WHAT? A folk concert with no tambourines? When an appeal by Noel Paul Stookey (of Peter, Paul & Mary fame, working solo here) to the FolkTree Festival's backstage crew and audience didn't produce one, he provided the percussion himself - using his keys. And they worked just fine. Mr. Stookey was one of the 54 poets and pickers at this third annual ``festival of New England's finest'' folk artists a few weeks ago in the town of Somerville, five miles north of Boston. They are part of the latest generation of solo acoustic musicians who can pen an impassioned song, strum a mean guitar, and coax a shy audience to sing along. In harmony.
Although it had a strong ``underground'' following, folk music was barely visible in the musical mainstream over the last 15 years, as rock and disco took center stage. These days, though, folk music is again edging into the mainstream.
But this is '80s folk music. Not only are there no tambourines, but people don't sing ``Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,'' anymore. Today's performers are apt to use electric guitars (something Bob Dylan was booed for doing 20 years ago) and sing funny songs about yuppies' cars.
Many of today's singers work alone or with an occasional backup musician, rather than in groups. Another difference is that the new acoustic performers have a wider variety of styles than were common in the '60s. On one evening during the FolkTree Festival concert, we heard blues from Rory Block; a nasal, ``nyah-nyah'' Ramons-type song from an otherwise fairly conventional string band, the Chicken Chokers; and plunks from an electric bass backing up the crystal-pure voice of Gail Rundlett.
``One of the problems we're all wrestling with is that the term `folk music' has become so broad as to be meaningless,'' said Tom Rush, a veteran folk artist who is still very active, in a recent telephone interview from his home in Deering, N.H. ``There is no phrase that describes everything that is currently related.''
Because of that, many performers prefer the term ``acoustic music'' to ``folk.''
Today's lyrics are hard to pigeonhole. While there's no longer a Vietnam War to sing about, there are South Africa and Central America to provide fodder for protest songs. At the FolkTree Festival, Stookey sang about El Salvador and about an unwanted pregnancy; Bill Morrissey, about tankers on back country roads leaking trails of poison; and Scott Alarik, about the plight of native Americans. But even the serious songs inform without heavyhanded preaching. And today's lyrics are more often on personal, close-to-home subjects.
``Folk music now is what country music used to be - the real honest stuff that spoke to you,'' says singer/songwriter Christine Lavin of the Greenwich Village folk scene. ``Most of the folk stuff being written is gentle, with some social satire - not nearly as political as it was. It used to be easier to define, more black-and-white.'' Ms. Lavin herself sings about summer weddings and catching a pop fly on her album, ``Beau Woes and Other Problems of Modern Life.''
``Many of the new singer/songwriters have more in common with the best of new regional fiction writers than with traditional folk subjects,'' says Margaret Leighton, founder and president of Rounder Records, a large independent label.
Some are calling the current resurgence a revival. Others say folk music never died but just went underground. Still others, pointing out that few of today's performers have major record contracts, scoff at the notion that folk will have a broad-based popularity in the '80s.
But the evidence that things are changing is clear:
Folk festivals are big again. The Newport Folk Festival, granddaddy of them all, came back two summers ago after a 16-year hiatus, drawing 15,000 people over two days. The festival has been repeated every year since. A Washington, D.C., edition of the Newport fest last summer drew about the same number. Other festivals were held this year in New York City and Philadelphia.
Coffeehouse concerts are percolating. The Boston area, for example has seen a five-fold growth over the last two years, estimates Harry Lipson, founder and president of FolkTree ConcertMakers, the promoting organization for the weekend-long Somerville event. But the action isn't just in cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Small clubs and coffeehouses are thriving in Minneapolis; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Tampa, Fla.; Austin, Texas; and elsewhere. And a cottage industry of independent record producers, agents, and concert producers has sprung up around them.
Folk performers are working in upscale venues: The Newport Folk Festival - D.C. last summer played at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and Tom Rush held his sixth holiday season concert with new and old artists in Boston's Symphony Hall.
More radio stations are adding folk programming. In Boston, one can hear folk music 18 hours a day. And in nearby Concord, Mass.,a new AM station going on the air in 1987 will play only acoustic music. Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver are just a few of the cities that have popular folk programs. In Washington, Dick Cerri's 25-year-old ``Music Americana'' program, which had bounced from station to station during the '70s, found a home at WLTT radio and took off in 1981. ``It seemed to be something people were waiting for,'' Mr. Cerri says. ``The ratings went from few to the top-rated show on Sunday nights.'' Throughout America, 3 million listeners tune in Saturday nights to American Public Radio's ``A Prairie Home Companion,'' which presents folk artists as well as Garrison Keillor's ramblings about small-town life in Minnesota.
Another indication of the resurgence is the fact that pluckers-on-the-rise - such as Christine Lavin, Bill Morrissey, Claudia Schmidt, Greg Brown, and Nanci Griffith - as well as such veterans as John Stuart (of the Kingston Trio), Arlo Guthrie, Tom Rush, Tom Paxton, and Peter, Paul & Mary and are finding steady work. Performers are starting to get paychecks with commas in them.
``It's been better the last couple of years because I can afford to fly more,'' says Bill Morrissey. ``I've done many a trip in old Chevys with bald retreads through snowstorms, though.''
As Mr. Morrissey's comment suggests, today's folk music is still largely a small, grassroots effort, unlike the '60s boom, when folk was America's popular music, and practically anyone who could play a guitar was vying for a record contract. It was a boom that quickly went bust (blame the Beatles). When major labels dropped folk performers in the '70s, many of them turned to independent labels.
Today, radio show hosts are proving helpful in giving performers exposure. Station manager Dave Littrell of Seattle's KEZX set up a gig for Ms. Lavin at a local showcase after she wrote a letter thanking him for playing her music. Dick Pleasants, host for folk shows on two Boston-area stations, interviews performers.
Many performers say they are largely ignored by the record and music industries, however, and have had to learn how to fend for themselves. Some have found that selling their own records and tapes at their concerts has yielded a higher return than royalties.
Tom Rush started his own managing, producing, and promoting agency - Maple Hill - in New Hampshire after being dropped by a major label. He handles a small group of other acoustic artists, including Morrissey and Lavin.
Performers admit that going it alone is a mixed blessing. ``I was up till 2 a.m. last night packing records, then up early to stand in line at the post office to send them,'' says Lavin. ``If record companies did it, I'd have more time to spend on writing and performing. But doing things this way forces you to learn all angles of the business....''
Some say, however, they prefer to continue ``undiscovered'' by the mainstream music industry. ``What we want to have happen is not a flame that burns brightly, but one that will keep going,'' says FolkTree's Harry Lipson. ``I think it will this time. I don't think the arm of New York City will drop on us, pick a few people, and leave the rest.''