August 1, 2013
In the latest issue of Smithsonian Folkways Magazine, Boston-based musicologist Jeffrey Summit begins his essay on the Ugandan coffee cooperative Peace Kawomera with two tragedies: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the Boston Marathon bombing of April 15, 2013. Summit recorded the music of Peace Kawomera after the former and returned home in the aftermath of the latter. “In the wake of violence in my own city,” he writes, “I have been revisiting the music of this interfaith cooperative, and reflecting about the power and responsibility of each of us to create a climate of peace in our communities.”
Peace, the theme of the Spring/Summer issue, is of course a timeless ideal, but Summit’s words throw its current timeliness into stark relief. The issue takes an “international approach,” says managing editor Meredith Holmgren, “mak[ing] linkages of community peace around the world.”
The cover story, “Peace Songs of the 1960s,” brings the theme home to American readers and, in a Smithsonian Folkways first, compiles full versions of cited tracks in an embedded playlist. An essay by historian Ronald Cohen contextualizes these songs, including Bob Dylan’s “I Will Not Go Down Under the Ground” and Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” under the specter of nuclear proliferation and the Vietnam War. Also featured is a video interview with legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, whose songs were often made popular by other artists.
Former United Nations official Michael Cassandra discusses Nobel Voices for Disarmament: 1901-2001, a compilation of new and archival spoken-word recordings by notable proponents of peace. Michael Douglas, an Academy Award-winning actor and UN Messenger of Peace, narrates the album, which includes the voices of President Bill Clinton, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Progressive-era activist Jane Addams. The piece is accompanied by a multimedia lesson plan, which Holmgren says will become a recurring feature of the magazine.
In the Recording Spotlight is Peace Kawomera (Delicious Peace), the Fair Trade coffee co-op of Jewish, Christian and Muslim farmers—who happen to be excellent musicians as well. The collaboration, formed in response to 9/11, has proven both economically and artistically fruitful, underscoring the “importance of peace to economic prosperity,” says Holmgren. The article by Jeffrey Summit comes with photographs by Richard Sobol and video of a Peace Kawomera live performance.
This issue also marks the debut of “From the Field,” a Smithsonian Folkways Magazine partnership with the Society for Ethnomusicology which presents recent ethnomusicological field research to a general audience. The first installment, “Carnival of Memory: Songs of Protest and Remembrance in the Andes,” documents the music of Peruvian villages devastated by civil war in the 1980s. “People often seemed more willing to sing about the conflict than they were to talk about it,” writes ethnomusicologist Jonathan Ritter; their music helps them commemorate and come to grips with the violence. A photo slideshow and video recording situate these testimonial songs within the Andean carnival genre of pumpin. For Holmgren, the story exemplifies the difficult task of sustaining peace. “Peace isn’t something that happens,” she says. “It’s a process.”
May 10, 2013
The drinks were freer, the music brassier and the times, well, Gatsby-er. At least, that’s the picture F. Scott Fitzgerald creates with his tales of high society run wild in his 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby. Now set for yet another screen adaptation, this time thanks to the energetic hands of Baz Luhrmann, the novel continues to resonate today.
Its appeal is a dark but undeniable one, enough to let you weep alongside Daisy as she marvels inside Gatsby’s closet at his exquisite shirts. The clothes, the alcohol, the music–we get it, it’s a heady and seductive mix. So go ahead and throw your Gatsby-themed party (skipping the murder and suicide–oops, spoiler alert) and let the experts at Folkways supply the playlist.
Thanks to David Horgan and Corey Blake of Smithsonian Folkways for the inspired lineup that includes three tracks referenced in the novel itself, including “Three O’clock in the Morning,” which narrator Nick Carraway calls a “neat, sad little waltz.” The novel also mentions “The Sheik of Araby” and “A Love Nest,” which, in some versions, includes the poignant lyric:
Ever comes the question old,
“Shall we build for pride? Or,
Shall brick and mortar hold
worth and love inside?”
March 15, 2013
Beyond “Danny Boy” Celtic music, says Richard Carlin, a record producer who has long specialized in the genre, “runs far, far deeper than something like Riverdance.” For the just-released Classic Celtic Music, he combed the Smithsonian Folkways vaults for 23 choice tracks, recorded between 1945 and 1986, that would brighten anybody’s St. Patrick’s Day: a jig by fiddler Michael Gorman and banjoist Margaret Barry, an air with Billy Pigg on Northumbrian smallpipes, a song by the Irish vocalist Sorcha Ní Ghuairim in the lilting, haunting style known as sean-nós. Dancing encouraged but not required.
