Fred Knittel isn’t the first 22-year-old folk-music enthusiast to notice how the genre has evolved over the many years of its existence. And he’s certainly not the first person to observe the disparity between fans of traditional folk music and those of more modern folk artists. He is, however, the driving force behind Folkadelphia: a three-concert series showcasing local folk artists whose music, Knittel hopes, will serve as a good starting point for an ongoing discussion between the two camps. Knittel, currently a senior in the Music Industry program at Drexel University, is also the host of Y Rock On XPN‘s weekly Folkadelphia show (Tuesdays, 6-8 p.m.), co-founder of Be Frank Records, and a former WXPN intern. Prior to the festival’s first show (Sunday, 1 p.m., at Johnny Brenda’s), Knittel spoke with The Key about his studies at Drexel, his discovery of primitive guitar music, and bridging the gap between fans of old-school and new-school folk music.
The Key: When did you first come up with the idea for the Folkadelphia Concert Series?
Fred Knittel: I love live music, and I always wanted to be a bigger part of it. To do my own thing. But the push for it was through Drexel. In the Music Industry program, you have to do a senior project. Basically, there are two tracks: there’s the business track and the tech track. Most tech people say, “Well, I’m going to record an album.” For the business people, it’s a little more nebulous. Because one of the criteria is, “Try not to depend on other people.” And I’m thinking, “As a businessperson, isn’t that my job? Don’t I have to facilitate those kinds of relationships?”
TK: Sounds about right.
FK: So I was like, “Nope, I’m not going to listen to that.” And they’re also like, “Don’t do shows, we don’t really like that.” And I was like “Uh…OK. Deal with it.”
TK: The Music Industry program isn’t interested in having students organize festivals and showcases?
FK: I think they’ve gotten burned in previous years. Someone will be like, “I’m throwing a charity show!” It’ll be one show and they’ll get their buddies to play it. And it’s like, “You spent three months doing this?” But I can actually say I did spend a lot of time doing this.
TK: As far as press releases go, the press release for the Folkadelphia concert series makes some bold statements.
FK: [Laughs] I’ve been doing a lot of grant writing lately. So it’s like, all info, no bullshit. I’m sorry if it came off cold.
TK: For starters, you specifically mention that the series will “operate on the modern conception of the term ‘folk music’ and what that means in the continuum of the ever-changing genre.” What does the term “folk music,” in today’s musical climate, mean to you?
FK: I think folk music has a billion definitions. Some people say folk music is the oral tradition of songs. You know, the Child Ballads. It’s music that a lot of different cultures share. A lot of the same themes, stories, whatever. I feel like folk music has evolved from that…I don’t really have the answer. But I think, with folk music, a lot of it has to do with the stories, a lot of it has to do with the way the musicians operate—where they play, how they play, what they play. It’s very vague. People make up genres every day. With folk music, there’s freak folk and—I didn’t know this was even a thing until the other day—primitive guitar music. It’s definitely in the line of, like, post-Jack-Rose-esque music…[I]t’s kind of lo-fi, it’s kind of raw, and full of emotion. Tim Showalter from Strand Of Oaks just sent me this guy—I forget his name—and he was like, “This is some of the best primitive guitar music.” I was like, “I don’t know what that means but this is cool.” So it’s hard to verbalize.
TK: The Folkadelphia press release also says the series will help fans of the genre “[e]xperience folk music from a whole new perspective.” What is this “new perspective” you have to offer on such a well-established, time-tested genre?
FK: Well, a lot of that is directed at, you know…I know that a lot of people who go to the Philadelphia Folk Festival are very set in their mentality. I know the people that book it, I know a lot of people that run it. And they get excited, “Oh, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is playing!” “Oh, The Espers are playing!” “Oh, even Jeff Tweedy is playing!” To me, that makes a lot of sense. Bonnie “Prince” Billy playing at a folk festival? I get it. That’s cool. But a lot of people go and boo. I hear stories about people yelling, booing, walking out… That’s why there’s the whole discussion element in each Folkadelphia show. Because I want those people to understand where these musicians are coming from, and that they’re still rooted in the folk traditions.
TK: If that’s the case, what do you think keeps those people set in that mentality?
FK: It’s like when Bob Dylan went from acoustic to electric. And it was like, “What?! That’s not folk music!” But it is folk music—it’s just evolved…[I]t’s the same people who booed at Dylan, you know? Like change is bad, especially because folk music feels timeless. To mess with the formula is taboo. But it shouldn’t be. I mean, in this day and age, things get stagnant…I think trying new things is exciting. But that’s probably why people get pissed off.
TK: So each of the shows has a Q&A session to foster discussion about modern folk music.
FK: I think the way the it’s going to work is that there’s going to be some amount of playing, and then in the middle there will be a brief break for the discussion. And then, afterward, another set of music.
TK: That’s probably a good setup.
FK: I don’t want people to leave!
FK: I know all of them, that’s the number one thing. [Laughs] But the other thing is, in the Philadelphia music scene, they all rank among the bigwigs of folk music. Gene has obviously done The Folk Show forever. Levi…he was like one of the first people I thought of, like [snaps fingers] “This is the guy!” The one or two times we met before we started talking about the festival, I feel like we really connected on a musical progression level—where folk music has been, where it’s going. So he was all about it. And Biff manages Birdie Busch, he manages Hoots And Hellmouth, and he’s done radio promotion forever. He gets it.
TK: Do you think having people like Gene, Levi, and Biff moderate those discussions will help get your intended message about modern folk music through to the audience?
FK: Sure. I mean…it doesn’t hurt that Gene Shay is an easy pill to swallow. If Gene’s up there saying, “This is folk music,” it’s cool. Whereas me—it’s like, who cares who I am? This…gives it more credibility. And that’s the big thing.
TK: As a younger person trying to engage older fans of the genre in a discussion about modern folk music, do you anticipate that kind of “Who is this guy” response?
FK: I think there might be some friction? Actually, I hope there is some friction. But I think if people show up they’ll enjoy it.
The series kicks off this Sunday at 1 p.m. at Johnny Brenda’s with performances by The Spinning Leaves and Hezekiah Jones; tickets to the show are $7. Following each show, that afternoon’s performers will appear on The Folk Show with Gene Shay (Sundays, 8-11 p.m.). For the full schedule, visit Johnny Brenda’s website.
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