vancouver -- it's 3:20 am saturday night and ever so peaceful outside. Snow-capped mountains, islands and ships in the distance -- grand, beautiful Vancouver.
Inside it's a different story. The hotel staff are running around in a hospitable frenzy. There are hordes of people everywhere, in the lobby, on the carpets in the hallways, spilling out of the rooms, mixing drinks in the bathrooms, doing who-knows-what in the stairwells and elevators.
It's the final night of the International Folk Alliance Conference, and the Hyatt is packed with 1,500 artists, presenters, booking agents, fans and record company representatives (folk labels don't have executives).
All these people are winding up to wind down after their annual big-top dog-and-pony show, a gigantic gathering about music, tradition and the intimate voice that really cares to be heard.
It's not that I don't have an appetite for big sound. In my other life I lead a swing and jazz orchestra -- 13 horns, 4 rhythms -- but sometimes I pine for the smaller scale, the perfect minimalism of guitar and song, freedom from the beat and the groove, and a poetic narrative close enough to touch.
But it's not just a simpler, low-tech sound that comes from folkies -- its a simpler low-tech business, an economy in which selling 5,000 discs is tantamount to supreme success, artists pull in $200 a night (minus hotel room) touring cafes and small bars, and if you really want to attract the big labels you have to change what you do.
"The folk market is a very big pond with nothing but small fish in it," says Alan Rowoth, webmaster for the ultimate site for folk networking (folkmusic.org).
"Whereas a few people dominate the pop charts, video music channels and mass-market retail shelves, the folk world works differently. There are thousands of little opportunities for gigs, airplay, sales and exposure. And each of these is associated with an individual person."
A folk musician is only as good as the quality of his or her connections to the people who matter.
"It is all about a contact list. Each fan, house concert promoter, local DJ or festival booker you put into your contact list gets you one step closer to a sustainable independent career," Rowoth tells me.
So every year the artists who want to keep making the music they're making strap on their instruments at the Folk Alliance and busk their way through a networking spree. You can hear them in the 30 formal showcases in the hotel ballrooms or in the 1,430 informal ones sitting on the side of a bed in rooms and suites.
And when you ask them what defines their musical culture, they will answer as biz agent Charlie Hunter does: it's folk if it's got no economic connection with a multinational, if you hear it at small venues and if it's played on instruments that require no more than one trip to the car.
This no-frills self-expression means tunes can be trundled out anywhere. I step into a packed elevator and as soon as the doors close, three guys with guitar, banjo, and upright bass explode into a kind of jump-blues/rockabilly shuffle garnished with field hollers. No drugs, just bluegrass.
The people here belong to a musical tradition of shared resources and huge amounts of volunteer labour. This is clear to me at the biggest showcase space of all, Fox Run, an enormous suite, the kind of place where Bob Dylan and his Rolling Thunder Revue would have held court. It's rented by a dental surgeon and his wife, Neale Eckstein and Laurie Laba, a Boston couple who present about 20 concerts every year in their home.
They're just two of hundreds of house concert hosts, unpaid promoters of live folk music who organize gigs, often for local charities. Though they're slow to take root in Canada, house concerts are a rapidly growing phenomenon in the U.S. People open their homes to 25 to 100 guests who pay to hear musicians who earn between $200 and $800 per appearance.
Along with this reliance on unpaid enthusiasts, folk culture preserves a generous atmosphere of critical tolerance. Performers will be forgiven their odd musical habits, and many take advantage -- not always successfully, I think, listening to Red Schwartz. His album Pleading The First: Songs My Mother Hates includes lyrics like "I swear she said she was eighteen." He renders his strikingly un-PC rap Who Da Bitch Now, about the police assault on Abner Louima, for a dozen musicians sipping on plastic glasses of CC that I have poured.
Later, as I try to make sense of Schwartz's offering, I'm gently reminded by Chicago-based songwriter Terry MacNamara that the milieu provides an "amazingly high level of acceptance of what can be included in the genre -- something that allows artists to experiment with an audience."
The broad reach of folk explains the range of the conference's memorable acts -- Erin McKeown's southern bar rock-influenced electric guitar, Dave Carter and Tracy Grammar's original trad songs, the Scots-Gaelic ballads of Cape Breton's Mary Jane Lamond, the infectious quirkiness of Toronto's John Millard.
Any one of them might break through the glass ceiling of folk into crossover land and more money, like Shawn Colvin, but then again, maybe they won't. But there's no huge deprivation if they have to stay right here either. Artists are more than willing to exchange info about how to get gigs and how to eke out a decent living playing and running tiny clubs, coffee houses, house concerts or, if you're really lucky, festivals.
I find myself deep in the middle of this rich interpersonal weave on the Folktrain between T.O. and Vancouver organized by Rowoth and Hunter. As the monochromatic landscape scrolls by, the folktrainers swap songs while Sonny Ochs, sister of fallen political folksinger hero Phil Ochs, goes from car to car fundraising for Alan Rowoth to help ease the pain of his car mishap on the way to the station. She raises a thousand bucks among the not very flush songsters. "Phil," she announces, "would've really gotten a kick out of all this."*