Inside NYC's Burgeoning Folk Scene
On an unusually warm Wednesday night in November, small groups of people stand at the entrance of the Jalopy--familiar faces of the theater, music school, guitar shop and bar like co-owner Geoff Wiley and Bob Dylan aficionado Wyndham Baird. The Jalopy's weekly folk showcase, Roots & Ruckus, is taking place inside, and the theater's church pews are filling up with people. Ruckus's electric host, Feral Foster, stands on stage for his set, drooping red curtains and red lights above him. At six feet tall with a mass of black hair, black moustache and beard, Foster's presence booms off the stage. He bangs his foot on the ground. He hugs his guitar. He yodels.
Credit: Raymond Haddad Feral Foster
"And Jesus, how could so much come between us? How could you possibly mean this? Isn't life funny that way," he sings.
Some speculate that Foster is this generation's Dave Van Ronk, the latter a folk legend and both key figures in organizing the New York folk scenes of their time.
"He is like that in his character," says fellow musician and staff member of the Jalopy, Ernie Vega, of Foster, likening his tough exterior yet warm heart to Van Ronk's. Vega took guitar lessons with Van Ronk months before the musician's passing in 2002, learning a technique called fingerpicking. He'd held his own showcase at 116 MacDougal Street (its basement the Gaslight Cafe, a home for the folk scene of the '60s) in late 2012 before its closing.
Roots & Ruckus was born in 2005 when Foster, from the East Village himself, was approached busking at Washington Square Park and asked to participate in a show at former Thai restaurant the Village Ma. The show took place in its back room, usually reserved for karaoke. When Foster and his friends brought a crowd, organizer Mike Katz asked them to take over. Around the same time, Wiley and wife Lynette opened Jalopy's, hoping to build a community where art and roots music could thrive. In the case of the disparate folk scene in New York, Jalopy's soon became a home for the sound. "You should really move your show to this new place Jalopy," Foster said of fellow musician Eli Smith's beckoning in 2007 after two years at the Ma. "It's so much better than a shitty fucking Thai restaurant in the Village."
That night Roots & Ruckus would also feature Stephanie Jenkins on banjo, Zach Bryson on slide guitar and Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton on fiddle. As part of the lineup, Smith's old-time string band, the Down Hill Strugglers, would also be playing. The Strugglers are featured on the soundtrack of the upcoming Coen brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, covering an old folk song called "The Roving Gambler" with legendary New York musician and member of the New Lost City Ramblers, John Cohen.