Why I Left The Folk Alliance Board


By Art Menius

On March 27, 2014, I resigned from the board of directors of Folk Alliance International, the organization I had helped found in 1989. The following is an edited and revised version of the formal letter of resignation that I sent to the board.

I considered seriously going quietly into pasture a second time, as I did in 1996. Speaking out on my own could sound like so much grousing from an old curmudgeon. If nothing else, however, to voice these views forces their discussion, places the ideas into the marketplace.

How does one say goodbye to twenty-five years of one’s life, to separate from an organization that once embodied my core mission? I came to this dire decision in November 2013 when I realized I had no desire whatsoever to go to the first Kansas City conference. One option was not on the table. Neither I, nor anyone of good conscience, can in good faith remain on any non-profit board of directors when one cannot support the direction toward which the majority wants to steer. That is the difference between government service and a non-profit board. The latter runs on consensus; it is wrong to hang on when running against the flow.Image

I come from a Folk Alliance where Marta Moreno Vega of the Network of Cultural Centers of Color is the speaker not Al Gore, making millions off a faux-progressive platform. No one who has ever supported censorship of song lyrics is a friend of folk music, no matter how well rooted his family traditions. You can, thus, hear Al Gore Sr. play “Soldiers Joy” at the 1938 National Folk Festival here: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/afc/afccc/soldiersjoy/gore.mp3

I had been attempting to write this letter for three months without progress until I read an editorial in the March 2 Chapel Hill News http://www.chapelhillnews.com/2014/02/28/3655641/linda-haac-tale-of-two-towns.html. The background is that I work and serve on town commissions in Carrboro, one of the most left leaning towns in the southeast. While Chapel Hill has fallen under the sway of developers and retirees desiring lower taxes, Carrboro sticks with small, locally owned, locally sourced, organic, walk-bike-free bus, no big box retailers, no structure more than five stories, & etc. Linda Haac wrote:

It’s true nothing stays the same, change is always in the air and “so-called progress” needs to be made, but there are ways of doing things and ways ending in generic, often unpleasant results. Carrboro appears to be honoring our past as it moves forward, keeping true to our identity and soul, while Chapel Hill appears on a different track.

This contrast between two adjoining towns similar in so, so many ways (even gay mayors) frames the issues I have with FAI to a large degree. Growth and change will happen, but do we stay true to our core values in the process or adapt to mainstream fashions. I believe Folk Alliance, like Chapel Hill, has chosen the latter course, conflating what is best for business with what is best for the larger community.

Folk music is a business, but it is not just any business. Whether klezmer, Cajun, or bluegrass, community comes first and communities are based in shared values.

In recent years, Folk Alliance International has built on an earned income chassis and operated with earned income assumptions, rather than thinking like a non-profit charity. FAI reduces itself to the transactional pay for membership and a conference, rather than raising donated funds to change the world for the better by educating the general public about folk music and its traditions. That changes our mission into making money to stay in or grow the business instead of making the world a better place. Organizations under section 501(c)3 exist to do what the marketplace cannot support.

That process further pushes the FAI membership into the meaningless and ephemeral world of entertainment. Rather than a community annealed by shared traditions, purpose, and, yes, values, our artist members just become entertainers trying to advance their careers to the next level, a level that makes Folk Alliance irrelevant to them.

Do values matter to the Folk Alliance International? I always held they were essential. I know firsthand that values led Clark and Elaine Weissman to call us together at Camp Hess Kramer in January 1989. As Bush replaced Reagan and the culture wars annealed our community in a way that may not have existed since the 1940s. Even the agents and commercial media reps who attended saw folk music as part of the larger non-profit arts world, not the commercial music industry. We wanted to live and work our whole lives in the folk music community, not use folk music as a means to somewhere else.

