Brooklyn Folk Festival founder talks tunes and tradition as 15th annual festival begins

Brooklyn folk festival at St. Ann’s Church
The 15th annual Brooklyn Folk Festival will feature almost 40 artists from eighteen-year-old Nora Brown to 92-year-old Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Folk Festival

Brooklyn is getting folk-y this weekend as the annual Brooklyn Folk Festival returns to St. Ann’s Church. 

With a spectacular lineup of more than 30 bands, a wild banjo-throwing contest, film screenings, lots of dancing, workshops and jam sessions, the 15th edition of Brooklyn Folk Festival kicks off Friday, Nov. 10, at 7 p.m. and will continue playing until Sunday, Nov. 13. 

The lineup includes Ramblin Jack Elliott — one of the most iconic and legendary folk singers of all time — and other big names such as Alice Gerard, Peggy Seeger doing a video performance from England, the Flugs, Dom Flemons, Jake Blunt, and  Jerron Paxton.

Brooklyn folk festival at the church
The event takes place in St. Ann’s Church, which offers “great acoustics” for musicians. Photo courtesy of Brian Geltner/Brooklyn Folk Festival

“There are so many great folk musicians here, and I thought, ‘They need to be on a bigger stage. They need an annual event to grab people’s attention and focus on this music which deserves to be heard,'” said the festival’s founding producer Eli Smith, who also plays in string band the Down Hill Strugglers. “A lot of the old folk music festivals from the sixties had faded away or changed substantially to the point where they weren’t representing the music that I was interested in. So I saw a void that needed to be filled and an opening for a music festival in the style of classic folk music like the early Newport Folk Festival or the University of Chicago Folk Festival, these really iconic events that are considered legendary now. Those are our models.”

Smith grew up in the West Village, which was one of the main hubs for the folk music movement in New York City and to some extent, the whole country, going all the way back to the 1930s, way before the neighborhood became one of the most expensive areas to live in — also both in the city and in the country. 

Crowd at Brooklyn Folk Festival
Hundreds of folk lovers attend the beloved festival every year. Photo courtesy of Brian Geltner/Brooklyn Folk Festival

“Growing up in the 90s, I knew that there was a history of this kind of music in my home area that I was really interested in and I heard musicians, sort of randomly or by good fortune,” he said. “I heard Mississippi John Hurt and the New Lost City Ramblers and the Anthology of American Folk Music that Folkways released back in the 50s, and the music was totally captivating to me, and it was like nothing that I had heard from friends in school or on TV or on the radio. It was a whole different world of music and when I heard it, I said to myself, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for all along. This makes sense to me. This is beautiful. And I’ve been following that ever since.”

Smith works at the Jalopy Theater, the main venue for folk music in New York City today. He put together the first festival in 2009, and over the past 15 years, it has grown from a small event at the  Jalopy to a concert at the Bell House, and now, to a full-fledged festival on multiple stages at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn Heights.

“It’s a folk festival in the sense of local, vernacular music; it’s not Americana, singer-songwriters, or indie rock,” he said. “There’s a deep reverence for tradition from the United States and from around the world, things that are not connected to the music industry necessarily, that are like grassroots, community-based music, down-home music, farmers who had learned the music from their parents and so on, but also a playfulness and a willingness to take it to new places. It’s also a fest that tries to include its fans with activities.”

banjo throwing contest of the brooklyn Folk Festival
At the annual banjo toss, attendees take turns hurling the stringed instrument into the Gowanus Canal. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Folk Festival

One program highlight is the “famous and absurd” banjo toss contest, where attendees see who can throw a banjo tied to a rope the farthest into the Gowanus Canal and retrieve it afterwards. Contestants throw it out and then haul it back in over and over. An eight-week banjo class at the Jalopy is given away as the prize.

The festival kicks off Friday, Nov. 10, at 7 p.m. at St. Ann’s Church at 157 Montague St. between Clinton and Henry in Brooklyn Heights. Ticket prices and times vary — exact details are available online.