For folk lovers the Broward Folk Club's annual South Florida Folk Festival may be the ultimate venue to indulge their music jones. Every January the event, now in its eighth year, takes residence in Fort Lauderdale's idyllic Easterlin Park. The festival's five stages host dancers, workshops, children's entertainers, local musicians, touring national acts, and finalists in a national songwriter competition.
Back in the Sixties, Dade County boasted a thriving folk scene. It still maintains its own folk club (throwing monthly concerts, open-mike nights, and the occasional song swap), but the group has yet to present its own musical extravaganza, à la Broward.
"It's a Miami-Dade County thing," says Michael Stock, explaining the lack of cohesion in Miami's current folk scene. "The county in general is a very unique place, but it just doesn't have roots, and that's essential where you see strong folk organizations."
Stock knows about roots. He has hosted WLRN-FM's (91.3) Folk and Acoustic Music show since 1982, and during the late Eighties he founded the Folk Club of South Florida in a South Beach health-food restaurant called Our Place. After a few years of running the folk club, plus coordinating open-mike nights and booking two shows per week at Our Place, Stock decided that devoting himself entirely to his radio program would be the best thing he could do to nurture a local folk scene.
So where's our folk scene? "It has been growing steadily," Stock insists. "The quality has definitely improved. A lot of the local performers are really good." But don't count on many of them making it on the level of, say, Arlo Guthrie or Bob Dylan. "You don't break out when you're in folk music," Stock notes. "It's really its own thing. People ask me all the time about popularity, but this is folk. I think in different terms."
There's no denying plenty of folk singers live and play in South Florida. A few make a living solely from performing. Most, though, are hoping to reach that point, and releasing an album is a first step in that direction. What follows here is a sampling of recordings by some of the area's local folkies, along with winners from this past month's Folk Festival songwriter contest.
He may have an easygoing, almost Mr. Rogers-like demeanor, but Grant Livingston surprises listeners with his biting wit and often cerebral lyrics. On his self-released The One That Got Away, Livingston, known fondly in the folk realm as Florida's historian in song, wraps his Harry Chapin-esque voice around seventeen short songs (most are three minutes) featuring him on vocals and guitar with backup help from Ron and Bari Litschauer (the duo Ron & Bari), violinist Chuck Anton, trombonist Chuck Brooker, percussionist Glen Caruba, and others. He employs words like "fruition," "cellophane," "Styrofoam," and "crustacean," and playfully incorporates puns ("Life on the freeway takes its toll on me"). Livingston always has tongue planted firmly in cheek, whether fantasizing about revenge through the art of songwriting ("A Song About You"), contemplating waste and recycling ("Throwin' It All Away"), or meditating on the eternal secrets songs reveal when they're played backward ("Play This Song Backwards" details a country tune in reverse). Good fun. (Grant Livingston, P.O. Box 330811, Coconut Grove, FL 33233)
Brother-and-sister team Ellen Bukstel Segal and Gary Bukstel form the core of the folk-pop ensemble Legacy, which also includes multi-instrumentalist and singer Andy Neuman. Their album Somewhere in Time, dedicated to the memory of Bukstel Segal's husband and brother-in-law who died of hemophilia-related AIDS, brims with love songs, some heartwrenching, others perky. Outstanding tunes include the title track and "Another Place in Time." Profound yearning -- for kinship, tranquility, reconnection with a lost love -- is the theme in both ballads, which feature Bukstel Segal's warm voice and the trio's Peter, Paul, and Mary-sounding harmonies. The buoyant tale of a woman who refuses to be tied down, "She Had to Be Free," alleviates the somber mood considerably. Bukstel's adroit fingerpicking shimmers. An earnest set. A portion of the proceeds from record sales is donated to AIDS organizations. (Legacy, 7430 SW 122nd St, Miami, FL 33156)
Amy Carol Webb contends that the title of her second album Songweaver, comes from the definition of her name. While flipping through a dictionary of baby names one day, she discovered her own handle meant "beloved songweaver." On this self-produced ten-song compendium, Webb, a former member of the New Christy Minstrels and New Seekers, proves herself more than an exceptional songwriter. She's a captivating vocalist and accomplished musician as well. Accompanied by drummer Stewart Jean, keyboardists Doug Leibinger and Ben Stivers, guitarists Larry Williams, Ron Dziubla, and James London, and Legacy members Ellen Bukstel Segal and Gary Bukstel, Webb produces a polished set. There's not a clunker on this collection. Included are the affecting ballad "Daddy Don't Let Go" and her feminist anthem "I Come from Women" (the two songs earned her best overall songwriter and best upbeat song honors at last year's South Florida Folk Festival). The languid "Did You Spend Last Night Like Me" simmers with desire ("Did you reach for no one there?/ Did you cling to hollow air?/ Did you face your bed alone and cry to sleep?"). With pleasing background harmonies provided by the Legacy duo, "Day in and Day Out" radiates with optimism.
