Folk Unlocked | The 2021 Folk Alliance International Annual Conference (Virtual) – An Overview

By FAI Member and WFF President Carol Obertubbesing

Folk Unlocked: Connection, Discovery, Exploration -- a five-day virtual event for the entire international folk community --  -- gathered virtually from February 22-26, 2021
Folk Unlocked: Connection, Discovery, Exploration — a five-day virtual event for the entire international folk community — gathered virtually from February 22-26, 2021

“Music is the most powerful force in the world . . . we can accomplish amazing things through music . . . music can bring something of value to people . . . ” ~ Bill Staines

At Folk Unlocked: Connection, Discovery, Inspiration | The Folk Alliance International Annual Conference, Bill Staines captured the power of music with his words when he spoke during the “Wisdom of the Elders” panel. The Folk Alliance International Annual Conference brings all types of musicians from all over the world. This year’s virtual event was February 22-26, 2021.

Bill received the Woodstock Folk Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. His career began with playing in the many folk clubs in Boston and Cambridge in the 1960s. During the “Wisdom of the Elders” session, he reflected on those experiences. He remembered how social the clubs were at that time. People came to be together, welcoming unknown performers to stages. From there, they became opening acts at larger venues. Then they began to play and tour on their own. Eventually they became mentors and role models for the next generation. 

“Wisdom of the Elders” Paving the Way

At a Folk Unlocked session, one member of that next generation, Vance Gilbert, spoke about the importance of those who paved the way: Bill Staines, Tom Rush and Utah Phillips. Vance’s was a generation that came up in the late 80s and early 90s and also included Ellis Paul, Martin Sexton and Dar Williams. Performers such as Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin and Tom Waits led the way as folk and pop dovetailed. 

Vance spoke about how he had to overcome expectations that as a black performer he would perform blues. Another panelist, Pura Fe, also commented on expectations. As a Native American artist, she and her group Ulali defied people’s expectations — their influences came from all over the world.  

Staying Healthy on the Road

When asked how performers can stay healthy on the road, Vance said, “Bring good running shoes and find time to run between gigs. Stay away from red meat, dairy and buffets, and eat healthy.” Next, Pura said, “Take juice and natural teas with you on the road.”  Then Bill said, “Think of every day as an opportunity to have something come into your life. Thinking something good might happen tomorrow keeps you going.”

One Piece of Advice from Folk Unlocked Speakers

Asked for one piece of advice, Vance Gilbert said, “Listen up. Tell your story and tell it with less.” Pure Fe said, “Don’t be afraid to say what you feel or to think. It’s important to say something.” Finally, Bill Staines advised, “Never think more of yourself than you do of your music. Stage fright comes from thinking about yourself. Instead focus on the music. It’s the music and what you have to say that’s important.”    

Influence and Staying Power

Vance Gilbert mentioned the influence Bill Staines had on him. He specifically pointed to Bill’s  song “Bridges.”  Take a listen:

As Bill astutely said in his remarks, “A folk song is larger than the person who writes it.” He encouraged songwriters to write songs about the things we all know. At the same time, songwriters should write beyond themselves so the songs will stay around. “Write songs that celebrate the human spirit,” he urges. Bill’s songs such as “Bridges,” “All God’s Critters,” and “River” do exactly that.

International Folk Awards 2021

On the final day of the conference, the International Folk Awards were presented. Folk Alliance gave Lifetime Achievement Awards to Putamayo (award to an organization), Celia Cruz (legacy award to a deceased artist), and Gordon Lightfoot (award to a living artist).  The Clearwater Award for Environmental Activities was given to the Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland, Australia.

Reggie Harris received the Woodstock Folk Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015.
Reggie Harris received the Woodstock Folk Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015.

One of the Spirit of Folk Awards was given to Reggie Harris, who received the Woodstock Folk Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. Singer-songwriter Raye Zaragoza received the inaugural Rising Tide Award for someone under 30 who inspires others. Raye’s mother is an immigrant from Japan, and her father is of Mexican and indigenous heritage. She draws from all of these and more. Many of her songs speak of social justice.  

The Alliance voted Long Time Passing by the Kronos Quartet and Friends, a tribute to Pete Seeger, as Album of the Year. The War and Treaty won Artist of the Year. And Eliza Gilkyson’s “Peace in Our Hearts” was named Song of the Year.  

Here’s a link to Song of the Year: – But don’t stop there! Check out all of these artists and their music online. 

Peer Sessions

The Annual Conference also includes Peer Sessions, such as “Women,” “Festivals,” and “55+” as well as Panel Discussions such as “What Fans Want Now: Data-Driven Decisions.” 

Did you know that . . .

  • folk fans are 53% more likely than other music fans to want CDs and vinyl? 
  • audio and video streaming services are the # 1 source of music discovery for folk fans,
  • but there’s still a lot of appreciation for folk radio programs? 
  • folk listeners are 23% more likely to pay for music streaming?

Meeting the People Behind the Music

One of the joys of attending Folk Alliance is networking and socializing with other members of the folk community. This year we met virtually through Bramble Sessions, an effort to recreate meeting in a lobby or on an elevator.  

A major focus of the Conference is the opportunity to hear all types of musicians from all over the world. Usually there are Official (juried) showcases followed into the wee hours of the night by private showcases in performers’ hotel rooms. This year’s virtual conference featured  themed and geographically based showcases with artists from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, and other places. 

There were also individual showcases. Among the performers I enjoyed were

  • The Accidentals
  • Alisa Amador
  • Kirby Brown
  • Annie & Rod Capps
  • Shemekia Copeland
  • Durham County Poets
  • Dom Flemons
  • Eric Gales
  • Gali Galo
  • Inn Echo
  • Kyshona
  • Dan Navarro
  • Heather Newman
  • Nobody’s Girl
  • Amanda Pascali
  • Shane Pendergast
  • Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band
  • Texicana Mamas
  • Suzie Vinnick
  • The Wildmans

Check out these artists online and stay tuned to where you may see some of these artists at future Festivals, concerts, and Woodstock Wednesdays.

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