Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The mission in Joe Craven's madness

From coast to coast, Joe Craven is the life of the roots festival party.

He was the MVP at last weekend's Suwannee Springfest, according to Festival Preview blogger decaturcomp, for playing "maybe a dozen sets" and displaying his talents for mouth percussion, drumming on everything but the kitchen sink, mentoring younger musicians and soloing beautifully on actual bluegrass instruments--mandolin and fiddle.

A few weeks earlier at Wintergrass, I witnessed Craven practicing the same sort of musical mayhem. Last fall at Strawberry, he was incorrigible as Senor Hots in the reunion concert of one of his old bands, Way Out West. And later this season, you can catch him at Live Oak (where he also emcees), Kate Wolf, California WorldFest, Feel Good, and Millpond, among others.

[Photos: Senor Hots at Strawberry (top), Playing the bedpan mando at Wintergrass (bottom)]

Having watched Craven do his thing for years at roots festivals around the country, I tracked him down for a chat after his workshop set at Wintergrass, during which he entertained the audience with what might be described as folk rapping accompanied by homemade instruments (such as a mandolin fashioned from a hospital bedpan) and an electronic looping machine.

Bungee jump
Considering his penchant for low-tech instrumentation, that last one surprised me, and I started out by asking about it.

"That's a Bungee jump I love," he said. "If an instrument is wood and strings like a fiddle or silicon and software like a looping machine, they are just tools. It is really about the music that is inside you.

"That is part of my mission as an educator--to dispel what I refer to as the 'mythology of talent.' It is everyone's birthright to make music--if they choose."

The e-word--educator--is what Craven is really all about. He began his career not in music but in museum science, and he worked for many years in art museums. "The art stands on its own, but what enriches it for people is understanding the history of it."

He left the museum world as he got more interested in playing music full time, which he did for 17 years as a member of the David Grisman Quintet. Now, he said, his interests have come full circle.

"I've reconnected with the educational aspect of re-presenting old work in new ways and giving a sense both of continuity of old to new and of creative expression--putting one's own stamp on it," he said.

He is especially interested in reaching the younger generation (he directed the youth academy at Wintergrass) and finding new ways to keep old music alive--"both to pay tribute to the old music and to give it new vitality and survival into the future," he said.

"With folk music, unlike other kinds of music that young people listen to today, there is no prerequisite for a stage. The line between audience and performer is blurred. And that participatory aspect--the idea that folk music isn't for anyone but for everyone--helps dispel the myth that there are those that can and those that can't.

"Anybody who chooses to can make folk music, and as we see here at this festival, you can do it in an elevator or a stairwell or in the hotel lobby."

His omnipresence at festivals is part and parcel with his mission. "I think of festivals as a great learning vacation," he said.

"The wonderful thing about festivals is the sense of community. People attend in part to enjoy the stage performances, but also to participate and interact. For me as an educator, there is a great opportunity to reinforce that in people."

Beyond tradition
Besides participation, Craven's other major theme is innovation. "I have a saying that every tradition begins as an innovation and every innovation is built on tradition. That is what is interesting to me--to find creative ways to keep old things alive by making something new out of them."

He cited hip-hop music as a supposedly contemporary musical form that is in fact derivative of earlier styles but in a new cultural context that makes the music innovative and creative.

Bluegrass is another case in point. "Bill Monroe was an innovator in his day, even though he insisted on a certain kind of dogma as to the definition of bluegrass. But as any tradition moves forward, so does the range of tools that are used and the stylistic borrowings from other genres," he said.

He pointed to the emergence of young string bands at Wintergrass as an example of traditional music forms evolving.

"There will always be traditionalists, and I love that there are people interested in playing bluegrass exactly the way it was played 30 years ago.

"But I don't share the concern of some traditionalists that there is a danger that the old music will die out. All of this music has been recorded and archived. It will always be there for younger generations to go back to and discover and make referential to what they are doing now," he said.

As for his own work, Craven's current projects include an educational DVD about creativity and intuition, and several new recordings that rework traditional standards employing modern loop technology and scratching.

And, of course, you are always likely to find him near the center of the action at a roots music festival near you.

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