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EMU Student Project: Report On Ann Arbor And Ypsilanti's Folk Music Scene

Pedro Esteva

Eastern Michigan University students, under the direction of Dr. Sadaf Ali and Patrick Campion, were given the opportunity to create a reporting project as a final project in their CTAT 334 class.  This is the work of Pedro Esteva, reporting on the Washtenaw County venues known for showcasing folk music artists.

Where does a music scene live?  Where does it reside?  Where does it call home?  Where does it kick its boots off at the end of a long day at work and sit down to read the local newspaper?

This is what I wanted to find out about the Ann Arbor/ Ypsi folk scene--a scene I was aware of but not familiar with.  A scene with a long history dating back to folk revival in the '60s where the seed was first planted.

Together, we’ll travel to longtime staple The Arkand rising Ypsi coffee shop and brewery Cultivate and talk to the people whose lives have become intertwined with this scene.

Now where to begin?

Of course, we have to begin at the top.

"In the Americana world. If I go play in Colorado, I'd run into people that were like, 'Oh yeah, that's where The Ark is!"

"Well, The Ark was founded in 1965 by a group of churches, actually, in the area, and that was obviously a very tumultuous time."

This is Barb Chaffer-Authier.  She is the marketing director at The Ark and has been there for almost 20 years.  I got to sit down and hear the story from her.

"And, so, the original idea in creating, at the time what was known as a coffee house. And these were pretty common across the United States was to create a space where students could come, have a safe space to talk about the events of the day, what's going on, and just really having a gathering place. And, so, that was the original intention of The Ark and many coffee houses across the country. It quickly started to bring in other programming that was popular at the time--folk music being one of the things that was really popular in the '60s. The community very much started to be built. And then, by 1968 or '69, the programming had shifted to be much more heavily with the music--traditional folk music and contemporary folk music of that time..."

Along with the history, Barb also spoke in-depth about the mission of The Ark.

"So here's our mission statement: 'The Ark is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the enrichment of the human spirit through the preservation and encouragement of folk, roots, and ethnic music, and related arts. The Ark provides a safe and welcoming atmosphere for all people to listen to, learn about, and perform and share music.'"

If you want to find out more, the link to the Ark’s website will be in the description.  And now on with the show...

"This next tune is one that I wrote. It's called 'Earl Grey,' because Earl Grey is a great tea, and I like tea. And I named it the name for the tune."

Located in Depot Town, Cultivate Taphouse and Coffee Shop is an up-and-coming venue with music manager Jenny Jones at the helm.  She has been booking shows there for some time and even came up with "Songwriter Sunday," which gives local artists a chance to showcase their talents.

Even though I didn't get to talk to Jenny, I heard about what she was doing for local artists from a local artist, Chris Dupont.

"Musicians can't get too far without people that like shows. There's got to be helpers that love it because bailers can kind of make their own scene with things like you were mentioning, like shows and DIY shows. But things happen much faster when there are kind of community galvanizers that just feel like throwing a big party. Ultimately, there's a good job with that. Actually, Jenny helps with booking here. I think she does the booking here. She also helps The Ark and helps major festivals in town. And she just wanted to help Becca and crew have a good music program. You'll have bands come through here that are touring, you'll have smaller acts, you'll have bigger acts--I think The Accidentals came through here and May Erlewine, and then neighborhood guys like me will play, like, a solo set."

Now Chris was a treasure trove of information.  So when I asked him how important is it to have spaces to perform live, he had this to say.

"So when there aren't traditional venues, it kind of forces artists to be scrappy. So, I don't know. I believe in both. I've been having great spaces to play. It's super-important. It makes things a lot easier. But I feel like the Ypsi/Ann Arbor songwriter and band world is just really stubborn and scrappy. So, even if there aren't venues, people still create a way to play. It's really kind of inspiring."

Now don't get me wrong.  These venues are great and all.  And there is a whole host of places I didn’t even get to go to.  Still, these places only make up a fraction of the answer to the question, "Where does a music scene live?"  I did find the answer while talking to people, because it became clear the scene doesn’t live in these buildings--it lives in these people.

"Being a musician can be really isolating, you know. I think it's important to get out there and be in front of people, in front of an audience because that's really what all this is for. And, it's also a pretty collaborative town. The various circles don't always intersect as much as maybe one would wish, but there's a whole lot of ability and a whole lot of people helping each other."

This sense of community is even seen on the local radio.  This is John Bommarito from Ann Arbor’s 107.1, talking about what his manager told him when he first started working there.

"He told me that the Ann Arbor's was possessive. We belong to Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor is 107.1. Oh, OK. So, once I took that approach to my on-air presentation, I'm doing this for them, right? This is for you. That made a difference. So, in that same regard, helping the community and the musicians of this community be heard on my show is an important part of what I do."

Maybe even more important than the artists and community galvanizers are the supporters.  Here is Westbound Situation, the group whose music you’ve been hearing, talking about the people who come out to support.

"There are just people I know from this community because they come to all of my shows. And they really come to everyone's shows, so everyone in the music community knows them. But they're definitely not musicians. They just love coming to things, and it's as much theirs. They deserve as much credit as the musicians for making it such a tight community, because they enable that to happen."

From longtime staples to up-and-comers and everything in between, at the heart of it all, lie the people, the community, and the connections they make.  (Special thanks to Westbound Situation and Chris Dupont for allowing me to use their music!)

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