IF YOU'VE attended any of the Savannah Folk Music Society's monthly concerts over the past few years, you've seen and heard Chris Desa, the show's affable host.
And if you haven’t, you’ve been missing out on one of the city’s best values in musical entertainment.
Desa, a folk musician himself, usually starts the program. And for five dollars, you get two hours and two acts of real, honest music from the heart.
Now this weekend brings the society’s annual Folk Music Festival, a three-day celebration of the genre, one of the hardest to get words around.
“For some people, folk music just is whatever happened in the 60’s,” Desa says. “Yes, the Weavers and Peter, Paul and Mary, sure. But I think folk music is sung and played by everybody.”
Folk music is so expansive, it sometimes threatens to fall off its wheels. You can get pretty rocky and poppy within the genre’s outer orbits.
But Desa does a great job keeping it all close to the center.
Among the five musicians traveling to this year’s festival is a singer-songwriter who was inspired to become a folk musician by a neighbor who happened to be Pete Seeger.
Now, that’s about as folk as it gets.
“People are tired of the perfect, fake, computer-corrected everything around them,” says Michael Johnathon. “They want things that are real. And that’s where acoustic, organic, real, front porch, from-the-heart-not-the-chart music comes from.”
Johnathon’s music comes from Appalachia with stories and messages soaked in melody.
He also created “Woodsongs Old Time Radio Hour,” heard on radio and TV worldwide, including Saturday nights on South Carolina ETV.
I’m also excited about a singer whose songwriting credits include 11 Billboard country hits and Restless Heart’s crossover smash, the beautiful “I’ll Still Be Loving You.”
Pam Rose got a well-deserved Grammy nomination for that song. And I’d never heard of her until now. But such is the power of that song that I’m drawn to hear more.
As for Desa himself, he likewise attracted my curiosity from the day he took over emcee duties from former host Hank Wiseman in 2011.
Desa grew up in Bombay in the 1960’s. And no corner of the earth escaped America’s folk music revival back then.
“We would have parties and they’d invariably end up with a sing-along,” Desa says. “And that’s when I started hearing tunes like ‘Lemon Tree’ or ‘If I Had a Hammer.’”
Young Desa once got into trouble for carrying a guitar into church. But, as I learned from Teddy Adams a few weeks back, young musicians are frequently led intro trouble by older, streetwise teachers.
In Desa’s case, it was a family friend, the sing-along master.
“He showed me four chords and then I found my way with the rest,” Desa says.
He’s never recorded seriously. His paying gig is maritime consulting. He used to captain oil tankers. When we spoke, he just had returned from a job in Philadelphia.
“A ship owner wanted me to look over the ship and give them some pointers as to what they need to correct before the oil company inspector came on board,” Desa says. “I used to do oil company inspections for many years.”
Folk music is just his free time. And if you have to ask why, listen to a song he played during my interview. It was written for his son, when his son was sick.
“I try to play this tune every day, just as a thank you because we are very grateful,” Desa says. “My son is 99 percent back to what he should be.”
Music can heal and inspire. And this weekend, no matter the background or style, it’ll come straight from the heart. That’s folk music.