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Folk flourishes in America's music scene – once again

The latest revival is more diffuse, raucous, and energetic than ever.

By Tim HoltContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 29, 2008

When will they ever learn? Andrea Bunch teaches guitar at Chicago’s Old Town Music School, where enrollment in acoustic folk instrument classes has tripled in the past decade.

Eric Futran

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In the 1960s, it was "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" Pete Seeger's haunting antiwar anthem. By the early 1980s, it was more like "Where have all the folkies gone?" as keyboards and synthesizers displaced low-tech music.

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But folk music is blossoming once again, spurred eight years ago by the release of the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou" with its roots music soundtrack.

Enrollment at acoustic folk instrument classes is up, the country's oldest guitar maker has had record sales, and attendance is on the rise at festivals.

Folk festivals – there are some 400 of them in the United States – are also reflecting the nation's rapidly changing demographics. Nowadays they are infused with folk music from south of the border, Africa, and Southeast Asia as well as traditional American roots music.

Along with "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" the 1997 rerelease of a major folk music anthology, compiled by Harry Smith, helped inspire a new generation of folksingers. Mr. Smith, a quirky Greenwich Village denizen and chum of Beat poets, was a prodigious collector of folk vinyl back in the 1940s and '50s. A choice selection from his collection was released in 1952 by Folkways Records. It included blues, Cajun, and Appalachian roots music. Its release helped inspire the '60s folk revival. Its rerelease has helped spur yet another.

That revival has flourished in numerous ways. Chicago's Old Town School of Music, founded in 1957 at the onset of the last folk revival, has seen enrollment in acoustic folk instrument classes triple over the past 12 years. Another venerable folk institution, the Swallow Hill Music Association in Denver, has seen enrollment shoot up 25 percent in the past year. And guitar maker C.F. Martin & Company's acoustic instrument sales have broken all records since "O Brother" came out, says company spokesman Dick Boak.

Attendance at the National Folk Festival, which changes venue every three years, nearly tripled from 2005 to 2007, when the festival was in Richmond, Va., and more than doubled during its previous stay in Bangor, Maine. This pattern of growing attendance has been consistent since the 1980s, says Julia Olin, who runs the national festivals for the National Council for the Traditional Arts.

This new folk revival is in some ways more diffuse, more raucous, and more energetic than the last. It is also, arguably, more democratic. Instead of a few big acts recording for major record labels – Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Kingston Trio – there are countless folk groups all over the country supporting themselves through their own websites, concerts, and self-produced CDs.

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