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Folk Music in Sisters

From The High Desert Life (now defunct).

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Photo by Jeremy Storton

The first concert I ever attended was Lollapalooza número uno when I was 17.   (Way to go big, right?).  There I sat, Mr. Nervous Knees with a diminutive girlfriend taking in the enormity of it all.   We actually got annoyed as frenzied, topless and probably high people stepped on our blanket.   Needless to say, we were new.  Yet, as I write this I reminisce about seeing some great bands from the late 80s like Living Color, Siouxie and The Banshees, Nine Inch Nails… remember them?   That was also the day that Ice-T debuted his metal band, Body Count, which sounded like scream rap with effects laden guitars getting hammered on by dudes I wanted nothing to do with.   It was both awesome and just too-friggin-much all at once.   By the time the headliner, the organizer, my fav and everyone else’s, Jane’s Addiction came on I was beyond done.   I remember they played “Jane Says” as my girl and I filed past the puke and litter in the parking lot to go home.   Decades later I realized why I was so disappointed. 

In 2002 my wife and I moved to Oregon, casting off the bear to embrace the beaver all the while smuggling board shorts and flip flops across state lines.  That fall we experienced our first Sisters Folk Festival.   Actually we scored tickets to the sponsor’s dinner and ate a catered meal at Camp Caldera near Suttle Lake while waiting for the music to start.  I had never been to a folk festival.  I didn’t even know what folk music was exactly.  Since I was freshly transplanted from the judgmental state, I snickered to myself.  I was practically betting that some ZZ Top looking, NASCAR watching, dirty-overall-wearing hillbillies would come with a washtub bass and whiskey jug to sing songs of lament.  Then a man walked onto the stage with a guitar that forever changed my perspective.   

Tom Prasado Rao played a full set of songs with no raging effects, no screaming… and no one stepped on our blanket.  But with the mere use of his hands he was able to play bass, percussion, melody and lead while singing poetic stories that were constructed not from lyrics, but rather images.   Perhaps it was the fall from the heights of judgment with this singer-songwriter catching my fall, but my reaction to it was visceral.  This one man with just one acoustic guitar captivated me (and everyone else in the room for that matter) so much more than the sideshow circus freaks and the mega bands.  I realized that years ago, while my favorite band played, I was in the parking lot going home, yet this man and his guitar inspired me to not only become a musician, but to become more active in my community.  It begged the question, “why”?

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Photo by Jeremy Storton

The fact of the matter is he engaged and connected with his listeners.  His music was more than sound, but images and experiences that filled our heads and hearts.  A relationship formed into a micro community in that moment.  The challenge and beauty of folk music is it is hard to define.  He showed me what folk music is.  Folk music is music for the people and by the people.   Folk music creates community, not chaos.  Folk music is a musician, his heart, his instrument and us.  It is the experience, the emotions and the romance that we share within the music and the story.  For a moment we are all connected as just people. But, the thing I love the most is folk music can be found in one instrument as well as 20.   I have found folk music in Bob Marley, Johnny Cash, Sting and Soundgarden.   While these bands aren’t heading to the Sisters Folk Festival anytime soon, there are equally impressive folks who are, like Beth Wood, Jonathan Byrd, Darlingside and The Subdudes.  Don’t know who they are?   You need to! 

The Sisters Folk Festival is a weekend long, town wide, music and art community celebration in Sisters, Oregon the weekend after Labor Day in September every year.  There are many free venues, because after all, folk music is for the people.   But I highly recommend the Community Celebration on Sunday morning at the main stage at Village Green Park.   Get there early, there will be a long line.

https://www.sistersfolkfestival.org/