The Folkways record label — known as Smithsonian Folkways since being entrusted to the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in 1987 — has a legacy as lengthy as that of the Newport Folk Festival, and those legacies have been intertwined since the festival’s beginnings. And like the festival, in recent years the label has been making efforts to add to and renew its legacy. It has been signing new artists such as Lula Wiles, Kaia Kater, and Anna & Elizabeth, adding their offerings to a catalog that essentially defines the American folk music tradition.
Those new artists have been showing up at Newport, too; this year, Our Native Daughters, the Rhiannon Giddens-founded all-women, all-banjo assemblage, will perform. But the label is also involved for the second year running in a project that marries old and new. Called “Outside Folk,” it’s a series of performance pairings sponsored by Smithsonian Folkways and put together by honky-tonk and old-time musician JP Harris. The idea is to bring together “influential and sometimes-overlooked” veteran musicians with contemporary, traditionally minded practitioners of the form.
It’s doubtful that “overlooked” applies to this year’s crop of veterans, but “influential” surely does. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who started out as a contemporaneous imitator of Woody Guthrie but soon developed into a singular cowboy-folk troubadour, will play with cowboy songster Andy Hedges. John Cohen, a founding member of seminal early folk revival string band the New Lost City Ramblers and a renowned folklorist and filmmaker, will team up with old-time group the Down Hill Strugglers in what will be a continuation of an ongoing collaboration between the two. Judy Collins, one of American folk music’s preeminent presences whose career began with “A Maid of Constant Sorrow” almost 60 years ago, will take the stage with New York folkie Ari Hest; they too have collaborated previously, making an album, “Silver Skies Blue” a couple of years ago. Finally, Alice Gerrard, perhaps best known for the rawboned folk and bluegrass music she made as a duo with Hazel Dickens, will pair up with a modern-day counterpart to that duo in Allison de Groot and Tatiana Hargreaves.
In a text exchange, Harris observes that there’s both a historical significance and a modern relevance to this pairing of veteran traditionalists with current folk innovators. In his view, both Smithsonian Folkways and the Newport Folk Festival are at the forefront of preserving and honoring folk traditions while also reshaping the modern definition of folk in the last decade. “I’m really honored to collaborate with both on this program each year.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified musician Andy Hedges.