Corrections or additions?
This article written by Richard J. Skelly was published in U.S. 1
Newspaper on April 21, 1999. All rights reserved.
At 68, This Folk Musician Is Now In Fashion
David Amram, now 68, ever the humble multi-instrumentalist
musician and populist composer, has a website. But he’s reluctant
to tell people about it. He prefaces his closing words in a phone
conversation from his home, a small farm in Putnam County, New York,
with, "I know it sounds really self-centered — but go to my
website for more information on my upcoming gigs."
Amram, who has successfully networked himself into the worlds of jazz,
Latin jazz, folk, and classical music over four decades in music —
and earned the respect of his peers in each idiom — will headline
this year’s silver anniversary edition of the New Jersey Folk Festival.
The festival, run by Douglass College students, is a free gathering
on Woodlawn, the big field in front of the Eagleton Institute of Politics
on the Douglass College campus of Rutgers University. Over the years,
the festival has played host to everything from sheepherding demonstrations
by Scottish border collies, modern fire-fighting techniques, glass
blowing, cooking, crafts demonstrations, and even the unveiling of
a huge American flag. All that is secondary, however, to the musicians
and the storytellers who perform (see pages 30-35).
Amram has performed at the festival, founded in 1975, before, but
it was still in its infancy. Recalling the last New Jersey Folk Festival
he played, in the late 1970s, Amram says, "It was very small and
"I remember that they had a group wearing T-shirts that said,
`Piney Power.’ They were playing some of the music that was played
there, and I thought that was terrific! It was very open and a lot
of people sat in and played with one another’s groups, which is something
I’ve done all my life," he explains.
Amram, raised on a farm in Feasterville, Pennsylvania, not far from
the New Jersey border, moved to New York City in the early 1950s to
pursue a life as a musician. In those days, his primary instrument
was French horn, but over the years, he has added more than two dozen
Western and non-Western instruments to his repertoire, including piano,
guitar, the dumbek (an Arab drum), and various Native American flutes
and whistles. Amram was a part of the first jazz-poetry readings in
New York City in the early 1950s.
"I had the chance to work not only with Lionel Hampton and Charles
Mingus and Thelonius Monk, but also to work with Jack Kerouac at his
poetry readings," Amram says. Later, he met Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’
Jack Elliot, Pete Seeger, and Odetta.
"Jazz and folk music were very close spiritually in those days,"
he recalls, "and all of these people felt that music was about
Amram also recalls that a lot of people in the classical music world
had difficulty accepting his interest in folk music and jazz, "but
the folk musicians and jazz musicians and a handful of the classical
musicians understood and always encouraged me."
Amram, the son of a lawyer and farming father and a translator mother,
says his youth included many trips to the Jersey Shore, still one
of his favorite places. His uncle David took him to see the Philadelphia
Orchestra when he was six and the Duke Ellington Orchestra when he
was 10. His uncle also took him to a concert of Native American music.
These early musical experiences made a lasting impact.
When he first moved to Greenwich Village in the early ’50s, Amram
recalls, he was able to eke out a living playing jazz with classic
"I was attracted to the purity of spirit of all of these musicians.
[Saxophonist] Charlie Parker, who I first met in 1952, who was on
a bill with the Clovers, [urban group harmony] and I remember he told
me, `If you want to understand me, you have to understand the Clovers.’
Even though they were the most sophisticated vocal group around at
that time, they came out of the streets and took a neighborly approach,"
"All of these people, they all had this integrity and this down-to-earth
accessible quality about them," he says. "That’s why I love
playing with Willie Nelson now," he says, "because he’s the
same way." Amram has performed with Nelson at several of the annual
Farm Aid benefit concerts through the 1990s.
Similarly, Amram has a down-to-earth, accessible quality
that festival booking agents and others in performing arts administration
find irresistible. Aside from his time playing folk festivals, Amram
also spends a good portion of each year conducting orchestras around
the country, including the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Nashville Symphony,
the Austin Symphony, and several Canadian symphony orchestras.
Recently, the esteemed Irish flute player, James Galway, commissioned
Amram to write a flute concerto. He has named it "Giants of the
Night," and each of its three movements is dedicated to an artist
— Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, and Dizzy Gillespie — whom
Amram knew and performed with.
"Most of my symphonic pieces come out of my real life experiences,
not the symphony hall, but experiences I’ve had in Brazil, in the
mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Japan, in various places
around Canada, and all across the United States on different Indian
reservations that I’ve spent time playing in," he says.
Folk festivals have changed since he first began performing at them
in the early 1960s. Amram says today’s folk festivals are less snobby
and more inclusive. In May, he will co-headline for his 23d consecutive
year at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, a massive gathering
west of Austin that goes on for 15 days. Amram has also performed
at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the Hudson River Revival, the Winnipeg,
Mariposa, and Vancouver folk festivals in Canada, and dozens of others.
