Between the Savannah Music Festival, the Savannah Jazz Festival, the Irish Festival and the Coastal Heritage Society’s Blues & BBQ celebration, there’s no shortage of great, niche-oriented concerts for locals and tourists alike. Yet, there’s another musical showcase that’s become a community fixture without earning the same amount of buzz or cachet as the aforementioned events.
Perhaps that’s because of the inherently unpretentious nature of the genres it seeks to promote, or perhaps this low-key profile can more rightly be attributed to the laid-back way in which its sponsors “push” the gala. Regardless, you don’t keep a live music festival on its feet for almost two decades without doing something right.
Savannah Folk Music Society President Hank Weisman knows this well. He sees this festival as merely the most prominent in a large number of live, (mostly) acoustic concerts that his group regularly presents year-round at unusual venues such as the Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church, Temple Mickve Israel and the Oatland Island Education Center.
“You know, this thing has become so big, that it has kind of taken on a life of its own,” Weisman admits with a chuckle.
The festival is well-known throughout America’s various folk and contemporary acoustic music circles, and the SFMS receives literally hundreds of submissions every year from artists hoping to be invited to perform at the three-day event.
Weisman says that weeding through such an impressive and eclectic array of booking choices is a daunting task, but the process is made somewhat easier by a number of pre-requisites the SFMS has put in place over the years to help guide their decisions.
“We adamantly want there to be a diversity in the acts,” he explains. “For example, we try hard to feature a different type of headlining artist each year, as well as highlighting different genders and ethnicities. Sometimes we get really lucky — like when we find a group like Notorious, which is a good band for contra-dancing, as well as for just a live concert performance. There aren’t too many out there that can do both, so that made our decision to hire them that much easier.”
While Weisman (also a regular performer and MC at SFMS events) admits that it’s hard to find new ways in which to spread awareness of acoustic folk music in today’s fast-paced and increasingly technology-driven society, he cites recent collaborations with SCAD’s online radio station and a longstanding partnership with local Georgia Public Radio host Dick Wallace’s weekly show Music Americana as good examples of how the public can be made aware of the great traditional entertainment that his group works to promote.
He’s also most excited about a first for this year’s festival: the 2006 Youth Songwriting Competition, in which seven budding composers have been winnowed down to four finalists — who’ll all compete in front of a panel of judges for a chance at some great prizes and a shot at singing an original tune on the main stage of the festival’s final day, sharing the bill with internationally-known artists.
“Our contest differs from those at most other festivals, because it focuses on people under twenty,” Weisman enthuses.
“We felt an important part of our mission was to try and interest young people in creating their own songs in the acoustic folk tradition. We’ve had great support from Annie’s Guitars & Drums in this. They’re enabling us to present the winners with a total of $1,000 in prizes.”
Weisman adds that it will be good (and likely inspiring) for the winning songwriter to get to interact with the headlining performers at Sunday’s final concert at the Historic Roundhouse. “The thing that’s impressed me all these years,” he says, “is that, by and large, no matter how famous they might be, folkies are usually extremely grounded people who are very easy to work with. They should provide great examples for an up-and-coming artist.”
This year’s event is fairly well-rounded, with —in addition to the youth competition held at AASU—an entire evening of standout local talent under the stars in City Market, an old-fashioned contra-dance, featuring squares, circles, reels and waltzes (for both beginners and experienced dancers), Saturday night at the Notre Dame Academy, and an entire day of major acoustic artists at The Roundhouse — including: singing guitarist Tracy Grammer —a favorite of Joan Baez and Mary Chapin-Carpenter— whose solo debut was the #1 most-played album on U.S. folk radio in 2005; bluesman and actor Guy Davis, known for his role in Broadway’s Zora Neale Hurston/Langston Hughes collaboration Mulebone —featuring music by Taj Mahal— and for a W.C. Handy Award-winning off-Broadway turn as the late, great bluesman Robert Johnson in Trick The Devil; the versatile pairing of Eden MacAdam-Somer and Larry Unger (known professionally as Notorious) that offers everything from traditional American and Celtic fiddle tunes to jazz and blues; and the husband-and-wife duo Norman and Nancy Blake.
The Blakes are something akin to royalty in the folk music world, as Norman is a Grammy-nominated multi-instrumentalist (guitar, mandolin, 6-string banjo, fiddle), vocalist and songwriter who’s worked with a number of major folk and bluegrass artists, such as Tony Rice and the late John Hartford. He’s backed up everyone from Bob Dylan (on the ground-breaking Nashville Skyline LP, no less), June Carter, Kris Kristofferson, and Joan Baez — plus, he played on the legendary Will The Circle Be Unbroken album by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
As if that weren’t enough, he was featured prominently on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which is widely credited as jumpstarting the current Old-Time and mountain music revival. It will be the first time that Blake has played in Savannah in over fifteen years.
“The last time they were here, it wasn’t part of our festival, but the SFMS brought them in for a special concert. We’ve been wanting to have them back ever since, but they’ve cut down on their touring drastically, and the scheduling could never be worked out,” says Weisman, adding that news of their appearance has already sparked great interest among folk music fans far and wide.
Weisman says that the festival gets the majority of its funding from the City of Savannah’s Cultural Affairs Department, and that to his knowledge, this is the only municipally-sponsored folk fest that is free and open to the public in the entire country.
“We’d like to keep it that way,” he says. It’s so wonderful when people from other communities come in and see that we are able to provide this level of quality entertainment at no charge to them.”
He also is quick to point out how much help the festival has received from the locally-based Gretsch Foundation, which donates a number of acoustic guitars for the society’s “Noteworthy Art” auction. This year’s auction features instruments signed by everyone from Kenny Rogers to Judy Collins to Don McLean, as well as albums and other memorabilia inscribed by the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Jimmy Buffett.
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