Spiritual successor: Americana jamboree revives old music and old festival

Spiritual successor: Americana jamboree revives old music and old festival
Photo by Jason Speakman

Americana is bigger than country.

A new festival of Americana music, debuting in Dumbo and Red Hook Sept. 25–27, comes from the brain of a Brit. Why is a native of the U.S.’s former colonial oppressor organizing the Brooklyn Americana Music Festival, dedicated to fiddle-and-banjo songs, the blues, and gospel spirituals from the New World? It may seem ironic, but the show’s founder says that if you dig deeper, you’ll find that the taproot of American roots music goes all the way back to Britannia.

“These songs travelled with coal miners across the Atlantic Ocean, and a lot of those songs went with people as they disappeared into Appalachia — they kept these songs with them,” said Jan Bell, a musician who moved from northern England to Dumbo in 1999. “The coal vein that my father mined in Yorkshire and Wales comes under the Atlantic Ocean and into north America. That whole concept is a metaphor for the music — we’re connected physically but also by our bloodline, our ancestry.”

Just like American tunes grew out of an older tradition, the first-year Americana festival is rooted in a previous one — it is a spiritual successor to the now-defunct Dumbo Arts Festival, for which she organized musical performances since the 1990s.

“I had stages at that festival every year, and the date worked, so I thought ‘Let’s keep going,’ you know?” she said.

More than 30 acts will perform over the free weekend-long festival, at Dumbo venues 68 Jay St. Bar and Superfine, under the neighborhood’s archway, and at Red Hook’s Jalopy Theatre. Cobbling together the talent and the venues was the easy part of organizing the event, said Bell.

“The venues are this little world I’m fortunate enough to live in on a daily basis,” she said. “The bands have been playing actively at these venues for five, 10 years. For me, it was best to work with people I know and already have relationships with. These are people I can rely on to be assertive but also who trust me. We don’t need to draw up contracts. It’s old-school. It’s look each other in the eye and have a gentlemen’s agreement.”

Navigating the city’s party-planning process in the once-gritty, now-hot nabe was a different story, Bell said.

“I used to get stages in Dumbo without a permit or filing any paperwork,” she said. “But now, you can’t say ‘boo’ without getting a permit for it.”

She raised $10,000 through crowd-funding to put on this year’s event — next year she will also look to the city for arts grants in an effort to keep the festival free, she said.

“Free urban outdoor music festivals are not a profitable business model, I’m told, but I know it’s possible.”

Brooklyn Americana Music Festival at Superfine (126 Front St. between Pearl and Jay streets in Dumbo), 68 Jay St. Bar (68 Jay St. between Front and Water streets in Dumbo), beneath the Manhattan Bridge archway (Anchorage Place between Pearl and Plymouth streets in Dumbo), and Jalopy Theatre (315 Columbia St. between Woodhull Street and Hamilton Avenue in Red Hook). Sept. 25–27. Free. Schedule available at www.bkamf.com.

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeg[email protected]glocal.com or by calling (718) 260–8303. Follow him on Twitter @JustTheMax.