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As applied to music, the term “underground” has become something of a misnomer. It invokes the image of a half-empty club with Frank Zappa idolizers meshing a stripped-down synthesizer with a plastic kazoo in an onstage experiment gone haywire—a band promoting its “new independent release.” With so many small-time musicians slapping together basement studios and presiding over tiny record labels from their kitchen tables, underground music, originally a screw-the-mainstream pursuit, is now considered a specific genre.
A crew of over-40 Kingston Trio buffs sitting around a stuffy living room bawling out old English ballads and sucking down Bud Light doesn’t fit this notion of underground music. But it oughta, because folk—home-grown, raw, and famously subversive—remains the lone musical tradition that’s passed on orally, by pluckers and crooners who will never set foot on stage or in a studio, and who frankly don’t care.
In these parts, that tradition shows itself on the first Friday night of each month, when more than two dozen folkies set up shop in area living rooms for Open Sings, thematic jamborees sponsored by the Folklore Society of Greater Washington (FSGW). Suited up in worn-out plaid, balding men and bifocaled women churn out nearly four hours’ worth of battle hymns, waltzes, and Irish jigs with the vigor of young rowdies. Reveling in archaic melodies with forgotten authors, the band of middle-aged troubadours makes it clear why folk is still relevant—because the world is the same as it ever was. Traditionals penned in earlier centuries, and resurrected on first Fridays, cover the same material as the 6 o’clock news: corrupt authority, murder, and scandalous infidelity.
November’s hoedown has brought nearly 30 folk junkies to Kathie Mack’s usually spacious Takoma Park living room armed with yellowed lyric sheets and well-traveled songbooks, bookmarked to tunes picked to suit the night’s topic: “Guy Fawkes Day: Explosions and Other Great Noises.” (Fawkes, of course, was the 17th-century Catholic zealot who bolstered English Protestantism through a failed attempt at blowing up the House of Commons. His effigy is still burned in England each Nov. 5, the anniversary of his Gunpowder Plot.) The need for noise preordained a hootenanny dominated by war songs—”Battle of Jericho,” “And the Band Played ‘Waltzing Matilda,’” and even “The Star Spangled Banner” have probably not been in such demand for decades.
Like the Fawkes motif, future topics get discussed over tortilla chips at the set break and are usually picked to concur with timely (if obscure) goings-on: transportation for March (get it?), “A Man’s Home Is His Castle” to celebrate a housewarming, various colors to liven up the more drab months. “One time, we were singing about the states,” says ukulele-banjo player Dottie Hurley. “We got through all 50 in one night.”
While the topics lean toward the stratospheric, Open Sings are structurally grounded in the Woody Guthrie school of democratic socialism. Going around a misshapen circle, each person sings a tune of choice, and then the others chime in as soon as they recognize it. The night is mostly a cappella, with each songster lamenting his or her lack of familiarity with the song he or she is about to attempt and expressing the need for vocal support. An occasional fiddle, ukulele-banjo, English siren whistle, or acoustic guitar gives a musical skeleton to a few numbers, but the emphasis never really shifts from communal lyricism. “It’s not performance as much as it is participation,” says Nancy King, a Germantown librarian who’s been toting her guitar to the sing-alongs for the past three years.
Unlike the open-mike phenomenon, Open Sings provide a kind of anarchic folk classroom where folkies school each other on the genealogy, geography, and social implications of each song. “I’m a bureaucrat, and the proper bureaucrat wants to know how thing are supposed to work, wants to know about process,” says 58-year-old singer and strummer Bob Clayton, a computer specialist for the Department of Education. “Folk music is interested in process, too. How does a pop song turn into a jazz song and then into a folk song? It’s the folk process.”
About half of said process consists of singing; the other half unfolds through pre- and post-song discussions, ranging from arguments over a melody’s origin to impromptu, lyrically inspired history lessons. Concluding the Aussie lament “And the Band Played ‘Waltzing Matilda,’” a voice from the circle cries out, “And it didn’t even cost Churchill his job!” Later, over menthol cigarettes on the front porch, military-history fanatic Dick Rodgers recounts Britain’s botched attempt to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula during World War I—a blunder that cost tens of thousands of Australian soldiers their lives and inspired Eric Bogle’s 1972 folk anthem.
Sometimes the commentary turns more personal, illuminating where a song was learned or why a particular singer can’t possibly do it justice. “I might crash and burn on this one because I’m forbidden to sing it at home,” warns flannel-clad singer Jim Bunch before striking up the dark, hokey “Long Black Veil.” “The only songs I used to sing were drinking songs and songs about death and dying. After about six months my wife said, ‘No more!’ and I had to learn lullabies.”
Like most Open Sing groupies, Bunch says his familial obligations prevent serious folk indulgence. He fiddles with a jew’s-harp, bones, gut bucket, and washtub bass— “Every instrument that’s not an instrument”—and shows up when he’s not attending Boy Scout meetings with his sons.
FSGW gatherings now garner crowds that rival those of its inaugural days in the mid-’60s. Having resided inside churches and the Washington Ethical Society in the ’70s and ’80s, the Open Sing folkies have reclaimed their native living-room habitat in the ’90s. The Friday-night gang is proud of its quaint suburban venues. “Folk music has always been close to home,” King says. “In the old days, people used to learn songs from each other on the back porch.”—Dan Gilgoff