SERFA conference looks at the craft and business of folk music

FINE FOLK: Musician, author and dance caller Phil Jamison, left, and folksinger and activist Peggy Seeger, right, will both be honored with the Founding Presidents Award at this year’s SERFA conference. Seeger, who used to live in Asheville, is also the keynote speaker. Photos courtesy of the artists

Although Folk Alliance International is, as its name suggests, a worldwide organization, one of its arms — the Southeast Regional Folk Alliance — has a local focus. That group, which represents 13 states, holds its ninth annual gathering at the Montreat Conference Center Wednesday, May 18, to Sunday, May 22. There, says founder and conference director Kari Estrin, “We’re really aligning with and celebrating the Asheville community.”

An Asheville Pass, available to Xpress readers, allows access on Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. It’s for those who are “curious to know what we’re all about and to experience some workshops, programming and the environment of SERFA,” says Estrin.

In 2001, Estrin was asked to chair a meeting about creating a regional arm of the Kansas City, Mo.-based Folk Alliance International. The first SERFA conference took place in 2008 at Middle Tennessee State University and honored Alice Gerrard of folk duo Hazel and Alice.

Now, like then, “We have workshops for artists on all aspects of being an independent artist, from the craft of songwriting and performance to traditional workshops about the music of the Southeast, plus workshops on business and social media,” she says. “We cover a large range.”

About 80 people attended that inaugural conference, including singer-songwriter Rebecca Loebe. She went on to appear on the first season of “The Voice,” and, says Estrin, will return to this year’s SERFA conference as a showcase performer. Other artists performing at this year’s official showcases (there will be 25) include BettySoo, Si Kahn, Letters to Abigail and Lowell Levinger, aka Banana from ’60s rock band The Youngbloods. Though SERFA serves the Southeast, “Our official showcase artists are from Newfoundland, Ireland, Wales and all over the U.S.,” says Estrin.

But that’s not the only place to find stars. Open mics and jam sessions are an option. Plus, guerrilla showcases, held after the official showcases, run from 11:45 p.m. to 2 a.m. to give more artists a chance to perform. And, while taking a break from conference director duties, Estrin started the Founding Presidents Award “to bring some high visibility people who I would like to honor to the conference,” she says. Though she’s currently running the show again, Estrin still makes a point to honor those she feels are deserving of lifetime achievement-type recognition. This year that award goes to Jennifer Pickering, founder of LEAF (which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary and 40th festival) and Jim McGill, director of The Swannanoa Gathering, now in its 25th year.

Folk singer and activist Peggy Seeger is both an award recipient and this year’s keynote speaker. A little-known fact: The Roberta Flack hit, “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” was penned by Seeger’s late husband, British singer-songwriter Ewan MacColl, for Seeger. The sister of the late Pete Seeger, Peggy moved to Asheville in the ’90s with her partner, Irene Pyper-Scott. Again based in the U.K., she finally accepted an invite to the SERFA conference.

Another award recipient is Phil Jamison, a local musician, educator and author of Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance. Jamison will be recognized for 40 years of calling dances. A native of northern New York state, “I was exposed to a lot of music pretty young,” he says. “My folks had records. We listened to Pete Seeger & The Weavers, the New Lost City Ramblers and Jean Ritchie.”

As a teenager, Jamison started playing guitar. “Somebody let me play a banjo shortly after, and I loved it,” he remembers. In 1980, Jamison joined the Green Grass Cloggers and relocated to North Carolina to perform full time with that group. Two years later, he started The Old Farmer’s Ball with Fred Park, Peter Gott, Bob Thompson and Dudley Culp. The popular weekly dance has since moved to the Warren Wilson College campus.

While Jamison enjoys contra dances — the style now associated with The Old Farmer’s Ball, these days they’re “all modern choreography,” he says. Though based on traditional dances from New England, the same contras can be found across the country while regional forms, such as Southern squares, fall by the wayside. Jamison says it’s become hard to find Southern square dances locally, though he hopes that the right venue would spark renewed interest in the custom.

The good news is that Jamison will call a barn dance as part of the SERFA conference kickoff, and he promises traditional Southern squares in the mix.

WHAT: SERFA Conference, serfa.org

WHERE: Montreat Conference Center

WHEN: Wednesday, May 18, to Sunday, May 22. See website for the schedule of workshops and showcases. Kickoff barbecue, barn dance and open mic starts Wednesday at 6 p.m. On-site registration is $150 for FAI members/ $165 nonmembers. The Asheville Pass, for Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., is $25

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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