Even Webb's old tunes have staying power that mark her as a fine songwriter. Written in the Eighties after a wild night in Texas's Gilley's Bar, "You Can't Kiss Me" humorously details a cocky cowboy coming on to a woman who is certainly not impressed. Also composed in the early Eighties when she was struggling for stardom in Los Angeles, "Flat in West L.A." could be the theme song for anyone who regrets taking a seemingly impossible risk. With Songweaver Webb has surpassed ordinary storytelling and mastered the art of mesmerizing. (Zebra Productions, P.O. Box 660131, Miami Springs, FL 33266)
On June 21, 1998, Father's Day, more than a dozen singers from Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties gathered at West Palm Beach's Kravis Center for a concert to raise money for the Connor Moran Children's Cancer Center. The resulting live album, Songwriters' Solstice: A Celebration of South Florida Songwriters, provides a smorgasbord of songs by folkies Jim Collier, Marie Nofsinger, Ron & Bari, James London, Legacy, Rod MacDonald, as well as some jazzy types such as Human Beings and rockers Box Elder.
Live albums are often tricky when it comes to production and this one is no different. Some songs sparkle, others sound as if they were recorded in a tunnel. Highlights include Jim Collier's moving love song "Step by Step," Rod MacDonald's rumination on the hurricane season, "Days of Rain," and Grant Livingston's sweet "Two of Hearts." One gets the impression that the tunes were retooled in a recording studio, until the audience's applause jolts at the songs' ends. Ron & Bari's compelling tale of one man versus a crackhouse ("The Lion's Den") seems too tame, and Amy Carol Webb's always-powerful vocals are faraway, almost muffled, on "With You Without You." Marianne Flemming's funky "Skating Figure 8's" also sounds distant. Uneven sound quality aside, Songwriters' Solstice still boasts the varied talents of some of South Florida's most appealing local musicians. (Solstice Records & Productions, Box 2152, Delray Beach, FL 33447)
Winner of the awards for best overall and best upbeat song, Clemson, South Carolina's Carla Ulbrich offers an eponymous four-song cassette that modestly showcases her skillful strumming, nimble fingerpicking, girlish voice, and sardonic songs of love gone awry. "Love Connection" presents a woman who watches and revels in the misery of a conceited cad she once dated as he is humiliated on the nationally syndicated show. "What If Your Girlfriend Was Gone," the bouncy tune that garnered Ulbrich the best upbeat song prize, suggests a twisted folk take on Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know." The female narrator muses about how her former flame would react if "something should happen accidentally or medically" to his current girlfriend: "But if I were around and I could appease ya/And she was suddenly struck with amnesia/And never again would be able to please ya/ Would you still wanna be her man?"
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Nestled among the vitriol: A dexterous fingerpicking rendition of the classic "Zippity-do-dah" and "It Reminds Me of You," a melancholy ballad that recalls a painful personal attachment while it details struggles with addictions to everything from television to overeating. (Carla Ulbrich, 106 Highland Dr, Clemson, SC 29631)
Detroit, Michigan's eclectic Jo Serrapere wowed the festival crowd with her tragic folk tune "Dream, My Girl," which scored her the award for best ballad. The slow-paced "Dream" tells the poignant story of a young wife who, unable to give her husband a male heir, watches him grow increasingly violent. After enduring years of beatings, the wife finally stands up to him and meets a tragic end.
That song and ten others (nine written by Serrapere) appear on the diverse collection, My Blue Heaven. (Covers of John Henry's "Good Ol' Wagon" and a traditional arrangement of "C.C. Rider" are also included.) She plays guitar and harmonica and is backed by a crew of stellar musicians (a few of them, known as her "hot tail section" perform with her on a regular basis) who provide touches of Dobro, slide guitar, bass, clarinet, trumpet, cello, and mandolin. Part Peggy Lee, part PJ Harvey, part Natalie Merchant, Serrapere growls, purrs, quivers, and bellows through melodies ranging from torch to blues to swing to traditional folk.
Other standouts include the coquettish swingy tune "You're Changing Like the Season," the tale of a fickle lover, leavened by a coy lyric ("Last night you said you loved me/had you droppin' on your knees/Now the only thing that's droppin'/is your lovin' by degrees") and Andrew Bishop's peppy clarinet. Serrapere's forlorn harmonica and John Devine's sexy electric slide guitar shine on the laid-back "Throw Rug Blues," whose take-no-guff voice declares "My life is like a Persian rug/I'm thrown so casually/But you gotta take your shoes off/to walk all over me." Serrapere's lone guitar and Aria DiSalvio's cello subtly and beautifully inhabit the meandering "Ghost." Serrapere cites singer Tom Waits, writer Garrison Keillor, cartoonist Lynda Barry, and silent-film star Clara Bow as influences. An adept storyteller and performer, Serrapere clearly honors her idols. (One Man Clapping Productions, 2032 N Racine, Chicago,