By Mark Kemp
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — If the awards ceremony on the first day of the 28th Annual Folk Alliance International Conference was any indication of things to come, it’s going to be a hell of a week.
For one thing, the Folk Alliance presented a lifetime achievement award to American treasure Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the 84-year-old folk legend who befriended Woody Guthrie and directly inspired Bob Dylan – and, by extension, every one of the more than 2,000 folkies hanging around KC this week. Elliott ambled onto the ballroom stage at the Westin Hotel in Crown Center wearing his trademark black cowboy hat and kerchief, and carrying a battered Martin guitar – not to accept the award, exactly, but to sit and ramble on about old friends in strange places, all to the accompaniment of a few well-placed fingerpicked guitar licks.
In a video tribute shown on a big screen before Elliott arrived on the stage, a narrator called him “Woody Guthrie’s Plato,” and quoted President Bill Clinton, who in 1988 referred to Jack as the “King of the Folksingers” while awarding him the National Medal of the Arts. There were also anecdotes about folksinger Odetta’s mother, who allegedly gave Jack his “Ramblin'” moniker years before — not because he rambled around the country, but simply because he’s always been known for telling endless stories that twist and turn like that ribbon of road known as the Tail of the Dragon that winds thought the Tennessee and North Carolina mountains.
But that wasn’t all. Before Elliott came to the stage, one of his younger running buddies from the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, 78-year-old Happy Traum, presented a posthumous lifetime achievement award to two more of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s old running buddies, the late, great blues harpist Sonny Terry and guitarist Brownie McGhee.
And if all that wasn’t already enough, the most inspiring moment came even earlier in the evening, when 99-year-old fiddler and instrument maker Violet Hensley not only played a fiddle tune for the captivated audience of young and old folkies, but then got up out of her chair and danced a jig! She’s 99, folks! There were people in the audience half her age who’d have a hard time getting up and dancing a jig. I say that from first-hand experience.
Who says that America is in the midst of a dangerous obsession with youth culture? If it is, it wasn’t evident during the two-hour Awards Gala Wednesday during the opening of Folk Alliance. This was a celebration of wisdom well earned – it was, you could say, the anti-Grammys.
Which is not to suggest that everything was about legacy artists on Day One of Folk Alliance – not by a long shot. In three new categories – Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Artist of the Year – at least one young artist who got snubbed at this year’s Grammy extravaganza, former Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens, was given her due. Her terrific 2015 LP Tomorrow is My Turn took the Folk Alliance award for Album of the Year.
An even younger group, Pennsylvania’s Stray Birds, won Song of the Year for the simple beauty and elegance of “Best Medicine,” the title song from their late-2014 sophomore release. As for Artist of the Year – that went to the multi-culti Massachusetts quartet Darlingside, who also performed at the ceremony and whose sublime material includes tracks like “The God of Loss,” from their 2015 album Birds Say.
Keeping things upbeat and fast-paced as master of ceremonies was the hilarious Steve Poltz, founding member of the Rugburns, former Jewel beau, and singer-songwriter deluxe who kicked off the proceedings at 6 p.m. by standing in front of the packed ballroom and saying, “Hi, I’m Steve and I’m an alcoholic.” The room didn’t know whether to laugh or squirm – but Poltz kept more jokes coming the entire time for one terrific evening that will be hard to top.
But stay tuned anyway. We have three more days coming at you!
And just for fun, how about a classic clip of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee whooping it up?
Pictured at top: Living Legends Happy Traum (left) and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Photos by Mark Kemp.