Folk School of St. Louis celebrates ten years

Dec 1, 2011 at 4:00 am

On a weeknight in mid-October the patrons at Off Broadway shuffled in from one of the first starkly cold nights of the season. Every seat was filled, and people stood two or three deep around the edges of the room. The crowd cheered heartily after each song. But with dozens of amateur musicians performing, some of whom had begun playing only weeks before, it wasn't a typical performance — it was Folk School of St. Louis' biannual student showcase.

Groups ranging in skill from beginning to advanced performed a few songs each. Twenty-five classes were represented on the bill; it's likely that the historic south-city venue has never seen that many stringed instruments at once. It's also probable that it has never seen such a friendly crowd. Old friends and acquaintances greeted each other eagerly. Some folks seemed to know everyone.

These showcases make up a small portion of the many community-based events that Folk School of St. Louis organizes, and over its ten-year history these events have become a large part of the school's mission. Though the school enrolls between 130 and 160 students per eight-week instructional session it also hosts multiple events each month, including workshops, concerts, square dances and ceilis, where participants learn and perform traditional Irish dances.

The largest event in the school's history takes place at the Sheldon Concert Hall on December 1 in celebration of its tenth anniversary. The centerpiece of the event is a performance by the duo of Pokey LaFarge — St. Louis' best-known folk musician — and Ryan Spearman, who's quietly its most valuable. Ten years is something to be proud of, especially when those ten years have been hard-fought. The institution has weathered significant changes in leadership, organizational structure and location. Most significantly, it staved off a financial crisis more than a year ago that threatened to close its doors. With stable operational reserves and increasing enrollment, the school's future is secure for the moment, and its supporters are more steadfast and appreciative than ever.

Folk music is "the music of the folk, the music of the people," says Folk School's executive director Kelly Wells. That simple principle has helped guide the organization since day one: Sometime in 2001, when Jeff Miller opened the school in a building near Delmar Boulevard and Hanley Road with the goal of providing high-quality group instruction, primarily in the bluegrass and old-time genres. Over time, the school's curriculum and concerts have grown beyond stock Americana to include a dizzying array of traditions: Irish, Appalachian, blues, Latin-American, Caribbean, klezmer and Kurdish. Growth led to a pair of moves, first to a house on Big Bend Boulevard and then to its current location on Sutton Boulevard in Maplewood. The school operated as a for-profit entity until 2003, when it transitioned to nonprofit status in order to enable access to nonprofit funding.

The past few years, however, have been hard on many nonprofits owing to the weak state of the national economy, and Folk School is no execption. In 2010 it encountered grave financial difficulties when some of its grant funding was cut and enrollment experienced an ill-timed decline. John Colbert, the president of the board of directors, saw the summer of 2010 as "a moment of panic...a scary time."

Faced with the prospect of folding, the school appealed to its community. The resulting influx of donations not only prevented the worst but also padded the accounts a bit, creating a financial safety net. To counteract the dip in enrollment the school worked to align its course offerings more closely with students' interests. Enrollment has been increasing ever since. The most significant consequence, however, was that the dilemma forced the school's supporters to take stock of its value. According to Wells, the school's leaders "were able to really see the community come together and see how important the community was to everyone, and how important the school was."

That word, community, is one you'll hear people involved with Folk School use again and again. They seem to be hinting that this community formed around a shared appreciation of traditional music is as vital to its preservation as the songs themselves. "It's community music that's meant to be played in pubs and bars and to make people dance," says Karl Eggers, guitarist for local country-tinged rockers the Dive Poets and a long-time student at Folk School. This community was immediately evident to Colbert. He initially enrolled at the school in order to learn banjo and improve his guitar technique, but he found more going on there than he had anticipated: "There was community-building that was going on because of the coursework, but beyond the coursework there were people getting together to jam, and there were social events surrounding the community. That appealed to me a lot."

One contributing factor to this communal environment is the focus on group courses, which set the school apart from other music instructional paths. Students can enroll in classes with others of comparable skill level and benefit from each other's knowledge. "Group classes are nice because you're all in it together. If there's something challenging, then you can help each other out," observes Eggers. These classes include requisite instruction in banjo, guitar, fiddle and mandolin as well as less-expected offerings for instruments like mountain dulcimer, ukulele and harmonica. Ensemble classes in Western swing, old-time, bluegrass and jug-band music give students the opportunity to learn to play together and to listen to each other. The twice-yearly showcases bring many of the classes together in front of family and friends for a unique opportunity to share and celebrate the skills that they have learned.

For several teachers and students at the school, performing in front of an audience is nothing new; they have played in bands around the St. Louis area for some time. The aforementioned Dive Poets, the Lulus and River Bound all feature Folk School students. Past and present instructors include veteran solo artists Ryan Spearman and Tom Hall, as well as Justin Branum, who's the 2010 Grand Master Fiddler Champion and a member of Swing DeVille and Colonel Ford.

Most students, however, are there merely for the enjoyment of the art. Many have long considered picking up an instrument and find the group setting more approachable and rewarding than individual lessons or self-learning. When Wells talks about these students her voice lights up: "It's exciting to see those moments where students are gaining confidence and having those moments where they say, 'Oh yeah, I can be part of this too, and I can do this,' rather than just sitting on the sidelines."

While many people associate folk music with an older sect of the population — in particular those who were part of the folk revival of the 1960s — the school's enrollment is seeing an uptick in young people. Wells notes that this increased interest has been natural as young students spread the word about the school to friends, but she sees diverse age representation as something to explicitly pursue in the future.

Colbert also sees cultural diversity as an important goal for the school: "To me, that's one of the great potentials of a folk school in an urban area. As we grow and expand we can bring in the same kind of breadth of traditions that are visible at, say, the Festival of Nations." He goes on to point out the power of music to form bridges between cultures and traditions in spite of language barriers. So far, steps in this direction have been small — a workshop here, a concert there — but both Wells and Colbert are eager to make strides toward more diverse cultural representation.

Future diversity in the curriculum will also likely come in the way of folk-arts instruction, which is also a part of the school's official mission. Courses and workshops may include artisan skills such as soap making or basket weaving. These skills have traditionally been passed along in the same way as folk music, from one friend or family member to another.

Most music today is passively consumed, but folk traditions bring music back to a communal space where it becomes conversational and participatory. This form of communication and these traditional styles are increasingly on the margins of society, but Folk School of St. Louis seeks to provide a community for the sharing, preservation and perpetuation of these traditions for those who see value in them. For the members of this community, the music is not just an historical artifact but is something to be lived and shared. "The music propels you in a way, when it locks in," says Eggers. "I think that's something more people could stand to hear."