"We have evolved into the big-time" 

Hank Weisman dishes on the 19th Annual Savannah Folk Music Festival

SAVANNAH FOLK MUSIC SOCIETY PRESIDENT Hank Weisman fell in love with the wide world of acoustic folk at an extremely early age.

“It was some of the first music I heard and enjoyed as a small child,” he recalls. “I learned to play guitar to folk music at the age of six.”

For him, it was the music’s deeply poetic lyrical leanings, poignant philosophical messages and “evocative nature” that held him in sway then and to this day.

“I can hear songs I’ve heard for decades,” says Weisman, “and they still bring tears to my eyes if they’re written well enough or are about a subject that’s still close to home for me. Folk is music with a lot of meaning.”

It’s entirely possible that some other young person may hear the call of the common man’s musical art form at this weekend’s 19th Annual Savannah Folk Music Festival. Organized and run by the SFMS and supported by grants from the City of Savannah’s Department of Cultural Affairs, Bureau of Leisure Services (along with private donations and corporate sponsorships) it’s a three-day celebration of songwriting, singing, tradition and Old-Time, family-oriented entertainment.

Whether it be through joining in on shape-note gospel at the Sacred Harp Sing, learn the steps to an old-fashioned contra dance, or simply enjoying a rare performance by an internationally known songwriter like the great Jesse Winchester (the author of such hits as “Third Rate Romance” and “Candida”, who’s a personal hero of folks like Elvis Costello and The Band’s Robbie Robertson), or a celebrated black string band like The Carolina Chocolate Drops, this year’s festival is chock full of wonderful opportunities for young and old alike.

I spoke at length with Hank about the current state of the Folk Fest, and excerpts from our interview can be found below.

Look to our Soundboard Calendar for a complete listing of all the festival’s performers and venues.

How difficult is it to craft a festival that touches on a wide variety of acoustic folk?

Hank Weisman: If we were trying to represent folk music from around the world, it would be almost impossible to do so. Everyone has their own idea of what folk music is or should be and everyone has their own favorite area of it. Usually, most people don’t think of the entire breadth of the genre, they think only of their own favorite niche. I’ve found it’s rare for any given person to be very excited about our entire lineup in any given year — unless they themselves have that broad acceptance of all that folk music can be. Frankly, I’ve had people come up and tell us that we’ve missed the ball completely! (laughs) There are reasons for that. For example, there’s a lot of bluegrass in this part of the country, and although we’ve had some of that, we know it’s generally available to be heard at lots of festivals and venues in the area. So, it seems redundant for us to feature it. The same with blues. We have some from time to time, but mostly Piedmont or Delta blues. We don’t offer the electric Chicago style because other places around town present that. Which is fine. However, if you want to keep new generations of folk fans interested, you have to keep those doors open as much as possible,

This festival’s schedule is unique, in that the main artists at Sunday’s big concert split their shows in half. Each act plays an early and a late set of different tunes.

Hank Weisman: That was a tradition in place before I got involved with the festival, and over the years we have gotten bigger names and more expensive acts — some of which simply won’t agree to split up their show that way. They’ll only appear for one long set. But our board likes the idea of having two complete shows. We want the highest level of exposure and convenience for families and individuals to see the whole program. This way, if they can only come early or late, they can still catch every single one of the artists on our main bill. Plus, we want to avoid the phenomenon of people who skip the opening acts and only show up for the headliner. We’ve really strengthened the lineup from top to bottom in the last several years and now every act is top notch, whether they are well known or not. There’s no filler at all.


Here's one of Jesse Winchester's "lost" songs, from a mega-rare 1976 LP backed by a full electric band:


As you look back at all the different festivals the SFMS has put on during your time at the helm, what are some of the biggest differences between now and when you started?

Hank Weisman: We have evolved into a “big time” folk festival. Sure, as long as we keep the event free for the public and limit our sponsorship to a few dedicated organizations and companies not looking for a big commercial payback, we’ll never be like the Philadelphia or Kerrville Fests, but we have bigger names among our entertainers and offer more numerous and varied events than we used to. And I believe we do it in a much more professional manner.

What criteria are used to select the artists?

Hank Weisman: We use a variety of factors in deciding who to book. We want a balance of young and old, male and female, and a mix of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. We want both traditional and more contemporary folk music, and the representation of various folk music genres and styles. We pay attention to performers who don’t usually get to Savannah — or if they do, whose concerts are often priced outside of the reaches of many local listeners.

Besides the performances, there’s also an auction and songwriting competition. Give our readers an idea of the importance of both those events.

Hank Weisman: The Youth Songwriting Competition and Noteworthy Art Auction are both unique to our festival. In its third year, we are thrilled to recognize and reward youngsters who are carrying on the traditional of story songwriting. The Art Auction is in its sixth year and again features Gretsch-donated guitars beautifully transformed into unique pieces of art by talented generous local artists. We also have guitars signed by George Jones, Kathy Mattea, David Bromberg, Ian Tyson, Hazel Dickens and others — plus a banjo signed by Bela Fleck. The auction raises about $5,000 each year for the festival. To date, a guitar signed by Willie Nelson brought our highest bid at $1,200.


Here's a great, pro-shot video of The Carolina Chocolate Drops doing the song "Cornbread & Butterbeans":


If money was no object, give me your dream lineup for the Savannah Folk Music Fest (all artists have to still be alive and touring).

Hank Weisman: Well, I think I’d try to book Richie Havens. For my own personal pleasure or edification, I’d love to bring the Chad Mitchell Trio in. They’re alive and still work occasionally. I’d love to have the three living members of The Weavers, but Pete Seeger simply doesn’t do festivals anymore, so that won’t work. As time marches on, we’re just getting past the point of having those kinds of people from that generation. There are still great artists out there who are not quite as old, like Gordon Lightfoot, Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie, but they’re all just too far out of our price range ! (laughs)

The Savannah Folk Music Festival

When: Fri. - Sun.

Where: City Market Courtyard, First Primitive Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church, Notre Dame Academy, Grayson Stadium

Cost: Free for ALL-AGES

Info: savannahfolk.org


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