Woody Guthrie would have rolled in his grave this weekend, not in disdain, but in delight had he heard the music at this year’s Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in the hills of Lyons, Colorado. In the spirit of Woody, along with Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and so many others, the music of Folks Fest was charged with political messages, the call for solidarity, and the stand for social justice.
The festival opened with the Songwriter Showcase, and Heather Mae stole the show with two of her original songs truly about the times, one she introduced as, “my kind of love,” and for the other, she addressed the significance of what happened in Charlottesville. After winning, she shared on her music Facebook page, “I performed ‘Wanderer,’ my song about being queer. I performed ‘Stand Up,’ my song about fighting discrimination. I asked the audience to stand with me and join the cause.” And stand they did. She had the festival grounds filled with people standing and singing along, many with tear-filled eyes. You can watch her chilling music video for “Stand Up” here.
Heather Mae offered more insights into her performance, saying, “With everything that’s going on right now, what a waste it would be if I didn’t say something and use this opportunity to show that we can’t stay silent anymore. I chose my songs that weren’t necessarily the best for competition, but they were perfect for this platform. The mission I’m on right now is to make music that matters and that makes people think, and I feel like it was really heard, and that’s the most validation I’ve ever felt. It’s like the universe is saying, ‘Good job, kid, keep writing the music you’re writing’ and I feel a lot of gratitude for that.” With her winning performance, Heather Mae earned a one-hour slot on the main stage at next year’s Folks Festival. In the meantime, you can keep an eye on her tour schedule via her website.
Later that evening, Rhiannon Giddens lit the stage on fire with her performance, ignited with the stories of despair, fury, and hope in her latest album Freedom Highway. She opened with a rock version of “Spanish Mary,” a tune she co-wrote with Bob Dylan that’s dripping in satire about imperialism in the name of the Catholic Church. She left the audience on the verge of tears with “At the Purchaser’s Option,” a song she wrote after finding a 19th-century ad about a 22-year-old slave woman’s baby for sale. She left listeners breathless with her tune “We Could Fly,” a song based on the African-American folktale about the people stolen from their homelands as slaves who lost their wings. Rhiannon is a force of nature onstage, and her music has earned its rankings as modern classics, songs that will be forever immortalized in the canon of folk music. You can hear more of her first-hand insights in her NPR interview here.
In the tradition of Sunday morning spiritual sets at Planet Bluegrass festivals, Ramy Essam, the unassuming singer/songwriter who became the voice of the Egyptian Revolution, opened the day with a riveting set. Though he sang mostly in his native Egyptian-Arabic dialect, he introduced his songs in English. The subject matter spanned from honoring the strength of women and girls who fought in the revolution, many of whom were jailed and tortured, to making fun of the police, an agency Ramy described as being corrupt and dangerous in Egypt, and many of his songs challenged tyrant leaders and their wrongdoings. Despite singing in a language very few attendees knew, people began joining his refrains by the end of almost every song. The crowd also sang along with his cover of John Lennon’s “I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier.” At one point, Ramy proclaimed to the audience, “Music is the most powerful peaceful weapon we have.” His set concluded with a chant-like refrain begging for peace “for just one day.” Instinctively, the audience sang along, linking arms as they stood together in unity.
While the main stage was filled with outstanding performances, spanning the high-energy acts like The Revivalists and Lake Street Dive, the introspective meditations of Elephant Revival and Gregory Alan Isakov, the down-home tunes of Dave Rawlings Machine, and everything in between, the through line of the festival resonated with resistance. Nearly every performer mentioned the need for solidarity, peace, acceptance, resistance, attention to social justice issues, or, in the lighthearted case of Korby Lenker, putting politics aside momentarily with family in “Let’s Just Have Supper.” In the spirit of the folk music tradition, this year’s Folks Festival was truly of and for the people.
You can stay tuned for next year’s Folks Festival lineup at the Planet Bluegrass website here. If it is anything like this year’s lineup, it’s one you won’t want to miss.
View our full photo gallery from Folks Fest 2017 here.
Find out more about Riley on her blog.
All photos per the author. All videos and embedded tracks per the artist featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.