On an unusually warm Wednesday night in November, small groups of people stand at the entrance of the Jalopy Theatre in Red Hook — familiar faces of the combination theater, music school, guitar shop, and bar, like co-owner Geoff Wiley and Bob Dylan aficionado Wyndham Baird. The Jalopy’s weekly folk showcase, Roots & Ruckus, is taking place inside, and the theater’s church pews are filling up with people. Ruckus’s electric host, Feral Foster, stands on stage for his set, drooping red curtains and red lights above him. At six feet tall with a mass of black hair, black moustache and beard, Foster booms off the stage. He bangs his foot on the ground. He hugs his guitar. He yodels.
“And Jesus, how could so much come between us? How could you possibly mean this? Isn’t life funny that way,” he sings.
Some speculate that Foster is this generation’s Dave Van Ronk, both key figures in organizing the New York folk scenes of their time.
“He is like that in his character,” says fellow musician and Jalopy staff member Ernie Vega of Foster, likening his tough exterior and warm heart to Van Ronk’s. Vega took guitar lessons with Van Ronk months before the musician’s passing in 2002, learning a technique called fingerpicking. He’d held his own showcase at 116 MacDougal Street (its basement, once known as the Gaslight Cafe, was a home for the folk scene of the ’60s) in late 2012 before its closing.
Roots & Ruckus was born in 2005 when Foster, from the East Village himself, was approached while busking at Washington Square Park and asked to participate in a show at former Thai restaurant Village Ma. The show took place in its back room, usually reserved for karaoke. When Foster and his friends brought a crowd, organizer Mike Katz asked them to take over. Around the same time, Wiley and wife Lynette opened Jalopy, hoping to build a community where art and roots music could thrive.
In the case of the disparate folk scene in New York, Jalopy soon became a home for the sound. “You should really move your show to this new place, Jalopy,” Foster said of fellow musician Eli Smith’s beckoning in 2007 after two years at the Ma. “It’s so much better than a shitty fucking Thai restaurant in the Village.” That night, Roots & Ruckus would also feature Stephanie Jenkins on banjo, Zach Bryson on slide guitar, and Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton on fiddle. As part of the lineup, Smith’s old-time string band, the Down Hill Strugglers, would also be playing. The Strugglers are featured on the soundtrack of the upcoming Coen brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, covering an old folk song called “The Roving Gambler” with legendary New York musician and New Lost City Ramblers member John Cohen.
Born and raised in Greenwich Village and drawn to traditional music from a young age, Eli Smith felt the lack of a folk scene in the city throughout the ’80s and ’90s. It wasn’t until he came home from a stint with his jug band in California that he began to discover what would constitute today’s vibrant scene, beginning with a job teaching banjo at Jalopy in 2006. Like Smith, other musicians soon found their way there.
These days, along with teaching banjo and playing in the Down Hill Strugglers, Smith co-produces the Brooklyn Folk Festival with Wiley. The three-day festival takes places in the spring and features performances, film screenings, workshops, and its signature banjo toss contest, in which participants compete to throw a banjo the farthest. Having sold out Jalopy in its first two years, the festival made its way to The Bell House, where it will again take place in 2014.
“Folk music is a term that’s very nebulous,” Smith explains of the genre and his vision for the festival. “If I go to a folk festival, I want to see some old-time music, some blues, some traditional music from other parts of the world.” The festival has featured gospel, klezmer and African music, jazz, bluegrass ,and more; for the 2014 lineup, Smith and Wiley are waiting to hear from an Indonesian gong orchestra.
With folk encompassing so many genres, these days the sound can be found throughout the city. The Brooklyn Rod & Gun in Williamsburg, for instance, a multipurpose space with a picnic table, kitchen and bar, and a makeshift stage houses Jackson Lynch’s Premiere Monthly, a showcase featuring many of the bluegrass, blues, and folk acts that pass through Roots & Ruckus (Lynch himself is a luthier at Jalopy). Park Slope’s Barbes features an array of world music in its low-ceilinged back room from Gypsy to Balkan to Colombian. And the East Village’s dingy dive bar Mona’s features traditional jazz late on Tuesday nights.
Another venue a bit off the grid is Bushwick’s 592 Van Buren, a grungy private home where potlucks and acoustic shows featuring local and traveling bands take place every month or two. Musicians play what’s called “folk punk,” using instruments like the washtub bass, the ukulele, and the accordion, yelling their tunes to a host of audience members standing around in the backyard or an emptied-out room by the kitchen, depending on the weather.
“I believe that there’s a crazy amount of overlap,” says 592 host Alex Krokus of folk and punk, to him both accessible, shareable art forms. Everyone attending shows at 592 is invited to contribute by bringing food or featuring their work (music or art), with the idea of making performances a collaborative, equal-parts experience. Last spring, Foster was invited to play the showcase himself, listeners nodding, whistling, and clapping during his set.
“For people to love music like Feral’s,” Krokus says of Foster’s appeal and maybe the future of folk, “they really just need to be able to hear it.”