Carlin, who play the concertina, has been interested in Celtic music for decades, even recording his own album with Folkways in 1977, “In Come A Bumblebee.” Around the Mall spoke with Carlin by telephone.
You’ve worked with Folkways and know its catalog of offerings well?
I worked for Folkways in the mid-70s and did some production of Irish albums for them at that time when it was still an independent company. And then some years later, I wrote a history of the label and in writing that history, thought, you know there are lots of different aspects of the catalog that haven’t been, that aren’t as well known, as explored. And a lot of people weren’t aware that as early as the mid-40s, Moses Asch, the man who owned Folkways, was already recording traditional Irish music. So, that was where the idea came from, to draw on the catalog, to highlight—because there’s over, I don’t know, 2,200 albums that were released during his lifetime and so it’s a massive catalog and everybody knows about Pete Seeger and Lead Belly and what not, but not many people, I think, were aware of some of the other things he did.
What makes Celtic music unique, what defines it?
Celtic music is sort of a catch-all term that really wasn’t used by the musicians themselves even when I played with those musicians. They didn’t call themselves Celtic musicians. That wasn’t even at that time really a genre that people talked about. It started out with the Celtic Twilight School at the turn of the century where there was a revival of all things Irish, Gaelic, people like Yeats and John Millington Synge. It was a literary movement. Then there was the formation of Irish cultural organizations that were formed to promote traditional dance and traditional music. In general, the term is used to refer to traditional musics of the British Isles and the related cultures, there’s Celtic cultures in France, in Canada, in Brittany, in various different areas, but it’s become sort of a catch-all phrase, mostly applied to Irish traditional music or Scottish.
People like to say, “This music has been known for thousands of years, since the dawn of time.” But not so much. Polka for example was an Eastern European tradition that became very popular in the mid-19th century and spread to Ireland, so now it’s considered traditional Irish dance music but it certainly isn’t that old in the grand scheme of things and really was sort of like saying 100 years ago, disco might be considered traditional music, because polka was very much the same way that disco was, a European, fad music.
How did it change when it came to America?
When musicians play the music they like—and again this is often to the embarrassment of folklorists—you know, you go to record a traditional ballad singer, and they’ll start singing Elvis Presley, and in the past, you wouldn’t put that on the record. You’d only put on the record, the traditional ballads they sang, which was, in a way, somewhat misrepresentative, but it’s because we were only interested in hearing the “true” folk music. These musicians played the music they like and therefore, like any immigrant group, when the Irish came to America they were very influenced. The Irish dance bands of the 20s and 30s played for dancing, so they not only played Irish dance music, they played, popular swing music, and they incorporated similar instruments like saxophones.
How did you get interested in the type of music, I know when you went to Oberlin College you found a thriving Irish music scene in Cleveland, what drew you in?
I was playing the music myself and just wanted to play music and had no idea that there was this large traditional community there and so it really just started out as myself and a few friends of mine visiting with these others musicians in the basements of their homes, which is mostly where they played and it was just out of a love of playing the music and wanting to play more and that kind of thing than the idea that, oh, I’m going to record an album or anything like that.
January 14, 2013
Monday, January 14: The Higgs Boson Particle: Why It Matters
The Higgs Boson is a particle so small that it took scientists 50 years to find it. Headlines exploded last year when the so-called “God particle” was detected, but can something so small really be so important? Renowned theoretical astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss spends the evening explaining why without this elusive mini-particle, our entire understanding of physics would unravel. Bring along or pick up a copy of Krauss’s latest book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, if you would like an autograph. $28-$40 (student discounts available), tickets here. 6:45 p.m. to 8:45 p.m. Natural History Museum.
*BONUS*: Grammy-winning Smithsonian Folkways artists Los Texmaniacs are in town tonight for the first time since the release of their latest album, Texas Towns & Tex-Mex Sounds. The Texan quartet plays jams rooted in conjunto polka music (with instruments like the 12-string banjo sexto and the button accordion), but also draws from classic rock, blues and Chicano dance sounds. Polka the night away! $15, tickets here. 7:30 p.m. The Hamilton.
