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Where Have All the Musicians Gone: A COVID Guide to the New York City Folk Music Scene

(NYC Trend) — As a giant folk music lover, the most frequently asked question I get is “Does New York City really have a bluegrass and folk scene?” The answer is —YES! You simply have to know where to find it. The New York City folk and bluegrass scene is teeny, yet vibrant — one can normally find a jam session, hootenanny, hoedown or square dance nearly every day of the week! 

But we all know nothing is normal. “Normal” is in the past. Due to COVID, the live music industry is temporarily wiped out and now resides entirely online. New York City gradually pushes forward in its reopening process, but one of the last elements of reopening will certainly be live music. Streamed live shows, virtual tip jars and online music lessons are the new reality and the main source of income for many music artists. 

So how are local musicians and the NYC venues keeping the spirit of folk music alive throughout COVID? How can an intimate experience, such as a jam session or square dance, be authentically repurposed into an online experience? Let’s talk about New York’s hidden hotspots for folk and bluegrass music and how each of these venues have coped and adjusted during the shutdown. 

The Best New York City Folk Music Venues: “For He Must Manage as Best He Can” 

Mona’s Bar: Mona’s is a tiny, hole in the wall dive bar located on the lower east side. Every Monday night, from 9pm to whenever o’clock, New York’s finest bluegrass pickers cram into a tight corner of the bar and play the bluegrass classics. Although jam sessions are typically open to newcomers, Mona’s jam, hosted by local bluegrass heavyweight Rick Snell, is mostly reserved for the city’s top dog pickers. During COVID, this “Standing Room Only” event goes virtual! Check out the 5th Anniversary Party hosted by Rick Snell himself and a cast of world-class pickers. 

Sunny’s Bar: This Red Hook bluegrass music watering hole has been around in some form or another since the 1890s. While Sunny’s live music portion is currently cancelled during COVID, they are keeping the folk spirit alive by offering a Spotify playlist of the regular Sunny’s musicians. 

Jalopy School of Music: The Jalopy School may get my vote for offering the most authentic live folk and bluegrass music in New York City. They provide educational programming to both adults and youth and host live professional shows every day. During COVID, every Wednesday and Friday evening at 8pm the school hosts a free concert series called “Stay the Folk Home.” Viewers may donate to a split pot between the school and the artists. 

Rockwood Music Hall: Rockwood Music Hall is one of the best music hubs for promoting local artists and their original work. With three separate stages and live shows every day of the week, it is truly a staple of the city’s live music ecosystem. Throughout the COVID shutdown, Rockwood Music Hall honors its mission to promote the work of local artists and has hosted daily livestream concerts from home. Artists share new works and releases, while audiences enjoy an evening of music from the comfort of their homes. Viewers may donate via a virtual tip jar. 

People’s Light Hootenanny with David Lutken & Friends: Broadway’s favorite troubadour David Lutken led an ensemble of musicians in a series of virtual hootenannies in May and July. This was a free public event hosted by the People’s Light, which included a mix of pre-recorded songs and live jam sessions. Additionally, audience members submitted song requests via the Zoom chat feature. While watching the hootenanny, Lutken’s exuberance is supremely felt across the wires. 

For Lutken, a connection through folk music is not a luxury, but a necessity worth keeping alive through the tough times. “Music is connection and communication at its best and most basic. In this time of imposed distance, the bridges between us all take on a new dimension. The experience, the shape and sensory scope of communal music transcends boundaries… a hootenanny always makes you feel better! And because of the new world of internet necessity, we’ve reached around the whole world in a new way.” 

Playin’ the Old “Blue Grass Stomp” 

One of the best ways to stay connected to the New York City bluegrass scene is through Porch Stomp, a completely volunteer-run organization committed to the advancement of American folk music and dance in New York City. The organization was founded in 2014 by Nicholas Horner as part of the Make Music New York Festival. Every year in June, the best of the best cross-genre folk artists come together to perform on the porches of the historic Governor’s Island houses withfolk and bluegrass bands, folk music lovers, beer drinking, square dancing, flat footing, and more. In addition to the festival, Porch Stomp is committed to uniting the city’s folk community through a curated events calendar, artist sponsorships, and regular jams and hoedowns. 

