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Heartland regathers the folkies 

Last year Ralph Hunt and Judy Gradford spent a lot of time talking on the phone with Glenn Drinkwater, one of the organizers of the former 12 Corners Coffeehouse. For years it brought A-list folk music acts to the Twelve Corners Presbyterian Church. After moving briefly to RIT, it disappeared.

            Hunt and Gradford were the volunteer coordinators for 12 Corners and they missed it after it was gone. Last year they decided to resurrect it as Heartland Music.

            Drinkwater told Hunt and Gradford war stories. Although they had been involved with 12 Corners for years, they had not dealt with booking the musicians or marketing. Drinkwater told them what had worked and what hadn't, and how to deal with agents. Most importantly, he gave them the 12 Corners mailing list.

            Late last year they announced their first concert: Stone Soup at Harmony House in Webster on February 28. The response was immediate, excited, and large. Several people called or wrote back, but more importantly, 150 folks showed up to sit in folding chairs and listen to folk music in a restored Grange hall.

            When we say 'folk music' what kind of music are we really talking about? The Heartland website (www.heartlandmusic.org) answers by reprinting an article from Folk Roots magazine by Australian folkie Steve Barnes. After some Down Under humor Barnes asserts: "What folk really is, of course, is music with its roots in the past but its branches wherever they choose to grow. And, getting even more serious now, words do matter."

            According to FreeDictionary.com (and a lot of other places), "folk music arose, and best survives, in societies not yet affected by mass communication and the commercialization of culture. It normally was shared and performed by the entire community (not by a special class of expert performers), and was transmitted by word of mouth." So, folk music faces an uphill slog today.

            Hunt grew up listening to live music regularly; his father was a concert soundman. But he found folk music at the radio station of Clarkson University in Potsdam. As record librarian, he cataloged the entire folk collection, and listened to a lot of it. After college he moved to Buffalo and became an early member of the Buffalo Friends of Folk Music, which still produces its own concert series.

            In the early 1990s Hunt moved to Rochester and immediately looked for the local folk scene. He found it at the Asbury Church on East Avenue where the Golden Link Folk Singing Society was then holding its 'sing-arounds'. In short order, he was a board member, organizing Golden Link's Turtle Hill Folk Festival and, following in his father's footsteps, doing sound for the concerts.

            When I ask him about his own taste in music, Hunt is quick to reply: "I like straight acoustic music, but not really edgy stuff." He cites the Indigo Girls as an example of "edgy." But, he hastens to add, Heartland's roster of concerts reflects the audience preferences, not his own. Both Heartland's organizers attend folk festivals regularly --- Old Songs (near Albany), Mariposa (in Ontario), and the Folk Project (in New Jersey) --- to find out which performers draw well.

            Hunt insists that the 12 Corners and Heartland audiences represent a broad demographic spectrum, but he eventually admits that the African-American portion of the crowd is small. He recounts how the Turtle Hill Folk Festival invited famed African-American singer Odetta in attempt to "build bridges to the black community. It was not successful."

            In order to broaden the Heartland audience in a different direction Hunt and Gradford have included Les Barker, a poet and stand-up comedian, in their fall 2004 schedule. They saw him at the Old Songs Festival and were impressed by his "animal oriented" poetry. This spring shows are once a month, but in the fall they will be at the Harmony House twice a month, with additional house concerts for performers with smaller followings.

Heartland's next concert, and the last of the spring series, is Josh White, Jr. on Saturday, May 22, at Harmony House, 58 East Main Street, Webster, at 8 p.m. Tix: $10 advance, $12 door. 328-3103.

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