If someone had told me that all three days at the Philadelphia Folk Festival would feature violent, tornadic thunderstorms and incessant downpours I may well have given it a pass. But the 50th anniversary of this event was an extraordinary weekend of music and fellowship. After attending hundreds of outdoor festivals over the last 40 something years I had forgotten what it felt like to among such a large group of people who'd gathered not for hedonistic purposes but in hope for and service of a better world. The music was inspirational and democratic.
The star of the festival from my perspective was 80-year-old David Amram, who participated in a tribute to Phil Ochs, held a spellbinding workshop recalling his days playing with Jack Kerouac, led a lengthy World Music jam, performed his own jazz set which made me realize he influenced Mose Allison rather than the other way around, and finished off the festival by sitting with Levon Helm's outstanding band, which included Larry Campbell on guitar, Steve Bernstein on trumpet and Howard Johnson on tuba. Amram's double pennywhistle solo on "The Weight" at the close of the night was the perfect grace note for the festival.
Amram's best quote: "When they're telling you that the policemen and the firemen are the enemies, going after the Archie Bunkers, you know they've overplayed their hand."
(John Swenson: is a former editor of Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, Circus and Rock World magazines, former syndicated music columnist for UPI and Reuters for 20 years, and has authored 14 books.)
“Music in concert with the landscape” is the mantra of the Moab Music Festival, but also describes the life journey of this year’s composer-in-residence at the festival, the almost indescribable David Amram
Amram is a polyglot of so many styles and influences that he can’t be pigeonholed — musically or otherwise.
Conservatory training from a young age provided rigorous background in Eurocentric music traditions. Early associations with Beat Generation jazz icons reinforced his sense of nonconformity. Perhaps most pertinent, criss-crossing the country to make music with American Indian singers, bluegrass bands, country music superstars and symphony orchestras brought Amram a reverence for the diverse landscapes and peoples of America. He’s a one-man musical melting pot.
For those reasons and more, Amram is a good fit for the Moab Music Festival, where you might well hear a Beethoven quartet in a stone grotto on one night, a progressive bluegrass band on a river bank the next, and a Venezuelan jazz group backed by red cliffs on the night after that.
“David Amram is the quintessential American composer, and he has been at it for so long,” said MMF executive director Michael Bennett. “He’s had such a unique view of American history, and his music embraces so much of America.”Though the Moab Music Festival was founded by musicians steeped in European music traditions, it has always had a strong focus on American music, Bennett said. That shows in the prestigious list of past composers-in-residence, which includes Lukas Foss, William Bolcom and Lowell Lieberman. Just as much a part of the festival are the annual concerts featuring jazz, folk and ethnic music, represented this year by the progressive bluegrass band Punch Brothers, the Venezuela-inspired jazz of Marcos Granados and the folk music of festival regulars Paul Woodiel (fiddle) and Christopher Layer (flutes, whistles and bagpipes).
Classical chamber-music concerts will feature festival regulars such as Barrett and fellow pianists Michael Boriskin and Eric Zivian, violist Leslie Tomkins, cellist Tanya Tomkins and a host of guest artists. Bennett looks forward to performing a two-piano version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” with Boriskin on Sept. 2.
As ever, the stunning scenery of the Moab area is the backdrop for outdoor concerts where the cries of canyon wrens and howling of distant coyotes can add unexpected flourishes to the music.
Concerts are easily accessible at Moab’s acoustically pure Star Hall, but adventurers can choose to boat down the Colorado for grotto concerts, ride to cliff-ringed ranches along the river or hike to chamber-music concerts on scenic Music Walks.
A Sept. 3 concert at Star Hall honors Amram by featuring an array of influential American composers, along with Amram’s “Honor Song for Sitting Bull” and “Three Songs for America,” a setting of texts by Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. “Pull My Daisy,” Amram’s famous jazz improvisation to poetry of Jack Kerouac, is on the program, too.
It’s been more than 50 years since Amram met Kerouac in a New York coffeehouse where Amram was playing jazz. Friendship with the Beat Generation founder was a formative experience for Amram, who emphasized that Kerouac was a free thinker who didn’t like being lumped into a category.
“The last thing we wanted was to be on the board of directors of the Beat Generation,” Amram said. “That name was given to make a corporate image out of some really wonderful, individualistic people with completely different backgrounds. The thing we shared is that we all hoped that the energy and idealism of the time after World War II would continue and that America would open up so we could hear and celebrate the voices of everyone.”
The memories Amram shares of his time with Kerouac have little to do with stereotypical images of counterculture experimentation and bohemian hedonism ascribed to the Beats. Kerouac’s travels, made famous in his book On the Road, were motivated by his reverence for small-town America and old-fashioned values, Amram said.
Amram finds a microcosm of those values when he sits in to perform with the jazz, bluegrass and American Indian performers he’s met in many decades of traveling the country. That’s what will be on display when he performs at the Moab Music Festival, he said. And this 80-year-old Beatnik (forgive the moniker, Mr. Amram) sounds a lot like a conservative preacher when he speaks of music as a model for society:
“Anybody can play music with anybody else if you exhibit civilized behavior and be supportive rather than just barging in. It’s like visiting in someone’s home. Music-making is always about respect and sharing and hard work and devotion. Those are good values that we all try to live by and want to have our kids and grandkids aware of. The best way to exemplify that is the hardest way — by your own behavior.”
The 2011 Moab Music Festival runs Aug. 31 to Sept. 12 at locations in and around Moab. Conductor/pianist Michael Barrett is music director; violist Leslie Tomkins is artistic director.
Aug. 31 » 7:30 p.m., Star Hall, Meet the Artist — David Amram. Screenings of the 1959 film “Pull My Daisy,” which features Amram’s jazz compositions with narration by Jack Kerouac, and the 2011 documentary film “David Amram: The First 80 Years,” introduced by its filmmaker, Lawrence Kraman. Benefit for community education programs; admission by donation.
Sept. 3 » 6 p.m., “David Amram’s America,” --- Festival Tent at Red Cliffs Adventure Lodge. Works by Amram, Harry Burleigh, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and William Bolcom. Amram is among the performers and will play a variety of instruments. $30.