Wrote up the 7th Harry Smith Festival in Millheim as an ‘audition’ piece of sorts for Relix, probably way too late to make publication, and anyway, I’m pretty sure one needs to present a lock of hair from Bob Weir to the editors there to get a byline in that rag. This event learned me about the folk music and it benefits a good cause.
Harry Smith Festival
Elk Creek Café
November 16, 2014
The final set of the seventh Harry Smith Festival opened with a how-do-you-do from Kai Schafft that no stadium pop princess is ever likely to utter: “Here’s a song about great tragedy – you all ready!?”
Festival organizer Schafft and his band Chicken Tractor Deluxe then kicked into an hour-long set of stories from Harry Smith’s influential Anthology of American Folk Music. Whether the subject was wishing to be a mole underground or requesting a grave kept clean, drummer Gary Gyekis and bassist Jimmy Baughman kept a hard-stomping beat behind banjo, guitar, pedal steel and joiners-in on the fiddle and harmonica.
Three sets full of Depression-era songs from Gnarled Knuckle String Band, NattyLou Race and Junior Tutwiler, and Jerry Zolten and Richard Sleigh didn’t have the crowd in this microbrew hall down and out when headliner Lenny Kaye took his stool on stage around 4 p.m.
Barstools were claimed and tables pushed tight: any curious local Amish trotting by on a Sunday drive would have needed to step inside to figure out the commotion, for the plate glass windows were opaque from body heat and hoppy exhalations.
Acoustic guitar underarm and accompanied by Christine Smith of Marah on the squeezebox, Kaye opened his set with “Banks of the Ohio.” He then promptly admitted to the crowd he’d never played any of the songs live before, and that he might be a tad hungover. His Saturday night solo show in Millheim, backed by Smith and her bandmate Dave Bielanko, went a bit long on the afterparty end.
“I was so negligent yesterday, partying out, drinking Oktoberfest here,” Kaye said. The Sunday comedown didn’t affect Kaye’s ability to play at a hootenanny pace while offering some of his erudition on musical history.
“I never knew any of the originals, which is a real example of folk communication,” Kaye said of the Anthology tunes before kicking into Big Joe Williams’ “Turn Your Lamp Down Low,” learned from the Amboy Dukes. Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo Coo Bird” came to him from Big Brother and the Holding Company.
Kaye ranged well outside the Anthology for his selections and educational asides. He told the crowd:
“There’s a lot of music in the late ’20s and early ’30s that’s not on the Harry Smith anthology. You have to remember what the times were. It was a time of depression. People didn’t get to eat burgers from cows 10 miles away, or drink craft beer.”
Before playing “Where the Blue of the Night,” Kaye reminded his listeners how “revolutionary” Bing Crosby’s voice sounded when the microphone was invented in 1931, that invention itself a “very odd topic” that obsessed him for 10 years or so. Before launching into a singalong version of “The Old Gospel Ship,” Kaye mused on how much religion is in folk music: “Music is just one step away from the spiritual enlightenment that is heaven. It’s kind of like the pathway.”
How folk songs evolve was demonstrated when Kaye played “Like a Rolling Stone.” The crowd was singing along until verse three began, when Kaye stopped, unable to remember the first line.
Kaye kept strumming, hoping for a prompt: “Can somebody look it up on Google?” he asked. “Bob Dylan is like turning over in his grave.”
After a minute or more pause as people pulled out their phones, Kaye started making up the next verse:
“Drinking Oktoberfest, and that’s probably why I have to confess, I can’t remember the words/
And you know this town of Millheim is so sweet. I’m going to come back here in the summer and have something to eat.”
A voice finally called out “Never turned down to see the crowns.” Kaye then sang Dylan’s lyrics to the end, after shooting another verse into the folk cosmos from the year 2014.