In a tiny classroom in the Kent State Student Center, an impromptu four-piece combo fronted by two virtuoso steel guitar players rolls through a series of classic western swing and country tunes while the rapt, standing-room-only crowd of perhaps three dozen whoops in appreciation. In between tunes, the steel players answer questions from the crowd about their instruments and technique.
During the free workshops at the 39th annual Kent State Folk Festival, Nov. 19, 12 p.m. – 5 p.m., variations on that scene will play out in classrooms in the Student Center and in the adjacent Kiva auditorium, as some the region’s best performers demonstrate and discuss instrumental technique (mandolin, fiddle, guitar, banjo, accordion), musical styles (bluegrass, blues, swing, Celtic, Balkan), songwriting, storytelling, and clog and contra dancing.
Elsewhere in the Student Center — in designated jam rooms, lobby corners, and sometimes even outside — amateur and professional players of all ages gather in floating sessions that will last the entire afternoon, playing everything from ancient jazz and pop tunes to blues and bluegrass, and the occasional classical piece.
While the dominant feature of the festival is the series of concerts by an eclectic list of national and regional artists, the workshops, held on the final day of the festival, represent the accessibility and personal interaction that define the folk music tradition.
“People want to know what’s going on,” said Josh Davis, singer and guitarist with Steppin’ In It, one of the national recording acts that participated in the 2004 festival workshops, and a prime example of the new generation of folk performers.
“That’s the cool thing about this music. People have a lot of hands-on interest, whereas with a lot of other kinds of music, people may have hands-on interest but it’s not made very accessible,” Davis said. “I’ve met most of my heroes in the folk music world, but there’s no way I’m going to meet anybody from the pop music world.”
It was at a KSU folk festival workshop that Roland Kausen, a veteran featured mandolin and bluegrass workshop performer, met and played with one of his heroes: bluegrass legend Jethro Burns.
“He was just such an easy-going guy, always cracking jokes, and he was really supportive of all the musicians around him. There was not a lot of ego there. It was a joy, and it was actually inspiring,” Kausen said.
While the folk fans and amateur players are drawn to the workshops for the opportunity to listen to and learn from the some of the region’s most skilled players, the featured workshop performers are attracted by the back-porch, community atmosphere.
“We all know each other and we’ve been doing this for twenty or thirty years,” Kausen said. “It’s an opportunity to get back together and visit and play.”
That opportunity is rare among the area’s working musicians.
“We don’t get a chance to hear each other play because we’re working,” said Seth Rosen, a member of Cleveland-based roots band The Suspenders and another veteran swing and mandolin workshop performer. “This kind of thing during the day is an opportunity to hang out.”
The Kent Folk Festival workshops are “one of the friendliest events you’re going to find,” according to Al Moss, pedal steel guitar player with Hillbilly Idol and a featured performer in the steel guitar workshop at the 2004 festival.
“As many times as I’ve been a part of it, in workshops or just participating in the audience, man, it’s just like old home week,” Moss said.
But for Moss and other featured workshop performers, the workshops also represent an opportunity to evangelize about the music.
Moss described the steel guitar workshop at the 2004 festival as an opportunity to be a “missionary of the pedal steel” to those who are unfamiliar with the instrument. “Lot’s of folks, especially when you get north of the Mason-Dixon line, look at what I play and call it a keyboard. Or they hear it and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I recognize that sound, but I didn’t know that’s what it looked like.’”
“What I hope is that they walk away with a better understanding,” Moss said, “and then they will get turned on and want to play one.”
If the number of guitar, fiddle, mandolin and other instruments cases being toted by those attending the workshops is any indication, people of all ages are getting turned on, and, thanks to events like these workshops, the folk music tradition shows no signs of running out of steam.
The Kent State Folk Festival workshops are free and open to the public. For more information and a complete schedule visit: kentstatefolkfestival.org
(Also available here.)