Under US IRS Tax Code, Folk Alliance was created as a 501(c)3 educational non-profit, not a 501(c)6 business league. Many in our community may feel the need for a 501(c)6 business league or trade association along the lines of IBMA, CMA, or AMA. I have no objection to that, but that has to be a new 501(c)6 and not a pre-existing 501(c)3 educational charity. We did not try take over CDSS (the Country Dance & Song Society which remains larger than FAI), but created a new organization focused on our needs and shaped by our values.

To paraphrase “House of Cards:” “The nature of non-profit missions is that they are immune to changing circumstances.” Our community needs an organization that is for, by, and about the folk music community in Canada and the USA, that unites and advocates for the non-profit folk arts presenting world, protects government funding for the folk arts at federal and provincial/state level, educates about and celebrates our traditions, connects us to the academic and public folklore sectors, and places folk arts within grassroots community arts.

That is why we formed this organization 25 years ago. That is why a couple of dozen of us invested vast amounts of time and money to make Folk Alliance a reality. These are tasks that neither a for-profit business nor a 501(c)6 trade association are not designed to do. Nor are they short term goals that can be changed over time to suit membership recruitment goals. In those configurations, where business and trade dominate, principles are devalued. Decisions that should be made in the best interests of the long term good of the folk community are made for what is good for the Folk Alliance as a business.

Aware in January 1989 both of the appropriateness of meeting at a Jewish summer camp and the irony of convening across the PCH from the fabled beaches of Malibu (while ignorant that The Band had rehearsed there), we discussed and reaffirmed our values. One hundred twenty of us made a group commitment to the folk music community in Canada and the USA.

Values do matter. Values are long term, like art. Our values shape our community. Values sustain organizations and given meaning to their work. Today is the time when our voices are needed more than ever within folk music and without. As one of the people that Elaine and Clark Weissman recruited to support this effort, as one of 120 at Malibu in 1989, as a member of the Steering Committee, as our first president and first employee of Folk Alliance, I believe these are our values:

  • We are the music of both of authentic communities and cultures and of the left in North America.
  • We stand on the shoulders of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Hedy West, Jean Carignan, Big Bill Broonzy, and Sarah Ogun Gunning.
  • We offer an alternative to mainstream, corporate culture
  • We believe in non-profit organizations as the primary means to organize our community
  • We are committed to building audiences through grassroots communities
  • We believe in government and foundation funding for arts, arts education, and arts in education
  • We believe in our folk traditions
  • We believe in an equal Canadian-American partnership within Folk Alliance, acting as if population and membership numbers were equal.
  • We appeal to the best collective notions – embodied by singing together – not base self-interest
  • We need one strong voice to advocate for folk music and dance in Canada and the USA
  • We understand that not all singer-songwriters nor all acoustic music is folk.

Folk Alliance International has morphed in recent years into the antithesis of much of we wanted to create back then. While still a fun gathering of the tribes, the conference no longer affirms the essential values of the folk music community in North America. Without values to guide us, we become just a trade association, not a 501(c)3 charity. When the voices expressing those values are marginalized and consigned to the dustbin of history rather than celebrated as the foundation of our community, FAI has gone astray.

Where have we strayed from the course?

  • We are more about advancing individual careers than serving the folk music community.
  • Trying to build the audience for FAI more than building the audience for folk music through strong grassroots communities, organizations, and businesses. This suggests conflating FAI with the folk music community.
  • Yet I have become convinced that FAI uses a pay to play business model that exploits the hopes and dreams of musicians rather than advancing our field. It is true that every year, the Folk Alliance International conference jumpstarts the careers of any number of artists. On the other hand, far greater numbers invest their time and money chasing the dream in private showcase after private showcase. Are we any better footed morally than the showcase clubs in Nashville and LA? Some people call the conference a festival, and it does feel like one at night. We were created to serve the field of non-profit folk music presenters, neither to compete with our members as an event nor to use artists as an income stream.
  • Turning to an outside search firm for the next ED tells me that we are adopting and modeling as “professionalism” the worst values of mainstream American corporate capitalism – not the traditional folk community values.
  • The sheer hubris of talking about international expansion when so much work remains to be done in the USA and Canada
  • Behaving as if we were a 501(c)6 trade association – depending on dues and conference revenue – rather than a 501(c)3 charity whose impact, growth, and effectiveness are funded through donations and grants. Increasing revenue for the organization thereby becomes more important than serving the greater folk music community or, for a trade association, business.
  • Failing to serve effectively as one strong advocacy voice for the folk community with private and government funders and policy makers at all levels

