Dar Williams
Dar Williams
Its roots run deep in American history. Authors have penned books about it, students can take courses dedicated to it, and it’s been the subject of numerous documentaries.
Still, folk music defies a simple definition, although “American roots music” is perhaps the closest to capturing its essence, since it can include traditional folk, folk rock, gospel, bluegrass, blues and more.
If you want to understand the diverse musical styles that fall under the folk music umbrella, look no further than the lineup at the venerable 54th Newport Folk Festival, held last month. The schedule included cowboy troubadour Ramblin’ Jack Elliott of Texas, the funk of New Orleans native Trombone Shorty, acoustic folk harmonies of the Milk Carton Kids, the retro rockabilly of JD McPherson and the Berklee Gospel and Roots Choir — and that’s just a small sampling.
The same diversity will be on display at the 38th annual Great River Folk Festival from Aug. 23-25 on the UW-La Crosse campus.
“We sure try to cover a wide range of styles,” said Bobbie Wilson, a member of the festival’s marketing and performers committees. “Some people say, ‘No blues (or whatever), this is a folk fest.’ I say, just about every style of music is folk music, or started out that way.  It’s music of the people! We, of course, have singer-songwriters, some traditional folk, but also alt bluegrass, gypsy swing and an awesome girl group, SHEL, that defies categorizing.”
Dave Schipper, a first-year member of three GRFF committees, agreed. “We are not and have never been stuck in a narrow genre,” he said. “The fest has is an under-marketed gold mine of music.”
The common trait that ties the musical styles together is their grassroots appeal.
The music has long been a way for the disenfranchised to be heard — whether slaves in the 1800s, immigrants and union organizers in the 1900s, civil rights demonstrators in the 1950s or antiwar protesters in the 1960s.
It is not surprising, then, that the 1960s, one the most chaotic times of American history — with the civil rights movement, Vietnam war and rise of feminism — is considered by some as a golden age of folk music. Artists such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and others helped popularize the acoustic sound most often associated with folk music, but then faded as popular music became louder, coarser and more commercial.
Occasionally, an artist perceived as a folk musician, such as Tracy Chapman, or an indie group, such as Bon Iver, may still break through in the music world, but in large the folk music audience is not as prominent as it once was. Still, folk festivals continue to draw enthusiastic fans, and roots music seems to gaining popularity among younger fans and artists, which is good news for the Great River Folk Festival and others like it.
“There are always great young singer-songwriters, bluegrass bands, blues players and they have their followings,” Wilson said. “Folk music has always been simmering under the surface. Joni Mitchell and Pete Seeger used to be on the radio all the time, but the ways people listen to music have changed. I think there are many, many people who are looking for, and finding, music that has meaning to them — rather than the mass-produced stuff.”
And it’s also good news that a new generation of singers and songwriters has found folk to be an effective way to share their stories and to pick up the standard for social change.
A quick glance at three of the many acts at the Great River festival illustrates that point.
• Dar Williams, the headliner for the opening night’s show at the Cartwright Center, has been compared to Joni Mitchell and Baez, but her sense of humor is considered a bit more acidic, which comes through in her lyrics. “She is a sweetheart that will have the crowd waiting on every word,” Schipper said. Coming out of the East Coast folk scene of the mid 1990s, she has created a significant fan base that appreciates not only her ability to write songs about contemporary life, but also her three-octave voice.
• SHEL, too, illustrates the diversity of roots music. The vocal group of four sisters (Sarah, Hannah, Eva and Liza) has blended, as one writer put it, “wisps of folk revival, vaudeville, renaissance fairs and steam-punk esthetic.”  SHEL’s core influences, they say, include The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Harry Nilsson and acoustic super-group Strength In Numbers. The band was listed as one of the top 10 secrets of this year's SXSW fest, Schipper noted.
• Wisconsin native and UW-Eau Claire grad Willy Porter, meanwhile, is well known across the state for his talents as a guitarist and story teller. He has toured with groups displaying a staggering array of styles: Jethro Tull, Tori Amos, Ricky Lee Jones, The Cranberries, Paul Simon, Jeff Beck and Sting, among others. His live performances show off his incredible breadth of talent as guitarist, songwriter, storyteller, performance artist and comedian.
Folk music, it’s clear, is far from dead.
“Acoustic music, intense songwriting, people music ... it isn't going to go away soon,” Schipper said.
The organizers of the Great River Folk Festival will be happy, however, if fans just leave the festival with a smile on their faces.
“I hope people will remember discovering great performers they hadn’t heard before, being surrounded by other folks who are having a great time at this traditional end-of-the-summer party,” Wilson said.
Schipper said this year’s festival should be noteworthy because it had music playing all the time, hosted its first poetry slam and “I believe and hope they'll ultimately remember they saw SHEL before they won a Grammy for the best new artist.”

Friday evening’s headline concert will be held at the Cartwright Center. All other events are held outdoors on the UW-L campus, including the “Under the Stars” concert Saturday night. For more information and a complete Great River Folk Fest schedule, visit http://www.greatriverfolkfest.org.