What is it that first drew you to folk music? My very first exposure to old time mountain music was Doc Watson’s first LP, which my sister gave me for my eleventh birthday. I was just learning to play guitar, and pretty much locked myself in my room until I could pluck out Doc’s Black Mountain Rag. That led me to the fiddle and banjo, and I was totally hooked. There was something in old time music that just seemed to speak directly to me: it woke me up to a whole, other world I knew nothing about.
As a young person, too, there was a romantic notion around it – hearing music conceived of and played by “regular” people. It resonated, and made me want to do it. Old time and bluegrass music was popular on the radio in New York City in the late 1960s – thanks to the influence the Folk Revival was having on all pop music of that era – and I just started listening and absorbing. Eventually I moved south myself, to be closer to the source of the music, the old players and the rural southern culture. It was all very exotic for a city boy, and exciting.
What’s the essence of ‘folk music’, for you? When it works right, it draws people together in the most positive and uplifting kind of way. A good song brings the human condition right out in the open in a way nothing else really can. We can look at ourselves, our strengths, our foibles, our whole lives. Even after all this time listening and playing, I’m still moved by a lot of what I hear, and it makes me want to keep doing it myself.
I see from Wikipedia, folk music is related, at root, to folklore: is this connection important to you? And if so, how? I think that, in order to appreciate any kind of music, there has to be appreciation of the culture and times it grew out of. I didn’t grow up in the southern mountains, so it doesn’t evoke the kind of nostalgia or cultural identity it might for someone who did. But my own early interest in the music led me to that culture – a culture which is unique and beautiful, and for which I have deep respect. Many of us who came to this music from the outside have had the same experience: playing and researching the music continues to be a sort of music-based cultural education, for me.
What is it about making music, for you? It’s all about telling a story, expressing a mood or emotion, just cutting loose and being alive. Playing and singing was not optional for me: from the moment I first picked up an instrument, I had no choice but to do it! The biggest thrill is when my fiddling and singing (and guitar and banjo playing) moves someone else. I live for those moments. Interview by Charlotte Gann. Photo by Gary Alter
Bruce Molsky is playing at the Lewes Saturday Folk Club, on 8th December, at The Elephant and Castle, 8pm-11pm, £8