Those are the key points. That which was created to serve community, now works for individual goals. Careerism has displaced values.

Folk Alliance 2012 Review


Folk Alliance 2012

By Art Menius for artmenius.com 2/28/2012

Last week brought another Folk Alliance International Conference, the last of a six year cycle in Memphis, Tennessee. Next year brings Toronto, then five years in Kansas City, Missouri starting in 2014. I started attending with the formation conference produced by Clark and Elaine Weissman in 1989. This year’s vintage proved one of the best of the 24 so far. See “History of Folk Alliance Conferences” at the end of this article.

I’ll feature the best new music I gleaned from FAI 2012 on “From the Roots” on WMMT-FM 88.7, Whitesburg, KY this Saturday from 11 AM until 2 PM Eastern. Streams live at wmmtfm.org and on various phone/tablet radio apps. My radio blog lives here.

Adventures in Obligations & Awards

I arrived Tuesday night for the start of many hours of FAI Board meetings that stretched through 4 PM PM on Thursday. Working together, we sorted through some serious matters involving this upcoming transition and the birth in 2014 of an exciting winter music camp. Board work continued on Friday with a celebratory meeting with the FAI Regional leaders marking the consummation of a long awaited formal relationship with the international organization. We enjoyed a delightful reception and conversation on Friday with some potential members of the soon to be formed Advisory Council of Folk Alliance. I was reelected to another year on Ex Comm as Secretary as were incumbents Renee Bodie, President, Michelle Conceison, Veep, and Donald Davidoff, Treas. Chris Frayer joined the Ex Comm team as at large. The board welcomed one new member, Joan Kornblith of Voice of America, and thanked Mike Gormley, Linda Fahey, and Ralph Sutton for their years of service.

FAI directors and regional leaders 2012

Wednesday evening brought the Elaine Weissman Lifetime Achievement Awards. Scott Alarick again produced fantastic and informative videos for each recipient. As LAA chair, I had the honor of accepting for Harry Belafonte as Living Performer. Most of the LAA videos can be found on here. Pam Michael, current Executive Director, accepted for the Highlander Center. Robert Johnson’s grandsons were there to accept the Legacy LAA and rendered a spirited, electric performance of “Sweet Home Chicago.”

Robert Johnson's grandson singing at LAA

An entertaining interruption of board work, following the least controversial Annual General Membership meeting in history, was the key note interview of Bob Lefsetz by board member Wendy Waldman.

Who is Bob Lefsetz?

When one says and writes as much as Bob Lefsetz, especially statements outrageous enough to entertain, the quality remains variable. One can read this article about him from the current Wired Magazine. That said, Lefsetz connects with spot on accuracy some of the time, and always provides something to talk about. Highlights from his keynote Interview included:

“You have to be good enough that agents and labels come to you.”

“Mumford & son broke; the folk ghetto no longer exists.”

“I want to go to Youtube and see you play live.”

“Twitter is information, not self-promotion. Let your personality come out.”

“If you’re in this business for the money, quit.”

Lefsetz raved about Memphis and the Folk Alliance. You can start reading with this one.

