Guest Column: Malibu Musings
Few people can say they were there for the inception of Folk Alliance International. Roger Deitz is one of those people who has held witness to everything the organization has become over the past 30 years. A longtime folk musician and magazine columnist to Frets, Acoustic Guitar, Fast Folk, Billboard, and Sing Out!, Roger now has the distinction of being our first guest columnist on this blog. Please enjoy this column from Roger full of musings and reminiscences of FAI’s first meetings and conferences.
Deitz’s Malibu Musings invites the reader to experience the magic and surprise of those first few years through his eyes. Maybe you weren’t able to make it in the beginning–maybe you didn’t know about it, or maybe you weren’t alive! This blog provides an insider’s view of Folk Alliance from its ambitious start.
by Roger Deitz
Thirty years? How can it be thirty years? On my way out from New Jersey to Malibu in 1989, I was looking forward to meeting and greeting folk community colleagues. In years to follow, this would always be my favorite activity during any Folk Alliance conference. Schmoozing and catching up with old and new friends, sharing with them the latest tunes and tidings. I honestly had no idea how this Malibu thing would play out. It seemed a daunting task, starting from scratch, going from zero to sixty in one weekend. Building a national folk music organization would not be a simple process.
I long ago discovered that on a grassroots level, folk politics was rarely an easy, breezy business. Ten folkies in a room for a planning session usually made for ten personal opinions, and often, some degree of acrimony.
But, if something this ambitious was happening, I wanted to experience it, and contribute. I am proudly, one grandmaster, professional, championship kibitzer. Little did I know – I was attending “Kibitz Fest” in those Santa Monica Mountains – and I quickly found I wasn’t the only attendee with opinions, not to mention a vision of what might develop. Here at Camp Hess Kramer were assembled 125 folk music activists and enthusiasts with a wide range of interests and talents. As the years bear out, it’s clear a little magic was conjured in Malibu, and that weekend, folks did come together for a common cause. By the gathering’s end, immersed in ideas and cooperative input, I left Malibu optimistic that there was some chance of success for our efforts and for Clark and Elaine Weissman’s aspiration to reach beyond The California Traditional Music Society for the greater good.
I can still see a blackboard. Set before us in the common room, in front of the dining tables. At first, it was clean and devoid of writing. As the meeting progressed, lines of text and rudimentary ideas were filling the writing surface. Folks were brainstorming as opinions and conceptions were posed, discussed, organized, outlined and refined. Some schemes and strategies abandoned, others remaining to be expanded upon at a later time. Chalk dust filled the air. There it was, happening before my eyes. We had side conversations while ideas were kicked around, and there was a bit of nip and tuck. This is how I recall it happening – in discussions and on a chalkboard, the genesis of The Folk Alliance.
Ideas about our mission and values evolved that weekend as they would continue to develop in the years to follow at future assemblies; this direction, that directive, what we should or should not be as a group, how to better define and serve a membership. At the close of the Malibu meeting, there was enough to expand upon for future ones, but we had our folk org. raison d’etre outlined ever so lyrically and poetically, as if set to music.
In the years to follow, we were no longer individuals wandering in the wilderness, but organized for a common cause. As the weekend and successive meetings played out, I watched something wonderful grow, delighted that the genre I embraced was now the better for it.
As I noted, personally, meeting and greeting was my favorite pastime at Folk Alliance conferences. Not self-promotion, not getting gigs, (much to the dismay of my late lamented agent/ manager Len Rosenfeld, who perhaps hoped I would schmooze my way to stardom). At Malibu, as in years to follow, my greatest joy was talking folk, with folks; meeting old friends and making new ones. I liked hearing music from icons of the genre, while accepting CDs from aspiring and established artists.
I recall finally getting to meet my Frets Editor Phil Hood at Malibu, face to face, when he pulled me aside to request a live rendition of a few sublimely tasteless songs he possessed on tape. I do take requests. One of us laughed about him stranding me in Kerrville, the weekend the magazine folded. Year after year, I got a charge out of hearing new artists, for example, groups such as Nickel Creek. There are too many memories and memory makers to recount. Folks I interviewed or would write about, present at my coffeehouse or festival, or with whom I would perform. Let me not forget so many breakfasts with the likes of Tom Paxton, Janis Ian or Pete Seeger. Check please!
At conference meetings I poked about and realized that I was part of a community. That what I did/ have done for over forty years somehow belonged or mattered, that my essays and others writings had purpose, fit in. Let me just offer this; as a performer, one gets instant feedback – positive or negative – standing in front of an audience. But a writer writes in relative silence. I’ve been at it since 1973 when I wrote my first folk music columns for an arts newspaper, The Aquarian. In the years that followed, I penned countless reviews, features and columns for Frets, Fast Folk, Acoustic Guitar, Billboard, Banjo Newsletter, my beloved Sing Out! and others. Still, I was unsure. I wondered if anyone was actually reading my stuff, if my contributions were noticed or appreciated by my peers. At Folk Alliance conferences, there was feedback (not only from the sound systems in gorilla showcase rooms). I would come upon attendees, artists, friends, or strangers who read what I wrote, letting me know that fact – commenting on various essays or columns. “Really? So, people are actually reading the stuff I write? How about that!”
Looking back thirty years, as an observer, commentator and chronicler, I feel I’ve been a participant in something quite wonderful. Three decades ago, I boarded a jumbo jet at Newark Airport heading for LAX thinking, I was coming home. My family once lived close to that Malibu Camp in nearby Venice Beach on Rose Avenue. I would get to see their old bungalow. Instead, I found another home and another family. One I’ve valued all these decades. My, how my family has grown!