Jim Blum has witnessed the graying of the local folk audience and the emergence of a new generation of gifted young musicians in the 25 years he has been been a folk music host on Kent State’s WKSU.
These days he is busy with preparations for the 39th annual Kent State Folk Festival, Nov. 11-19. Headliners for the 2005 series of concerts include John Gorka, the Holmes Brothers, Over the Rhine and 60s icon Donovan.
Blum got his start as the host of an hour-long bluegrass show on WKSU. The Kent graduate had no radio experience, but had played in a bluegrass and swing band, and had worked as an actor and voice-over announcer.
“I submitted a tape and it came down between me and a professor and they thought, ‘let’s give it to this young guy, he may stick around a lot longer,’” Blum said.
They were right.
He split his time between his radio job, work as a salesman for a construction company, and acting in industrial films for General Electric and Sherwin Williams. It was a tough time, and then it got tougher. The market for the industrial films dried up in the sour economy of the late 90s, as did Blum’s marriage.
He was hosting two evening folk shows on WSKU and spending one day in the office. The station management wanted to add a third night of folk programming, but was having difficulty finding someone to host the extra show. At the urging of station colleagues, Blum approached management with the idea of taking on the new night and rounding out a full-time schedule with work organizing the folk festival and other concerts.
The station agreed, and in 1997 Blum became a full-time folk radio host and music programmer.
In September 2003 those roles spilled over into Folk Alley, when WKSU launched the Web site to reach a world-wide audience with a 24/7 digital stream of folk music. Folk Alley now has more than 50,000 registered users, and countless others who listen via iTunes.
What goes into selecting the music for Folk Alley and WKSU? “People say it’s all subjective, that it’s whatever you like,” Blum said. “Oh, no it ain’t.”
“I can point to any song on Folk Alley and tell you why it’s there.”
Blum describes a complex criteria for song selection that includes melodic structure, lyrical content, instrumental virtuosity and an absence of clichés. In programming the songs for each show, Blum likes a diverse mix of male and female performers, solo acts and groups and songs in a variety of tempos.
Blaring electric guitar solos or jazzy horn sections are unlikely to make the cut. The selected music is generally acoustic, but each piece is considered on its own merit, according to Blum.
“There are things that might not be totally acoustic, but they fit, ” Blum explained.
The boundaries of folk music are unclear, and that is what makes the music unique. Blum draws from several categories: singer-songwriters; heroes, such as Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, and Joni Mitchell; instrumentalists, such as fiddle and guitar whiz Mark O’Connor; Celtic; Roots/Americana, including swing and bluegrass bands; and World Music, which on any given show might include music from the Andes or Australia or from Cuban dance hall sensations The Buena Vista Social Club.
Blum challenges any strictly traditionalist definition of folk, saying, “the best stuff is between categories.”
According to Blum, some people consider folk front porch music that was never intended for public performance. Others describe it as outspoken, socially conscious music. Still others claim that folk is played only on acoustic instruments by artists with the skill of a jazz or classical musician.
“If you look at some of these young groups and some of the established people, they have these things in common. They are poets and philosophers who phrase well. They are skilled players. Yet it’s a casual, homespun thing, too,” Blum said.
Blum mentions several acts that have recently emerged on the national folk scene — including Nickel Creek, The Duhks, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Mammals, Uncle Earl and Steppin’ In It — as prime examples of the new generation of folkies.
Closer to home, there is no shortage of talent. Blum describes the folk scene in the Cleveland area as vibrant and overstocked. Venues like the Beachland Ballroom in Collinwood, the Barking Spider in the University Circle area, the Winchester in Lakewood, the Rose in Medina, the Kent Stage and the Visitor’s Center in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park all compete for the same acts.
Members of local folk talent pool, many of whom will participate in the free Folk Festival workshops on Saturday, Nov. 19, try to play out all the time. But the market is tight, and people can’t go out every night.
“You’ve got people in their mid-40s into their 50s listening,” Blum said. “They’re now nesters, and they’ve got a couple of kids and they can’t go out.”
But while folk has a dedicated, if aging, local audience, Blum acknowledges the need to expand the audience by exposing the younger generation to the music.
“I’m a little concerned about this market skewing older,” Blum said.
While Kent State has hosted the Folk Festival for 39 years, few students actually attend.
“You would hope that these 20,000 kids would wake up and realize that they don’t have to listen to the crap that’s being handed to them,” Blum said.
“How do you get them to do it? You can’t force it down their throats.”
Efforts to attract a younger audience to the 2005 festival include the continuation of the festival talent contest and the booking of younger acts, including Over the Rhine, premier jam band The Horse Flies, the Dust Poets and fiddler April Verch, who opens for Donovan on Nov. 19.
Those who have discovered folk music have sought it out, according to Blum, who describes the folk audience as “bright people who just won’t settle for…pablum.”
“And then they’re enlightened when they find that there is a choice,” Blum said.
Information on tickets for all Kent State Folk Festival shows is available at kentstatefolkfestival.org/
(Also available at brhubart.blogspot.com)