by Melinda Newman
Woody Guthrie famously placed a sign that read “This machine kills fascists” on his acoustic guitar in 1941, signaling that his instrument—combined with the collective strength of those who heard his music—wielded the power to topple corrupt leaders. Nearly 80 years later, the acoustic guitar is still the tool of choice for singer-songwriters looking to spread a message in this divisive political climate. That was amply evident at the 29th annual Folk Alliance International (FAI) conference, held February 15-19 in Kansas City, Missouri. The conclave drew more than 2,500 artists from 20 countries, seemingly all with an acoustic guitar in hand and song to be shared through the more than 3,000 showcases—official and private—and in every nook and cranny of the Westin Hotel.
This year’s theme, Forbidden Folk, served as a clarion call to remind artists to use their voice—singularly or in connection with like-minded musicians. “Our role is to provide the opportunity to connect here,” said FAI executive director Aengus Finnan. “We’re not trying to editorialize what people say or how they say it—that’s definitely not our role—but our role is definitely to inspire and provoke and challenge.”
To further inspire, the organization created two new awards in 2017: the People’s Voice, which went to multi-platinum recording artist Bruce Cockburn, whose 40-year career has consistently highlighted environmental, social, and indigenous issues globally; and the Clearwater Award, which honors festivals that prioritizes sustainable event production. Read more about the FAI awards here.
For Ani DiFranco, returning to FAI after a dozen years to deliver a keynote speech felt like “coming home. This is a really important gathering,” she said. “It’s a realm of music that really applies social consciousness, community [and] political organizing all wrapped up together. That’s why I’ve always called myself a folk singer, no matter what the sound was.”
In a commercial world in which pop music is king, folk has been relegated to a niche that doesn’t always have access to the necessary infrastructure to propel growth. FAI helps solve that, said Texas Music Hall of Famer Eliza Gilkyson. “It’s a very small genre. We need to find each other and reward each other. Folk Alliance is the best clearing house for that.”
Throughout the conference, young folkies strummed protest songs by Pete Seeger and Guthrie. It’s an homage that Nora Guthrie, Guthrie’s daughter, appreciates. “[He] evolved the ancient tradition of storytelling [by ending] with a line or two that had something to do with a possible solution to the problem,” she said. “What Dylan then did was take the same tradition and add an aspect of poetry to it. There’s always someone who kicks the ball uphill a little bit.”
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Like many musicians attending FAI, for singer-songwriter Tift Merritt the acoustic guitar remains her best delivery method. “There’s something authentic about just relying on an acoustic guitar and a message and a heart and that makes folk music trustworthy at a time when not much can be trusted,” Merritt said. “[It says], ‘I’m speaking straight to you. I’m trying to tell the truth. I have four chords and a message.’ No one can take the power away from that.”
In recent years, rocker Robyn Hitchcock has been drawn back to the intimacy of the acoustic guitar, an instrument he first picked up when he was 14. “Amplification puts a barrier between the performer and the audience,” he said. “I like playing acoustic and not mic’ed up if I’m playing a small room. Once you put electricity in there, then you have monitors and stage and barriers. The louder and the bigger it gets, the further away [the performer] is. There’s a distance.”
With a guitar in hand, there’s little barrier to entry for anyone with a story to tell. Admittedly, said Billy Bragg, who delivered a passionate call to action during his keynote speech, a ukulele or a fiddle is as portable as an acoustic guitar, but the guitar has taken on such a ubiquitous presence that everyone can imagine themselves playing one “because of the role the guitar player has in our culture as an urgent messenger, a person who comes to alter your mood. Of all the musical instruments, the acoustic guitar is the most accessible to play and it’s not just because it’s the most straight-forward to play, it’s because of the amount of music that’s been written on the guitar—you’re also able to access that.”