Urban Highways And Folk Songs

THERE was something ironic about driving 350 miles from my ancestral shack in rural Michigan to a folk festival downstate: It seemed a bit funny to be going to urbanized southern Michigan to listen to music I associate more closely with the life I am trying to make among the red pines of northern Michigan. And the whole thing set off an interesting set of contrasts in my mind. An Indian woman who lives in Harbor Springs (the nearest town) once told me that civilization ends where the pavement ends. I take pride in the fact that I live at the end of a tree-tunnel dirt road. On this trip in January, though, getting out of my driveway and down that half-mile dirt road was one of the most formidable challenges of the journey.

With all four wheels engaged, my little truck clears the driveway hazard and plows through deep drifts and darkness to the first intersection with pavement. The plowers have piled a wall of snow across my dirt road, leaving me with no alternative but to use the emergency-snowbound-intersection-crossing technique: Turn off the headlights for a second to see if anyone's coming, and bust through that last pile of snow without slowing down. These kinds of confrontations with nature are becoming routine since I moved from my newspaper job in the city.

The folk festival was in a more civilized part of the state, in the city of Ann Arbor. The trip there took me past snowbanks dwindling to brown grass on the side of the road. Tall evergreens shrank to flat fields of dormant earth. Towns started looking less like outposts and more like the norm. Giant Buick billboards rose up out of the ground and illuminated the way to the first stop of my journey. At two in the morning, Detroit let another traveler slip in.

An old friend - an avowed suburbanite - accompanied me to the festival the next day. I'll admit I was busy playing with Legos and train sets when folk music became a part of popular culture in the '60s. Folk music did become a part of my life later with the help of a summer camp counselor, but I still wasn't sure why I was so attracted to it.

Folk music, to me, means not only acoustic instruments on an old wooden porch, but the spirit of swimming against the tide of society's common perceptions, the independence of taking the ``road less traveled.'' I viewed upstate Michigan - with its deep forests and sunsets over Lake Michigan - as a metaphor for my sometimes solitary, somewhat unique decision to try and make it as a freelance writer, instead of pursuing a more conventional career path. And I equated downstate - even if it was Ann Arbor - with a more mainstream way of life where jobs, friends, and comfortable things are more accessible. Thinking about the contrasts, I still carried a sense of personal irony about the locale for the festival.

Once the music began, I started to understand through the music that the contrasts between urban and rural weren't all that much in conflict. The 10 different acts included gospel, Appalachian, Irish, blues, bluegrass, comic ``Wa-Ha'' music, as well as social-commentary folk. One factor seemed to unite all the groups; besides the use of acoustic instruments, they all drew upon a variety of musical roots to form acts that appealed to a '90s audience. These roots stretched back into rural traditions, but were blended with contemporary ideas, lyrics, or styles.

A guy named Joel Mabus's finger-picking ``folk-a-billy'' was combined with lyrics that poked fun at traditional American rural icons. ``Real men don't need pickups,'' Mabus sang. His ``Duct Tape Blues'' was my favorite. It blended blues guitar - with its origins in Deep South juke joints - with up-to-date comic perspective on American men. ``A little roll of duct tape and a can of WD-40 is the yin-yang of America,'' Mabus tells us.

The sophistication of these groups was manifested in as many different ways as there were different musical styles. Some showed modern social consciousness, while others had a poignant sense of humor. Loudon Wainwright III's song about Sen. Jesse Helms's taste in art was funny yet serious stuff. At the same time, this was just one man on a stage playing acoustic guitar. Wainwright, like most of the other folk artists that night, could draw on the simple and the sophisticated, the folksy and the cutting edge, the urban and the rural, all at the same time.

Although my suburban friend needed a good dose of rock 'n' roll on the way back to her home after five hours of folk, she admitted that she did enjoy the festival. For me though, I had something a little more personal to take back up north.

When I got home and stepped out of my truck, my mind traveled back over the roads I had just driven. Like the musical roots and contemporary themes of the folk musicians, the different roads all connected. I thought about how I had decided to come to this place, to put all this work into my home. I felt good about my renovated ancestral shack. Replacing the kerosene lamps with electricity wasn't such a bad idea. There wasn't much real irony in having a word processor in the woods, and my new appliances really did work a lot better than that old wood stove and gas refrigerator.

As I unpacked my bag, I thought it's not whether I'm a city boy or a country local, whether I'm cosmopolitan or provincial that matters. What does matter is how well it all works when I put it together.

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