Old & New
Founding Fabulist Faithful to Festival
Ellis Paul [Sidenote: Part twenty-three of our Woodyfest 21 () coverage features Ellis Paul and Jason Mraz.] loves Woody. Of the Woody Guthrie tattoo on his right shoulder, he says it’s the only thing he could put on his body that would be
like a badge of who he was. [Sidenote: Alarik, Scott, “Boston’s ‘Soul’ Man Ellis Paul Crafts a Trademark Singer-Songwriter Sound,” Boston Globe, ] It was that tattoo, along with a chance meeting with Nora Guthrie, [Sidenote: Woody’s daughter, president of the Woody Guthrie Foundation, and founder of the Woody Guthrie Archive.] that brought Paul to Woody’s birthplace of Okemah. Both were attending a Folk Alliance Conference when Nora asked to see the tattoo. This led to his performing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame conference, Hard Travelin’: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie. [Sidenote: The week-long gathering was the first major conference devoted to Woody Guthrie. Performers included Dan Bern, Billy Bragg, Ani DiFranco, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Arlo Guthrie, Indigo Girls, Jorma Kaukonen, Jimmy LaFave, Country Joe McDonald, Paul Metsa, Charlie Mosbrook, David Pirner, Tim Robbins, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, and Syd Straw. Many of the same musicians, including Paul, reunited for the Guthrie tribute, ’til We Outnumber Them.] Less than Paul would headline the inaugural Woody Guthrie Folk Festival.
Paul has an almost perfect attendance record, performing at every Woodyfest except for , when his daughter Ella was born. To be sure, he was a happy father, but missing the festival
killed me. [Sidenote: Conversation between Ellis Paul and the author via Facebook Messenger.]
During Paul’s set, members of the Guthrie family watched from stage right on the concrete stage. The younger family members stayed for the following act, for reasons which will become clear below.
Paul sits on the festival’s advisory board. An amateur illustrator, his drawings have graced the festival program book and the souvenir T-shirts several times.
New Blood Attracts New Fans
Platinum-selling singer-songwriter Jason Mraz closed out festival . In conversation with various festival organizers, this writer was told that the Grammy®‑winning singer’s booking was the first foray into attracting a larger and more inclusive audience. It’s certainly true that contemporary folk music skews white, college educated, and baby-boomer. I didn’t notice a signficant change in that first demographic, but boy-howdy there was a seismic shift in the last. The night audience leaned young — I’ve never seen so many tweens and teens at the Pastures of Plenty in the fifteen years I’ve been attending — and very enthusiatic.
The young folks’ parents and grandparents might have not been Mraz fans when he stepped onto the stage, but they were converts soon after. Mraz is humble and self-deprecating onstage, but still commands the audience. A native of Virginia, he has the air of someone raised to say
Yes, ma’am and
Yes, sir and to hold the door open for his elders without being asked. He addresses the audience frequently between songs, often exhorting them to just
breathe. An easy-going, “New Age” California vibe permeates his monologues.
The songs aren’t strictly folk, although the underlying positive messages fit well with how folk music in the was used to incite social reform. The mostly solo acoustic set ranged from singer-songwriter to rock and pop to neo-soul. Mraz dutifully performed his hits to the audience’s delight. Near the end of his set, a couple of festival regulars joined Mraz. Terry “Buffalo” Ware added some electric guitar to the mix, while Joel Rafael provided additional guitar and vocals.
In this writer’s judgment, the organizer’s goal of widening the festival audience was a smashing success. I hope they will not only book Mraz for future festivals, but will remain open to attracting other folk-adjacent performers.
Gallery: Ellis Paul & Jason Mraz
I didn’t get many photograph’s of Ellis Paul’s set as I was taking a break from my duties, but here are a couple of images I shot from upstage, for what it’s worth. Images from Jason Mraz’s set follow below.