Music, Lots of Music

And, of course, we had showcases upon showcases, a Coney Island stretching from the most traditional to the most self-involved singer-songwriter and pretty much everything in between. They ranged from bands together for months to one-time hit makers like Jonathan Edwards and Dale Watson. The big buzz acts included Elizabeth Laprelle, a young traditional ballad singer, the gospel Sojourners, the retro-hipster Milk Carton Boys, and the Dunwells, who are live from Leeds and bring to mind Mumford & Son. Lefsetz loved the Dunwells, read this.

Jon Newlin & Elizabeth Laprelle

 Elizabeth Laprelle proved an astonishing southwest Virgina young traditional singer. At a tender age she has mastered the acclaimed Madison County, NC ballad style (think “Songcatcher” and the soundtrack for “Cold Mountain”) and become a commanding string band lead vocalist. She is the niece of veteran singer and fiddler Jon Newlin, the husband of the outstanding singer/banjo player Amy Davis and member of such groups as the Hushpuppies and the Maudlin Brothers. Jon now anchors Elizabeth’s band The Fruit Dodgers. LaPrelle is blessed with a timeless voice that projects authenticity. She possesses a magic gift that earned her this year’s Mike Seeger scholarship to Folk Alliance. Her latest album, Bird’s Advice, features Jon and Amy, Jim Lloyd, and her mom. Elizabeth Laprelle is real. ‘Nuff said.

L-R Old Man Luedecke, Matt the Electrician, Kaia Kater

Thursday night I saw the Ola Belle Reed of the 21st century. She is an 18 year old from Winnipeg named Kaia Kater (Hurst) who has been playing banjo for just 5 years and knows every inch of that long neck. Mitch Podolak was her first teacher. She sings the old songs and composes fascinating new tunes describing her sound as “alternative/crunk/folk.” Find her now, including a Phillip Glass cover, at http://www.myspace.com/kaiakaterhurst Banjo playing Canadian singer-songwriter Old Man Lubecke and Austin’s idiosyncratic rising star Matt the Electrician were also terrific on the same set.

The Dust Busters

From Laprelle’s Friday night showcase in one of the trad showcases run by Andy Cohen into the wee hours, meandering led me to a hot set by Brooklyn’s Dustbusters. They gave me an advance on their May CD with John Cohen from the New Lost City Ramblers on Smithsonian-Folkways. These three are clearly eaten up with hard core old-time scouring the old recordings for stuff to fit their high energy, pure trad string band on meth style. The Dustbusters performed at the Country Music Hall of Fame on the way home and opened for Steve Earle and Alison Moorer in early February.

Malcomb Holcombe

Perhaps because of the compressed showcase timeframe, my favorite male singer-songwriter Malcomb Holcombe gave the most focused and effective performance I have ever seen by him in is official showcase on second floor Friday night. FAI president Renee Bodie said he was just as powerful in her room 90 minutes later. I met Malcomb at jam sessions in Asheville in the early 1980s when he was a wild young man with amazing songs. Now, he is a wild acting middle aged married songwriter of extraordinary depth and masterfully economical writing. Seeing Malcomb in these small spaces took me back three decades as did the way Holcombe retains the facial and body contortions that add another layer of expression to his poetry and guitar playing. The St. Louis Room was SRO. It’s reaffirming to see this artist finally getting his due since a glowing profile in the Wall Street Journal. I also enjoyed catching parts of excellent performances by a bunch of other old friends including Kickin’ Grass, Joel Rafael (who presented a big Woody Guthrie tribute show Thursday evening), and Scott Ainslie.

Joel Rafael

Scott Ainslie with diddley bo

Wednesday night I ran into old-time and bluegrass veteran Paul Kovac, one of two people I know from Chardon, Ohio, which would be ripped into the headlines on Monday. Jim Blum from Folk Alley had just given him a CD of one of the two shows he played as one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1981. Boy = Girl, Paul’s current effort, is a fun duo with upright bassist Jen Maurer, who also plays in the zydeco-jam band fusion group Mo’ Mojo. They sing romantic duets resembling country and pop styles of a half-century ago, accompanying themselves on banjo and bass. Somehow it ends up sounding more contemporary than atavistic, perhaps because the songs are original.

