Future Folk / by Michael Dustin Youree

I danced in the middle of an Upper West Side living room leading a group of toddlers in my acoustic guitar rendition of Rock Around the Clock when I noticed one of the kids drifting off. His interest in the playgroup jam session was short-lived. He’d had enough of this blond clown hammering away at iconic rock tunes. The nanny went to wrangle him. I was losing his attention. Time to pull out the tricks. Oh yes. This was not my first rodeo.

Indeed I’d been doing this for years – playgroups, birthday parties, kids events. I’ve played more high-dollar first birthdays than I can remember and taught half of Uptown’s three-year-olds what it’s all about. That’s the Hokey Pokey, folks. Don’t believe me? Just watch.

Back to my story. I stopped with the 50s jams and sat on the floor. The nanny was off in some other room trying to steer the lost sheep back to the herd without much success. I began a familiar tune. “Twinkle twinkle little star…” Within seconds I saw the little rebel pop out from around the corner. He was caught in my tractor beam, stammering toward me, like in a trance. I wasn’t surprised. It works pretty much every time.

I never saw myself becoming a folk musician. You know, those acoustic guitar playing singer-songwriters who drone on with the same three chords and the same tired melodies to whatever empty venue or street corner will have them. The likes of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan didn’t really float my boat. But that all changed (sort of) when I took a gig at Kidville and my transformation into the Pied Piper commenced. Since that time I’ve had four rotations of a list hundreds of songs long wrap around the side of my 1960s Yamaha acoustic guitar. It’s the one I learned on, but only became skilled at by playing Mary Had a Little Lamb for the thousandth time.

Since those years of entertaining New York’s most privileged boys and girls, I’ve taken that guitar around the world (#SOTW series, anyone?). There’s a running fantasy that my beat-up tank of an instrument will one day represent me in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yes, this choirboy who became a Broadway nerd, who became a rocker did eventually become something of a folk musician.

I was walking through London a few years back, my guitar strapped on my back, when a guy chased me down from his restaurant job. “You Sugar Man,” he said in a thick Asian accent. I didn’t know what he was talking about. “Yeah, yeah. Okay,” I said with a half smile. I kept on walking. Five minutes later he came and found me playing music on Leicester Square. He handed me a flyer. “You Sugar Man.” The flyer was for a new movie coming out – Searching for Sugar Man. Eight months later it won the Oscar for best documentary.

I’m not sure why this apron-wearing stranger felt so compelled. I look nothing like the actual Sugar Man, Rodriquez. But perhaps it wasn’t the man he was referring to, but the swagger of a struggling troubadour passing through a crowd. It transcends individuals. It’s more like folklore.

I’ve come to understand that folk is bigger than a style of music. As I embrace my own folky-ness I’ve discovered that it grasps at where we come from, and is found in what brings us together. Folk defined is “people in general” or, more thoughtfully, groups of people that carry culture or traditions. Music does that!

I’ve spent my life studying and creating music, yet I find myself faced with a similar reality as that which faced Rodriguez decades ago. There’s been no popular success. And like him, I’ve fought with abandoning it all together. But through the frustration, music stays with me. In fact, it penetrates other endeavors like Wanderwest and Hoodies for the Homeless. Even as I curse the business of it, the path has pressed on. And now, a new moment.

Next week I head into the studio to create a solo album. It’s not my first, but it might as well be. The first is a collection of two different EPs done at different times. Interestingly, it sort of represents my Peter Pan-like entry into the world of folk, due in part to the minimalist, hasty, penny-pinching way in which it was made. It had no choice but to be folk. I find myself even scoffing at its traditional sound. This new one will not be that.

I refer to it as “future folk”, a working title that embodies the kind of balance I’m attempting to find. The balance between the expected and the unexpected - those melodies, changes and sounds that feel familiar mixed with some unusual surprises. I will fuse analog sounds and digital sounds. I want to tell stories that speak to our collective human experience while also unleashing my alienation. I stare backward and forward, and attempt to express where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going. I open the floodgates of pain and loss, hope and love as I reconcile my reckless childishness with the man in the mirror.

Okay. Okay. Slow down. There’s some humble pie over there. Time to take a bite. I go back and read that and roll my eyes at myself. The reckless child says, “Shut up, idiot, and just play.” Uh huh. High-minded, self-aggrandizing concepts aside, I just want to make a good album and I struggle with creating something honest. I hear devils and angels on my shoulder. “It’s got to sell.” “Consider your audience.” “Don’t be weird.” “Nobody cares, man.” “Stop talking to yourself.”

My finger hovers over the delete button. Doubt creeps in. Confidence wanes. I stare over a ledge that pleads with me to disappear. I think about the artist I want to be. That starts with the courage to be completely vulnerable, baring my truth in all its ugly nakedness. Truth is, I don’t know if this album will ever get heard. There’s no big company or label behind it. Probably a million songs get released every month. How am I going to cut through that? I don’t know. Should I care?

Stop. Beat. Take a breath. Step back from the ledge.

Years ago, before those days playing for children, I sat in a studio with a potential investor. At the time I had grandiose production ideas complete with symphony orchestras. There was another songwriter there, too. I guess we were competing for this investor’s affection. A guitar came out. “Play us a song,” he said. I commenced with this wild composition that lived mostly in my head. “…and then the strings would go like this, and the back-up singers like this…,” followed by change after change. I might as well have been speaking Martian. Then the other guy took the guitar. He played a folk song, the same three-chord, generic monotony I loathed at that time. But the investor loved it. He understood it. That guy got the gig. I was just weird.

I’ve grown up a bit since then. I’ve learned the value in simplicity. I’m cool with sitting around the campfire and singing Kumbaya. Music is a language that’s lost if it isn’t understood. But there’s still that rebellious weirdo who wants to speak Martian! I ask, “What’s my job as an artist?” It is to affect people, to help cope, to inspire consideration and contemplation. I struggle to walk the line between the universal sounds that connect and resonate with other people, and the deeply personal, experimental journey that makes it honest and unique.

My mind goes back to those kids. During summer camps I had my own music room and different groups rotated in. They would light up, some even losing their minds with excitement upon entering. I grew used to the reaction and eventually realized that it wasn’t just about the music. It was the spirit I was able to channel. It was that “you Sugar Man.” In the same way, my notion of future folk is an extension of something greater than me, and yet very much a part of my humanity. It is my story reaching out to connect with yours. It is my inner child crying out for infinity and beyond.

Moreover, there’s something I learned in that Twinkle Twinkle Little Star melody that worked like magic on the attention of young children. Beyond our biases and ideas, there are some songs that vibrate deep inside us. I don’t understand it, but I’ve witnessed it again and again. It’s the baseline of folk (or maybe bass line). Where it goes from there only the future knows. I'm just trying to find my balance.

Side note. If you google “future folk” you will find your way to an indie film based on an off-Broadway play (lemme do the work for you). The premise? An alien is sent to Earth to destroy the human race, but instead discovers music and changes his tune. It's not exactly my take, but I’ll happily take the association. Music saves the planet? I can dig it. You should check it. It’s currently streaming on Netflix and has a whopping 94% on the Tomatometer to boot.

The concept of future folk is not something I made up, but a current I'm flowing along with. And it occurs to me that my buddy, Scott Bradlee, illustrates just how deep and wide that river is with the smashing success of his Postmodern Jukebox.