Charlie's In The House: The Moab Folk Festival

Nov 7, 2019

So I visited the Moab Folk Festival this past week, where I collected some good old-fashioned memories and got a sunburn.

Surely you remember folk music. That genre was the popular alternative to rock n’ roll starting in the late 1950s, during what is often referred to as the American Folk Music Revival. That era lasted until the Beatles led the British music invasion that pushed everything else off the commercial airwaves in the mid-1960s. Since then, folk music has been kept alive by independent performers and that tradition was alive and well in Moab last weekend.

Headlining the event in Moab was Judy Collins, a legendary songstress of the folk revival era. She has been performing professionally since 1961, first as a folk musician and songwriter and then as a pop artist in the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, Ms. Collins has returned to her roots and has been a regular performer on the indie folk music circuit.

At age 80, Ms. Collins has a remarkable voice that still allows her to hit those eerie high notes that are her trademark and an even more commanding stage presence.

Given her decades of experience, Ms. Collins knows everyone in the music industry (some of them intimately), which makes her as gifted as a storyteller as she is as a singer. Wherever she needs to tune her 12-string guitar, Ms. Collins entertains her audiences with chatty bits of gossip about well-known celebrities.

Her crowd-pleasing open-air performance Saturday afternoon at the Moab Ball Field featured both old and new material from Ms. Collins’ repertoire, including pop hits from the 1970s like “Both Sides Now,” “Send in the Clowns,” “Someday Soon” and a sing-along finale of “Amazing Grace.”

Unfortunately, the other artists in the festival’s line-up – including Martin Sexton, Tracy Grammar, Richard Shindell, Carrie Rodriguez and Hubby Jenkins – are names well-known only to avid fans of the current folk music scene. That’s a shame, because their performances would be worthy of popular attention if our modern airwaves weren’t filled with junk music. Their sets in Moab included both recently written tunes and golden oldies from the “ancient” archives of folk music. A prime example of one such blast from the past was Max Gomez putting a new spin on the sardonic 1960s protest song “What Did You Learn in School Today?”

Moab has changed a lot in the past decade, but it’s still essentially a tourist town. The city’s resident population of nearly 6,000 is routinely dwarfed from spring to fall by up to 20,000 weekly visitors.

Despite that fact, the Moab Folk Festival still looks and feels like a secret that the tourists haven’t learned about yet. While I was pleased to have the opportunity to rub shoulders with a handful of Cache Valley residents who had treked to Moab, the audiences at the festival’s venues were largely made up of local residents. That fact certainly contributed to the festival’s decidedly mellow vibe.

Age-wise, I felt right at home among the audiences of mostly senior citizens. That seemed hardly surprising, given that the heyday of American folk music was about 50 years ago. But there was also a sprinkling of younger couples in the crowds, who were undoubtedly there trying to be hip (or is it hep nowadays?).

I should emphasize that the Moab Folk Festival isn’t Woodstock, thank goodness. In the midst of an audience of about 1,000 for Ms. Collins’ performance on Saturday afternoon, you knew you were in a good-size crowd, but it wasn’t a mob scene from Ben Hur.  Nor is this annual event in any danger of becoming annoyingly commercialized anytime soon. The Moab Folk Festival remains relaxed and friendly because it is still organized and conducted by local volunteers.