Tuesday, January 15: See the President up “Close”
Here’s your chance to get up close and personal with Barack Obama. Sure, the president himself is busy preparing for his second inauguration, but a huge portrait of him by famed artist Chuck Close is on display today in the National Portrait Gallery. Stop by to congratulate Mr. President on his reelection or to air your political grievances to him — just be sure not to disturb the other visitors. (Close, by the way, also has captured Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, and was appointed in 2010 to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.) Free. On display until March 2013 on the second floor of the South Rotunda at the National Portrait Gallery.
Wednesday, January 16: Between the Folds
There is a lot more to origami than making cute cranes. The 17th century Japanese art of paper folding is still seriously practiced today by artists who devote their entire lives to learning its intricate and often deeply mathematical techniques. Between the Folds, a documentary, profiles a group of artists and scientists who hope to push the art to its next level. One of the group’s artists, Erik Demaine, will present the film, as well as answer questions and demonstrate folds. Free. Noon. Renwick Gallery.
Thursday, January 17: Peacock Room Shutters Open
Want a taste of luxury? The Freer Gallery’s Peacock Room, once an opulent British dining room, now hosts more than 250 ceramics from Egypt, Iran, Japan, China and Korea that museum founder Charles Lang Freer collected on his travels. At noon, the museum opens the room’s shutters to bathe the collection in sunlight, and the room glows blue, green and gold. The shimmering colors won’t fade any time soon, either; special filtering film on the room’s windows prevents the sun’s effects on the ceramics. Free. Noon to 5:30 p.m. Freer Gallery.
Also check out our specially created Visitors Guide App. Get the most out of your trip to Washington, D.C. and the National Mall with this selection of custom-built tours, based on your available time and passions. From the editors of Smithsonian magazine, the app is also packed with handy navigational tools, maps, museum floor plans and museum information including ‘Greatest Hits’ for each Smithsonian museum.
December 28, 2012
LISTEN: Grammy-Nominated Folkways Artist Elizabeth Mitchell Discusses Parenthood and Being in a Band with Your Kid
Elizabeth Mitchell‘s ode to Woody Guthrie, Little Seed, received a Grammy nomination for Best Children’s Album. Covering some of her favorite Guthrie classics, Mitchell released her album in June 2012 and quickly followed up with another, Blue Clouds. Playing with her husband Daniel Littleton and 11-year-old daughter Storey, Mitchell returned to her roots as co-founder of, along with her husband, the indie-rock band Ida by covering songs by greats like David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and Van Morrison. We talked with Mitchell back in August about how her band is evolving and why she likes making music all ages can appreciate.
Listen to tracks from Blue Clouds here.
What music do you listen to in your home?
My husband and I are voracious music listeners, we’re listening all the time. Increasingly, in the last few years since Storey came along, we listen to everything differently. Now everything is sort of filtered through this different lens of parenthood and family and so all these unexpected threads can emerge. A song like “Kooks” is obviously directly a song about parenthood which is so thrilling to hear someone like David Bowie’s take on things. A song like “May This Be Love” [by Jimi Hendrix] is just such a comforting song. It really has a beautiful, really reassuring narrative which is a beautiful thing to impart to a child. You might not be thinking that way when you first hear the song but then when you’re thinking of it as a parent, everything takes on a whole new meaning and that’s what draws us to a song.
And your daughter not only consumes this music, she helps make it, too?
She’s been on all our Folkways records but now she’s really stepping up, she’s singing harmony with us which is really exciting…She’s become more of an instrumentalist in the band, which is great because she’s 11 now and she can play instruments and it’s really wonderful to let her skill level increase and bring that role to bear. Although it’s funny, so many kids come to the show expecting her to be three years old, she’s frozen in time, which in a way she is for me too. Sometimes I look at her and I cant believe the little preteen I’ve got standing next to me. We share shoes now, it’s dizzying.
How is Blue Cloud different for you?
I think it’s our most exuberant record. There’s a real wide range of different sounds on this record, more so than before. It’s really diverse, eclectic and adventurous. It just feels good. . .with each record that we make as she grows we continue to grow and to step out into the world more.
Do you consider your albums to be only for children?
They are really for everyone, but they are for children first. When we make a record we want everyone to enjoy that. . .I think music like that can speak to children, I don’t think you need to change it really at all. . .That’s what’s important about folk music, it’s this thread through time, it’s for everyone, it’s not changed at all for children.”