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Singing For Change: The 15th Ann Arbor Folk Festival

Singing For Change: The 15th Ann Arbor Folk Festival image
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■PPH HH y guess," says Ark manfWM ager Dave Siglin, "is it's Wi ni going to be a very politiWMm ül cal festival." As forecasts ■31 go, Siglin's looks pretty good. Performers at the 15th Ann Arbor Folk Festival (January 25) will include three "topical" singersongwriters - Fred Small, Christine Lavin, and Len Chandler - and several others who don't shy away from political issues. Siglin says he didn't plan for so much political content. But a political festival may be the right grassroots tonic for the hopelessness so many of us feel this year. Siglin is especially enthused about Len Chandler, whom he met last summer at a conference for folk performers from the 30s, 40s and 50s. "He spoke there, and it was probably the most inspiring lecture I' ve heard in my life," says Siglin. "I booked him for the festival on the spot. I don't care if he never sings a note." Siglin says Chandler, a veteran of the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, is equally compelling speaking as singing. "He'll have people on their feet. He could politicize this town like no one else." Chandler will have a receptive audience. Most Ann Arborites need no introduction to the Ann Arbor Folk Festival; a 15-year local institution, it sells out Hill Auditorium every January. This year, as always, the list of performers ranges from legendary (Odetta) to local (Jan Krist) and every thing in between: Chandler, Small, Lyle Lovett, Livingston Taylor, Robert Earl Keen, Jr., John Gorka, and the Four Bitchin' Babes (Javin, Sally Fingerett, Megon McDonough, and Julie Gold). Because the festival lasts for six hours, each artist is given ampie time to perform. For the audience, it' s like ing six separate concerts in one night. If there were a top-billed artist, it would be Odetta. Since the 50s, the self-proclaimed folk music "interpreter" from Birmingham, Alabama has given voice to the world's impoverished and disempowered peoples. She draws heavily on traditional music, and her concert staples include prison songs, work songs and spirituals, delivered in her unique vocal style. The festival is the year's crucial fundraising event for the Ark. "We count on the festival to help us break even at the end of the year," says Siglin. "We make $30,000 profitat the festival, ifwe'relucky. That offsets the $30,000 loss at the Ark." The festival permits the Ark to showcase new artists who desperately need an audience but who can't turn a profit for the promoten "It allows us to bring in these lesser-known performers, because ticket prices and sales at the counter don't do it." The Ark's commitment to new talent sometimes launches successful national careers. "My songwriting career very much got its start at the Ark," recalls Fred Small, who will be making his first festival appearance this year. Small began performing at the Ark's Wednesday "open-mike" sessions in the mid-70s while attending the U-M law school. Now, five albums later, he's considered one of the country 's top singer-songwriters (Small abandoned his law career long ago). " A lot of my songs are about healing and empowerment," he says. Although recent songs deal with war and environmental issues, "I always try to bring the listener through the pain to a place of tranquility." Another Ark alumnus, Jan Krist, was performing at open-mike nights as recently as two years ago. Now she's released her first album, "Decapitated Society," and the Detroit-based acoustic artist will perform a set at this year' s festival. "F ve gone through all the phases: open mike, 'best of open mike,' and concert," she says. "And now the folk festival, which is a real pleasure and privilege." A mother of three, Krist paints houses, does drywall repair, and (until recently) did bar gigs to support herself. The festival is a chance to become better-known locally and nationally. According to Siglin, it wouldn't be the first time the festival propelled a successful career. Nanci Griffith is one example. "I had listened to these two old records of hers, for two years, because I really liked them," recalls Siglin. "Finally I tracked her down to her home in Houston, made sure she was the rightperson, and asked her if she wanted to be in the festival. She sang before 4,000 people.and 'Boom,boom."'That was 1985. Griffith now easily filis concert halls across the country. (She playedtoapacked Michigan Theater in October.) Siglin is glad to see his folk acts succeed nationally, but he and his staff stress that the Ark serves a wider purpose. 'The mission of the Ark, in terms of preserving and promoting all kinds of cultural heritages, is being done in a much broader way than just folk music," says Gail McCulloch, the Ark's development director. "Most people when they think of the Ark think, 'Oh, Joan Baez.' But not of folk sic in the cultural sense of ethnicity." McCulloch cites the annual storytelling festival, a recent theater performance, and frequent international and third world performers as examples of the Ark's widening focus. The Ark, she says, "has evolved in the sophistication of how it does it and the breadth of the music that it offers." It's ironie, then, that this year ' s folk festival features so many performers who fit the old-fashioned Pete SeegerPhil Ochs topical mold. But 1992, if we're lucky, could augur a revived political activism - and renewed interest in political folk songs. "Out system, our society, our environment are all under such stress right now, that it's hard to believe that we're going to persist for very long without some vocal and serious movements for social change," says Fred Small. "I suspect that as people become more militant in their insistence on a healthy environment, or affordable health care, or employment in a recession - to name just three issues - that music will reflect those concerns." Ark manager Dave Siglin says Len Chandler, a veteran of the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, is equally compelling speaking as singing. "He'll have people on theirfeet. He could politicize this town like no one else."