When folk singer/guitarist Bill Staines performs in the Walters Art Gallery's Graham Auditorium tonight at 8, it's a good bet he'll play to a sold-out house. The reason is not just Mr. Staines himself -- though he is one of the biggest names in folk music today -- but also the fact that Baltimore is enjoying a burgeoning romance with the genre.
To understand why so many people are excited by this music, one has to appreciate exactly how diverse the music actually is. Tony Sica, who hosts the weekly radio program "Detours" on WTMD-FM (89.7), points out that the "nostalgic side" of folk music -- such '60s stars as the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary -- is only part of the complete picture.
"There's the traditional side of folk music," he explains, "music from the British Isles, and especially music that influenced American folk music.
"Contemporary folk music -- for lack of a better word," he continues, "is today's singer/songwriter kind of music." One singer, accompanying him- or herself on an acoustic guitar, sings original songs about, as Mr. Sica puts it, "people issues -- songs ++ that seem to have a universal bent to them that everybody identifies with."
Ned Quist, librarian of Peabody Conservatory's Arthur Friedheim Library and a member of the area folk trio Cross Country, agrees, stressing above all the intimacy and innocence of the music -- its non-urban roots and essentially non-commercial inclinations.
PTC Mr. Quist and his colleagues Carol Thomas Downing and John Yankee are folk artists of a decidedly original stamp. All three studied music in their college years, and, not surprisingly, their arrangements are noted for an unusual intricacy.
More important, their musical knowledge and experience makes them equally familiar with jazz, spirituals, 16th century madrigals, and even such specialties as the Bulgarian folk song "Dilmano, Dilbero," featured on their first recording, released last year.
Baltimore's interest in folk music is by no means restricted to performing artists, however. For instance, the city is the publishing headquarters of Dirty Linen, an international magazine devoted to folk music.
The Baltimore Folk Music Society has been equally prolific. The grouphas played host to numerous folk dancers from various national traditions, held informal sings of hymns from the 1844 "Original Sacred Harp" collection, and organized concert performances by area and national talent. Their newsletter promotes all these events as well as others in the wider Maryland-D.C. area.
The heart and soul of the folk music scene, though, is in the coffee houses. Here, both the small size and friendly ambience provide the perfect atmosphere in which to be swept away by the quiet magic of folk music artists.
Baltimore's Old Otterbein United Methodist Church, 112 W. Conway St., has a coffee house every Friday night. In the smoke- and alcohol-free venue, audiences can enjoy coffee, tea and pastries in addition to the music. Every so often, there is an open stage night, when budding musicians get a chance to perform -- in fact, Cross Country began its performances in just this way.
Both the Coffeehouse at Otterbein and the Folkal Point, above the Cacao Lane Restaurant in Ellicott City, are stops on the national circuit for folk music artists, and both boast the biggest names performing today. This intermingling of big stars and emerging artists is characteristic, making the folk scene profoundly different from the world of popular music. Indeed, many of the folk venues are strictly non-profit, generating only enough to cover production and traveling expenses for those who appear there.
Not a little of the appeal of folk, surely, must come from the romantic image of the wandering folk musician. Bill Staines is a quintessential example.
"Here's a traveling guy, playing almost any place that wants to listen," Tony Sica explains. "All the while he's on the road, he's writing new songs. He's written a song about just about every state, including Alaska. That is the heart and soul of a contemporary folk troubadour."
For more information on the Bill Staines concert, call the Baltimore Folk Music Society at (410) 866-4622.
The Baltimore-Washington folk music scene
Here are some of the places where aficionadoes can experience folk and traditional music in the Baltimore-Washington area.
Publications and Societies:
P.O. Box 66600
6 issues per year ($20)
Baltimore Folk Music Society
P.O. Box 7134
Monthly newsletter with calendar of events
Annual membership $15
Newsletter only, $8.
The Folklore Society of Greater Washington
World Folk Music Association
P. O. Box 40553
Publishes Folk News
The Folkal Point
8066 Main St.
Ellicott City (over Cocoa Lane Restaurant)
(301) 982-0686 (D.C./Va.)
(410) 922-5210 (Baltimore)
Howard Folk Society
(301) 982-0686 (D.C./Va.)