolling Stones “made a career out of disparaging women.” Women finally fought back, turning Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” into a movement anthem; Loretta Lynn followed it with “The Pill.” Then Joni Mitchell sounded an environmental alarm with “Big Yellow Taxi.”

One of the most powerful moments came when Paulson told how Sam Cooke came to write “A Change is Gonna Come,” then died before it became one of the most respected songs in America’s musical and political history — quoted by President Obama on the night of his election as the nation’s first president of color.

“America gets changed one voice at a time,” Paulson added, before introducing Dan Navarro and the whole group singing the complete version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” — which, Paulson said, addresses who this country really belongs to.

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The night before at a Texas music showcase, singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson said, “It’s so tempting to do all political stuff … I got a million of ‘em.” She didn’t, instead choosing several selections from her outstanding, Grammy-nominated 2014 release, The Nocturne Diaries. Accompanied by guitarist Bill Kirchen, a fellow Austinite who first gained renown as a member of Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen, she did leave the standing-room-only crowd a with a bit of her political wit in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”

They were followed by High Plains Jamboree, the thoroughly engaging retro-modern bluegrass quartet of Noel McKay, Brennan Leigh, Simon Flory and guest fiddler Rebecca Paddock. Later that evening, at a private showcase sponsored by D’Addario, siblings Sara and Sean Watkins led friends Robyn Hitchcock, Tift Merritt, David Garza, Gaby Moreno and Caitlin Canty through a set marked by one transcendent moment after another. When Moreno and Garza duetted on spine-tingling “La Malagueña,” from her Grammy-nominated album, Ilusión, everyone in the room know they’d just shared a singular experience.

The Folk Alliance International conference mixes panels, speakers and “official” showcases in hotel ballrooms before opening up three “music floors” for nightly performances, essentially providing one mini-house concert after another. Conferencegoers clog hallways and crowd into rooms where legends and sometimes amazing new talents gather for short sets and jam sessions before talent-seeking music-industry types, including promoters, managers and label heads.

Some artists, like John Fullbright, play a packed ballroom showcase, followed by jams in suites sponsored by tourism agencies, record labels and other entities. He mesmerized listeners in his Friday night showcase, in which he joked, “The last time I saw you guys, I was a few pounds skinnier and we still had a viable government,” before moving to the Oklahoma Room to hang with musical pals.

In the Carnaval room, Kansas City act Making Movies said, “We’re really trying to make it feel like a humid day in Panama, and in that, we have succeeded,” before raising the temperature even higher with Latin-rhythmed rock, soul and jazz-infused folk, including a stunning cover of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

And so it went. Late into the night.

Check out more coverage from Folk Alliance here.