The heart and soul of America
Last updated 9/20/2022 at Noon
Temporal milestones — birthdays, New Year’s Day — don’t carry a lot of weight with me. Never felt particularly different after a birthday, and the turn of a calendar has never really felt like the turn of a page.
Certain events, however, do have the power to make me pause and reflect — and feel every bit of white in my beard. My daughter getting married this summer was one. It was a joyous occasion, of course, but it’s a bit disorienting when all the events of a young life come rushing back, and you realize that the song you wrote for your four-year-old has come to vivid life — seemingly all of a sudden — two decades on.
The realization that we’re about to enjoy our 25th Sisters Folk Festival is another such occasion. The timeline is a little distorted due to bummer years when the Festival didn’t happen; the event actually started 27 years ago, in 1995. But here we are, set to mark the silver anniversary of a three-day musical event that has become an institution woven into the fabric of the Sisters community — and a community of artists and patrons that spans the nation.
This didn’t just materialize. A great many people brought their talents and passions to bear, put their shoulders to the wheel, and made it happen. It is one of the great joys and satisfactions of my life to have been a part of it.
For me, it has been first, last, and always about the music itself, and the music was always about something much deeper than simple entertainment. A definition of folk music is always elusive, but it certainly is the voice of a culture — the song of the “folk.” And because America is a tree that grew out of a vast and tangled collection of cultural roots, there are many, many “folks” to sing out, with many, many voices. When we sing together, it is a mighty chorus.
If you follow the music, you don’t have to stretch to find the diversity and inclusion so avidly sought in the quest to weave a cultural tapestry that truly looks like America. It’s right there, in the roots, in the trunk, and in the branches. Perhaps more importantly, music is a far better model than politics for how Americans can best live out the motto e pluribus unum — out of many, one.
For American music has never been static.
Musicians will adopt and adapt anything that sounds good.
Thus, the instrument of Italian immigrants — the mandolin — finds the hands of Kentuckian Bill Monroe, who makes it the centerpiece of a new all-American rural form called Bluegrass.
The sounds of the brass instruments of patriotic marching bands are bent with blue notes in the cultural ferment of New Orleans to invent jazz.
The Blues, rooted in sounds and rhythms that defied the chains and hellships that brought their bearers from Africa, arises from the agonies of slavery and the cottonfields of Mississippi.
When the Blues collide with country music, there is an explosion called rock-n-roll that echoes across an ocean and back again.
When we gather together to make a joyful noise, we are celebrating the best of who we are. We are connecting at the level of heartbeat and bloodflow, plunging deep into the earthy tangle of our roots, and reaching for the sky.
For a quarter century, the Sisters Folk Festival has been cultivating community ties through the universal language of music and art. In an era that cynically promotes division and tribalism, celebrating the roots and branches of American music is the most patriotic act I can think of.
Out of many, one.
Wave that flag. Wave it wide and high.