With so few venues for folk music, the chances the genre have to take root seem slim indeed. Fortunately, there are those troupers who persevere when it comes to bringing that sound to those that desire it, both artists and entrepreneurs determined to give folk music a place to thrive in the tropics.
Arlene Boumel is one of those dedicated few. As president of the Broward Folk Club, a registered not-for-profit organization whose sole purpose is to nourish and promote folk and acoustic music and bring together those with a similar appreciation, she helps ensure that South Florida audiences have the opportunity to enjoy and experience it. The organization produces the annual South Florida Folk Festival of which Boumel and VP Bob Singer are codirectors.
"South Florida has a thriving folk community, one of the more vibrant in the country," Boumel contends. "The folk music community in South Florida is not really a whole lot different than the folk music community everywhere. It tends to be made up of older people, in their 50s and 60s, but if you come to an open mic, you'll see plenty of younger people performing as well. Terrific younger national artists such as Mumford and Sons and Sarah Jarosz demonstrate that there is a resurgence of interest in this type of music among younger performers."
Boumel admits that the genre itself can be open to interpretation. "There have always been disagreements about what constitutes folk music," she maintains. "Even in the height of the '60s folk era, they were arguing about this. But folk music really runs the gamut. It's traditional ballads, it's bluegrass, it's Mississippi Delta blues, it's a fiddle player or a flatpicker or a fingerstyle guitarist playing some lively melody. It's a singer/songwriter telling a story in song. It's a duo singing in harmony. And our South Florida community is all of that and more. That's why, for the South Florida Folk Festival, we've tried to incorporate a variety of different types of folk genres into the schedule. And in South Florida, we have a communitywide calendar and music list (gotfolk.com) which enables us to coordinate events with each other and share a calendar to ensure that everybody, whether in South Florida or across the state, knows what is happening here."
Like many of her fellow devotees, Boumel's interest in the folk scene was spawned from an early age. "As with most of us who are involved with this organization, I have loved folk music since the time I was young," she recalls. "My dad ran a summer camp in the Poconos, so as a child, I learned to strum a guitar sitting around the campfire. Folk music is the soundtrack of my life. As a teenager growing up in Philadelphia, I hung out at the Main Point and attended the Philly Folk Festival. So it was pretty natural to seek out others who also love this kind of music."
In fact, all those involved hold a similar level of enthusiasm and dedication to the cause. Though the fest launched in January 1992, the club formed in 1988. "The festival is the one big event of the year, but we have a lot of other things we do, including monthly song swaps, a monthly open mic/concert series and biannual picnics. Many of us work full-time, but we put in the time and energy as a labor of love to support something that we all strongly believe in. We are more than just a club; we are a community," Boumel explains. "This is an organization made up entirely of volunteers. We all do it because we love it and because we want to keep our special brand of music alive for future generations."
The first South Florida Folk Festival's bill consisted entirely of local acts. However, the following year, the names of a few national headliners began appearing in the lineup. Aside from a hiatus in 2006 and 2007 due to the damage done to the festival site by Hurricane Wilma, the festival has continued to take place each January during the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. Unfortunately, in recent years, costs have proven too prohibitive to extend it beyond a single day of music. "Over those years, we've had not only outstanding local and Florida acts but we've drawn national headliners such as Melanie, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Chad & Jeremy, Oscar Brand, Del Rey, Jack Hardy, the Limelighters, Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen, Bethany Yarrow, Bob Franke, the Burns Sisters, Susan Werner, David Roth, and many others," Boumel points out. "But our goal has always been to bring back the kind of two-day outdoor festival that we've had in the past. And 2014 is the year that we are finally able to make that happen again. We are all thrilled. For our community, this is a dream come true and an event that everybody has been eagerly awaiting and anticipating. This year will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the South Florida Folk Festival."
Baumel says that throughout its history, the festival has not only attracted a sizeable number of national acts -- this year's headliners include Bill & Kate Isles, Dave Nachmanoff, Gathering Time, Jack Williams, Passerine, Steve Gillette & Cindy Mangsen, and Zoe Lewis -- but also a national reputation as well. "We are a nationally known festival, and have never had a problem getting musicians to perform here," she insists. "Performers often use our festival or our nationally known singer/songwriter contest to add to their resume. In fact, we had quite a few artists this year who were so eager to see the Festival make its comeback, and so eager to see it succeed that they are donating their performance or accepting less than they are worth. This is not just a performance opportunity. It's a chance to be part of something bigger -- a combination of a music fest, family reunion, community gathering, and weekend musical retreat. Being part of the South Florida Folk Festival is like coming home to family."
As if to emphasize that point, the list of local performers taking part again this year includes a veritable who's who of the South Florida folk scene. Among those scheduled to perform are such well known local names as Rod MacDonald, Amy Carol Webb, Ellen Bukstel, Joel Zoss, Grant Livingston, Marie Nofsinger, and Roadside Revue."
"This year's festival will have something for everyone," Baumel promises. "It is a celebration of many unique folk traditions,ranging from bluegrass and old time traditional to contemporary folk music. It will feature over 40 exceptional Florida-based and national touring musicians performing on two stages, kicking off with a national singer/songwriter competition. Performers will share their music, lead workshops, and interact with an appreciative music-loving crowd."
The South Florida Folk Festival takes place 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, January 18, and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday, January 19, at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, Fort Lauderdale. One-day advance tickets cost $25 for Broward Folk Club Members, $30 for nonmembers ($5 more for each if purchased at the gate). Tickets for the entire weekend cost $40 for club members and $50 for nonmembers ($10 more for each if purchased at the gate). Visit southfloridafolkfest.net.