A few weeks ago, I received an email from Hannah Davies, my 4th cousin once removed. (Doesn't everyone know their 4th cousin once removed?) In her position as Policy Advisor at the U.N. Mission in Liberia, Hannah had an assignment that required her to work in New York City until mid-July. While she didn't provide any details regarding this "assignment", Hannah suggested that Marilynn and I meet with her somewhere soon for some live music.
Taken at face value, Hannah's request seemed very innocuous. However, the last time the three of us got together for live music was on the evening of May 1, 2011, to see The Smoking Popes at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. If that date rings a bell it's because that was the night that Osama Bin Laden was killed during a firefight with the Navy Seals. I wondered, could Hannah be hoping for a reprise of that night, this time involving someone like Bashar al-Assad of Syria? A few days later, Hannah wrote back suggesting that we go to a Folk Festival. When? May 20th! Where? Brooklyn!! Despite severe misgivings that I was being drawn into international intrigue, I agreed to go.
On the day of the event, Marilynn and I drove from Cranbury to Brooklyn to meet up with Hannah at high noon. As we approached our rendezvous, the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall, Hannah was nowhere in sight. We assumed that she hadn't yet arrived until we saw her standing under an overhang, deep in the shadows. When I questioned her somewhat covert behavior, she made a comment about trying to avoid the sun — a plausible explanation since people from England are rarely exposed to it — but my misgivings intensified. What was going on here??
We spent the next half hour wandering the streets of Brooklyn without seeing any evidence whatsoever of a Folk Festival. We finally stopped for lunch at an outdoor cafe in MetroTech Center and asked a few people for directions. No one had even heard of this festival!
After lunch, Hannah suggested one more stroll down Jay Street in search of the Festival, but by then I had had enough. I was just to about to confront her and expose her clumsy attempt at orchestrating international affairs when ... there it was! The Brooklyn Folk Festival! As shown in the photo at the top of this post, it was not an outdoor Hoboken-style street fair with roads blocked off and live performances at a variety of venues. Quite the opposite: the entire Festival took place inside, behind the doors of a warehouse cleverly labeled "Sid's Hardware"!
Clearly, I had let my imagination run wild. And, although initially dismayed that the Festival was entirely indoors, a Brooklyn Brewery draft beer quickly remedied my mood. The three of us then spent the next four hours enjoying a variety of folk performances. Some of the highlights:
- Kentucky Banjo Styles Workshop led by Brett Ratliff. I've never been able to play a musical instrument worth a damn, but it was very interesting watching Brett play the banjo and even more interesting watching him teach his technique to a bunch of people who came to the festival with their banjos. An audio of one of the riffs that he taught the group can be heard here. Keep in mind that when Brett played the riff it was much faster!
|Marilynn and I dancing a square|
- Square Dancing! At about 4pm, a large space just inside the lobby was cleared away to create a dance floor. A few of the days' performers then came forward to form a bluegrass band. A caller than appeared and invited the audience to square dance. Marilynn, of course, joined in immediately. Hannah and I had just gotten a beer, so we hung back. After the first break, though, I had to join in. Everyone was having too much fun! At some point in time, Hannah snapped the photo on the right, documenting the event and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that she needed a new smart phone.
|Wretched Refuse String Band|
- Wretched Refuse String Band: Any band with a name like this deserves to be listened to at least once. This band, though, deserves to be listened to again and again! They are billed as "New York City’s oldest, largest, and most eclectic local bluegrass and old-time string band" and have been performing for more than 35 years. Excellent musicianship and very entertaining. Even better, it was clear that they enjoyed playing as much as the crowd enjoyed listening! A small taste of what it was like can be found in this video clip.
|Brotherhood of the Jug Band|
- Brotherhood of the Jug Band: Yep, the guy with the black hat on the far left in this photo is playing a jug. I might be wrong, but I think this is purely an American invention. I've always loved jug bands and this ensemble was no exception. They played a variety of instruments (jug, harmonica, banjo, mandolin, guitar, drums, percussion) and at least four of them took turns singing. Excellent stuff. Here's a 30-second clip that captures their performing style. Too bad it isn't longer.
All in all, it was another great afternoon/evening of music in Brooklyn with Hannah — even if there wasn't any international intrigue involved! (I still scanned the New York Times the next morning, though, just to be sure ...)