For one weekend every spring, phenomenal folk musicians from across the city and around the world gather in Kings County for a celebration of the genre. Now in its 10th year, the Brooklyn Folk Festival is an internationally renowned three-day occasion to check out talented acts that span various styles and cultural traditions.
“There’s about 40 different bands [performing at the festival] and I love them all equally,” said founder and producer of the festival, Eli Smith. “It’s such an interesting and diverse genre.”
A decade ago Smith began the festival in collaboration with the Jalopy Theater & School of Music, the city’s premiere folk music venue and education center where Smith works. It sold out quickly in its first year, outgrowing the intimate 100-seat Brooklyn theater and moved to bigger and bigger venues. Though the Jalopy Theater continues to present the festival, for the past few years, the festivities have been filling the much larger St. Ann’s Church.
For Smith, a banjo player and guitarist who grew up in Greenwich Village as a fan of Woody Guthrie, Mississippi John Hurt and New Lost City Ramblers, starting a folk festival in New York seemed like a no-brainer.
“I was surprised that there wasn’t a Brooklyn folk festival at that time already,” Smith said. “Because there was such a rich community and scene in the city as a whole for folk music — meaning from the United States as well as from immigrant communities representing all different parts of the world. It was such a rich community of musicians that it really needed a festival to express the richness of the art form.”
Representing American folk music this year are string bands, blues musicians, jug bands and singer-songwriters. Among the highlights are contemporary folk groups Hurray for the Riff Raff (fronted by Bronx-native Alynda Segarra) and the Brooklyn-based Spirit Family Reunion, as well as returning favorite blues and jazz vocalist and multi-instrumentalist sensation Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton. Acclaimed children’s music star Elizabeth Mitchell will also be performing a set for the whole family, while notable cartoonist R. Crumb will show off his other talent for playing the mandolin with country-blues duo East River String Band.
Though Smith describes the event as a “New York City-centered” festival, many of the acts come from all over the world. A few buzz-worthy acts to check out include Radio Jarocho performing the lively, often melodic Jarocho music of Veracruz, Mexico; Women’s Raja Massive, a collection of women musicians who perform classical Indian music; Argentine poet and prolific songwriter Suni Paz; and Innov Gnawa, a Grammy-nominated Moroccan “gnawa” musical collective. There will also be flamenco music, Irish ballads, Afro-Dominican music and other international acts.
The festival not only includes a fair amount of banjo playing, but also the annual Banjo Toss Competition. Each year a banjo is tied to a rope as participants take turns throwing it into the Gowanus Canal to see who can hurl the instrument the farthest. It’s as ridiculous — and oddly satisfying — as it sounds.
“I’ve been doing this for a decade now and we like to think we’re part of the cultural landscape of New York City,” Smith said. “I hope that people will come celebrate the city and music with us.”
If you go: Brooklyn Folk Festival is at St. Ann’s Church on April 6-8, 157 Montague St. Ticket and schedule information is available at brooklynfolkfest.com.