Since the beginning of the stay-at-home order, Porch Stomp volunteers have had to pull out all the stops to keep this folk music community connected. The festival was set for June 20th, but has since been postponed to October 10th. 

Porch Stomp continues to work to support professional musicians who have lost significant work due to COVID, as well as bolster the folk community through virtual programming. They have curated a list of artists offering remote lessons and actively promote those offerings on social media. 

Since mid-March, Porch Stomp has offered bi-weekly virtual programming, which includes lessons, workshops, and concerts. A highlight of this programming includes a remote tribute to the late John Prine, which featured over 20 artists and a lecture on the history of bluegrass with gurus Michael Daves and Jen Larsen. 

Additionally, Porch Stomp hosted a series of social-distanced singalongs. Musicians set up shop on their porches and stoops, abiding by the six foot rule and wearing masks, and played music for their neighborhood communities. 

Porch Stomp producer and curator Theo Boguszewski commented on the team’s efforts in keeping the folk community connected. “While it’s been tough to find motivation to dive into the world of virtual programming, from learning new platforms to dealing with technological difficulties, ultimately the value of providing this outlet outweighed the frustrations. In a time when people are feeling incredibly isolated, it felt more important than ever to provide our community with an opportunity to learn and engage with the music they love, and connect with some of the generous, dynamic people that Porch Stomp is so lucky to be involved with.” 

“That’s Why I Gotta Dance a Little Longer” 

The City Stompers is New York City’s only clogging school, offering classes in South Appalachian dance traditions and other styles. Once a month at the Greenroom on East 23rd City Stompers hosts a hoedown with a live band. The program alternates between open flatfooting and square dancing. Experienced and novice dancers alike are welcome! 

During COVID, City Stompers director Daniela Muhling has refused defeat by hosting a virtual hoedown via Zoom and Facebook Live every Wednesday at 8pm. A caller leads the dance, while participants follow along at home. With the inability to swing your partner round and round, it leaves a lot to the imagination. However, the virtual hoedown allows local artists to showcase their playing and lets people connect with one another through an evening of merriment, music, and community. 

A Case of the “Empty Pocket Blues” 

Under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), passed as part of the federal stimulus package, freelancers, independent contractors and self-employed people now qualify for government relief. Additionally, many musicians were able to seek assistance through grant programs and emergency funds set aside by organizations such as Artist Relief, Musicians Foundation, and Sweet Relief. 

Despite this relief, many local musicians have not been able to make ends meet. Many have given up their apartments and have fled the city to live with family. With cancelled gigs into 2021 and a bottomed-out gig economy, freelance artists are being forced to re-examine their career options. 

The biggest looming question is how we can support our local musicians and bolster them through these trying times. Here are a few ways you can support your local folk musicians and stay connected to the music community. 

Virtual Lessons: During the shutdown, many New Yorkers have had the time to master a new skill. It’s safe to assume that many of us can now bake a decent loaf of bread and/or whip up a decent cocktail we claim as our own. If you’re looking for that next hobby, consider virtual lessons with a local musician. Learn a new fiddle tune or resurrect that guitar that’s been collecting dust in your closet. Check out the Porch Stomp website for a solid list of local musicians for hire. 

Streaming: Streaming the music of local musicians is one of the best ways to show your support while stuck at home. If you gravitate to a particular artist, visit their website and watch for upcoming live virtual shows. 

Attend Virtual Concerts: Check out the roster at Rockwood Music Hall and jump on the Porch Stomp mailing list. Get connected to the virtual jam sessions and concerts. If you have a spare dime, show your appreciation by purchasing a tune on iTunes or sending a donation. 

Final Words from Woody 

What would a discussion about the NYC folk music scene and struggling economy be without the mention of the “voice of the people” himself — Woody Guthrie? Rubbish. 

Woody Guthrie is a cornerstone artist in America’s lush history of folk music and culture. Having fought in World War II and rambled through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, he had a lot to say about the state of our country, which was not so dissimilar to the state of the world today. 

In his 1943 autobiography Bound for Glory, Woody said: 

All of this talking about what’s up in the sky, or down in hell, for that matter, isn’t half as important as what’s right here, right now, right in front of your eyes. Things are tough. Folks broke. Kids hungry. Sick. Everything. And people has got to have more faith in one another, believe in each other. There’s a spirit of some kind we’ve all got. That’s got to draw us all together. 

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