"I remember one time, back in the ’60s, I said at one of the folk
festivals, `It would be great to get a Native American to play this
music.’ And the people running the festival said, `That’s not folk
music.’ I realize of course in the ’60s and ’70s, some of the people
who were saying these things had never spent any time with these folks,
and didn’t realize there were millions of people from these cultures
who’d been playing these musics for hundreds of years, and some of
them are based on cultures that go back thousands of years."
"Now of course with the interest in what they call `world music,’
it’s very beautiful to see folk festivals include these musics, and
in doing so they present the opportunity for the British Isles music
to sound more beautiful by giving it the context of these other types
"Thirty years ago when I was doing the early folk festivals, some
people were shocked because they didn’t think what I was doing was
traditional music. I was playing traditional musics I’d learned from
different parts of the world. Now when I go to the festivals, I’m
very often the leading traditionalist there," he says, laughing.
Amram recalls he recently was asked to be part of the Northeast Regional
Folk Alliance gathering in Pennsylvania, held last November in the
"I was the one who was talking about the virtues of the older
musics," he says, "I stressed to the younger musicians that
they had the Internet and the ability to make their own recordings
to get their music out there, in addition to better business skills,
which, God knows, our generation did not have."
At the same time, Amram says, "it’s important not to forget the
spiritual and the humanistic part of the music. So it’s equally important
to be concerned with having respect for the older music and older
musicians that came before you as well as passing it on to the younger
Amram argues in the 1960s, especially, folk music was
bogged down with so much political rhetoric, musicians were almost
in a realm of having to be politicians or to sound like politicians.
Now, he says, folk festivals are more concerned with letting the music
speak for itself. Folk festivals nowadays, he stresses, "are not
desperately trying to be politically correct, but they’re trying to
be humanistically and musically correct.
"And they’re including everybody. In these types of music, the
left wing and the right wing and the differences are always going
to be there. But the music is about healing and togetherness and celebrating
everybody’s commonality, through that drum, which represents all living
things — as the Native American people would say — and that
song that’s in every human being’s heart and that story that every
human being has to tell."
At all of the hundreds of folk festivals Amram has played, he stresses
he wasn’t only trying to contribute what he knew of different Native
American music and ethnic musics from around the world, but he was
also hanging out and learning about other kinds of music. A master
of "hang-out-ology," as he calls it, Amram has never been
reluctant to take part at folk festival workshops either. While some
performers are hesitant to take part in workshops, thinking it might
be bad for their careers, Amram is usually the first one up to the
workshop stage at the Philadelphia Folk Festival or the Hudson River
"At the New Jersey Folk Festival, I’ll not only be `closing the
show,’ as they say, but I’ll also be doing a workshop at 11:30 in
the morning. And I’m happy to do it! And I look forward to sitting
in with other people throughout the day," he adds.
Amram has taken more than his share of criticism over the years for
trying to master so many different kinds of music. But such criticism
comes from people who don’t know the man’s purity of spirit and sincerity
of effort in trying to learn and play many different types of instruments.
Talk to musicians in Latin jazz, traditional jazz, folk music, and
the classical world, and you’ll find Amram is held in high regard.
Asked if he ever felt he was spreading himself too thin by being involved
in so many different musical genres throughout his four decades in
music, Amram says absolutely not.
"They used to criticize me," he says, "now, the New York
Times in 1995 says `David Amram was multicultural before multiculturalism
existed.’ Now I’m being called a pioneer of world music, and now —
it’s what I’ve been doing all my life — it’s considered fashionable.
So I’m getting work all over the world."
He notes that all of his classical compositions are being recorded
now "by people I don’t even know, because the strength of them,
their uniqueness, comes from my involvement in all these musics that
I deal with."
"When I’m playing at a folk festival I can do a workshop and play
music from 15 different countries and make it fun for the audience,"
he says. "And it’s not something I do because I read it in a magazine
and thought it would be fashionable, I do it because this is what
I’ve been doing my whole life."
Amram married in 1979, when he was 48. He and his wife Lora Lee have
three children, two of whom are ready to start college. Having children
is "a great healthification program" he says. And when he’s
not on the road, he enjoys talking with his children and their friends.
"Trying to understand what they and their friends are going through
is a very enriching experience," he says. For that reason, he
also looks forward to sharing the stage at the New Jersey Folk Festival
with younger musicians. "This kind of music doesn’t celebrate
selfishness and greed, it’s about sharing our blessings," he says.
— Richard J. Skelly
Rutgers’ Douglass Campus, George Street & Clifton Avenue, New Brunswick,
732-932-9174. Saturday, April 24, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free. Rain or
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