Harry Smith Festival revives folk movement

crosenbl@centredaily.comNovember 8, 2013 

John Cohen and the Downhill Strugglers will headline the sixth annual Harry Smith Festival, a two-day event celebrating the American folk anthology at the Elk Creek Cafe +Aleworks. Cover: Kai Schifft, a member of Chicken Tractor Deluxe and Penn State College of Education faculty member, said the festival’s goal is to introduce the importance of the folk music collection.

PHOTOS PROVIDED

  • IF YOU GO

    What: Sixth annual Harry Smith Festival

    Where: Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks, 100 W. Main St., Millheim

    When: 8 p.m. Nov. 9 and 2 p.m. Nov. 10

    Info: www.elkcreekcafe.net, 349-8850

In the folk music world, John Cohen did it all.

The headliner for this weekend’s sixth annual Harry Smith Festival in Millheim, Cohen played in the New Lost City Ramblers, a band influential on the folk revival of the 1950s and early 1960s.

As a photographer, he captured the vibrant Greenwich Village folk scene, including famous shots of a young Bob Dylan.

As a musicologist, he documented and produced old-time Appalachian singers and musicians, reviving their music and bringing it to new audiences.

Cohen also made several films, among them the 1962 work “High Lonesome Sound,” the title of which coined an enduring bluegrass term.

He even made it into a Grateful Dead song. According to rock ’n’ roll lore, “Uncle John’s Band” pays tribute to the New Lost City Ramblers.

“He’s sort of like this 20th-century cultural Zelig,” said festival founder Kai Schafft, a local musician and Penn State College of Education faculty member.

In addition to Cohen’s other credentials, he was a close friend of Smith, an archivist whose seminal “Anthology of American Folk Music” album introduced a trove of prewar blues, string band and gospel recordings to the baby boomer generation.

“The main thing is (Cohen) is not a household name,” Schafft said. “But his contribution to American culture is stunning, and I think (the festival) is an incredibly rare and great opportunity to check him out.”

Now in his 80s, Cohen will appear at 8 p.m. Nov. 9 at the Elk Creek Cafe + Aleworks, the festival site, with The Downhill Strugglers, a Brooklyn, N.Y., string band.

Before the first tune, Cohen will show a short film he shot of Sara and Maybelle Carter, of the Carter Family singers, among the anthology artists with whom he collaborated. Others included Dock Boggs, Elizabeth Cotton, Roscoe Holcumb and Woody Guthrie.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone before who knew the Carter Family, but John did,” Schafft said. “He knew a ton of these artists.”

Schafft, who plays guitar and banjo in festival host Chicken Tractor Deluxe, said he started the festival to showcase the anthology’s significance by having the bands play songs from the album.

“Most people had no idea that it existed or how influential it was,” he said.

The successful festival begat another, and then another, as Schafft had the pleasure of inviting some of his musical heroes to Millheim.

The festival’s second day lineup, with performances starting at 2 p.m., features Hubby Jenkins, from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Ramblin’ Dan Stevens, a Delta blues bottleneck slide guitarist who studied with Dave Van Ronk.

Also performing are The Bored Again Christians from Philadelphia, Chicken Tractor Deluxe featuring guitarist Andy Tolins and fellow local bands The Poe Valley Troubadours and Chris Rattie’s Bullyraggers.

In the spirit of Harry Smith and folk music in general, the festival will preserve American cultural heritage, one song at a time.

“What I think is really interesting is folk and vernacular music is a living, breathing thing that has structure and has been passed down through the years and generations,” Schafft said. “But everyone brings their own spirit to it. What I think is great is to have all these bands pulling from this incredibly deep well of cultural music and making it new and interpreting it in their own ways. To me, that’s really exciting.”

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