Atomic Duo

Austin’s Atomic Duo somehow noticed that the 1930s were the highwater marks for both brother duet music and socialism in the USA. So they put the two together. I discovered later than they face paced and hilarious showcase was webcast. “Another Key in the Key Chain” is a brilliant example of masking contemporary commentary with the trappings of the past. Who said we learned nothing from watching “M.A.S.H?” The Atomic Duo offers a compelling reinvention of American folk song.

From the same town, musical time period, and appearing next in the same room were three women who call themselves The Carper Family. Anyone who likes Hot Club of Cowtown will immediately engage with the small ensemble western swing and cowboy sound of the Carper Family. Bass player Melissa Carper has a penned a collection of strong original songs that work perfectly in their take on the retro-hip wave, including “Who R U Texting 2Nite?,” which appears on their Back When CD that features Cindy Cashdollar.

Folk Alliance at Occupy Memphis

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Andy Cohen led a bunch of volunteer musicians two blocks down Main Street to give a public concert in solidarity with Occupy Memphis. The Memphis Mayor’s office helped make it happen.

Workshops and Panels

Board service means that our directors miss all too much of the workshop and panel sessions.

Hazel Dickens Remembered

The session on Hazel Dickens seemed all too short. John Lilly had prepared a nice powerpoint of photos and an informative brochure. Mix of singing and stories from John Lilly, Tracy Schwarz, Ginny Hawker, Bill & Louise Kirchen, and Ken Irwin. The stories covered various aspects of her personality, songwriting, music, wisdom, and the ways she touched our lives. A completed but unreleased album should appear in a few months. Ken has not yet begun going through her many cassettes for what might be hidden there. Bill Kirchen said he regretted that they did not record the honky-tonk album they had discussed. Bill and Louise took Hazel to a John Lilly concerts just days before she passed. They sang all the way back to her apartment. One tale reminded me of how Hazel would always inspect my wife Becky Johnson before the IBMA Awards shows. You can watch the 2002 LAA video for Hazel Dickens here. My obit for the FAI newsletter lives here.

Saturday morning also offered an exemplary conversation about festivals that benefited from the diversity Louis Meyers structured into the panelists. The previous day I made my debut as a Maryland resident in attending the NERFA session rather than my previous home in SERFA.

We had a wonderful conversation that could have gone on forever in the session Pam McMichael and I hosted about the Highlander Center. Wanda Fisher from WAMC radio offered a first person account of frequenting there as a UT student to the consternation of her dorm mother, while Dave Marsh of SiriusXM and Bau Graves from the Old-Town School of Folk Music offered challenging perspectives.

The 2012 FAI Conference provided a blissful last time around in Memphis, arguably the best of our six efforts on the bluffs above the Mississippi. Well see you in Toronto next year and hence in Kansas City.

Jeron Big Boy Paxton fiddling with Dust Busters

History of Folk Alliance Conferences

7 Produced by Louis Jay Meyers, so far

2007 – 2012 – Memphis, TN

2006 – Austin, TX

9 Produced by Phyllis Barney

2005 –  Montreal, PQ

2004 – San Diego, CA

2003 –  Nashville, TN

2002 –  Jacksonville, FL

2001 –  Vancouver, BC

2000 –   Cleveland, OH

1999 –   Albuquerque, NM

1998 – Memphis, TN

1997 –  Toronto, ON

6 Produced by Art Menius & local committees

1996 – Washington, DC

1995 –  Portland, OR

1994 –  Boston, MA

1993 –  Tucson, AZ

1992 – Calgary, AB

1991 –  Chicago, IL

Produced by Philadelphia Folk Song Society & FA Steering Committee

1990 –  Philadelphia, PA

Produced by Clark & Elaine Weissman

1989 –  Malibu, CA

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