By J. C. Travell
With my own eyes—and after the turn of the millennium—I have seen a braless, gray-haired senior citizen sporting a multi-colored, tie-dyed t-shirt over purple sweatpants. The image took me aback, probably because the purple pants picked up the color of one of the fractured rays of the tie-dye design demonstrating that thought—thought from 1974, perhaps, but thought, nonetheless—went into selecting the ensemble.
She was standing outside Caffé Lena, the Saratoga landmark that’s touted as a folk career launching pad, with Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie included among its glittering alumni. It was fate that guided me down Phila Street that day, fate that directed my eye to the window poster that announced a performance by one of my folk favorites. That’s how, a few hours later, I found myself at Lena’s chatting with the braless senior citizen as I officially re-entered the folk scene after a 25-year hiatus imposed, pretty much, by my discovery of rock and roll.
Since that day, I’ve been delighted to discover that some of my favorite folkies—people like Tom Rush, Eric Andersen and Steve Forbert—continue to ply their trade in clubs up and down the east coast (although “Child’s Song” at 54 doesn’t quite hold the same meaning it did for me at 17) and that my lipsticks, in most cases, are more expensive than admission fees to a folk show. But each time I cross the threshold of a folk club, I look up to the heavens and thank people like Tina Turner and Rod Stewart for blessing me with style, substance and hair gel because if it weren’t for their influence, chances are I’d fall into one of the following female folk audience categories:
Mother Earth: Most voluptuous girls have pretty faces, good grooming and at least pluck the hairs on their chin, for pete’s sake. Mother Earth, who will proudly declare that she doesn’t wear make-up (as though Estee Lauder just might offer a product that creates the illusion of clogged pores), wears her girth like a badge of honor, often calling attention to her most unattractive visible body part by tattooing her favorite band’s logo on it. Whether glorifying her muffin top via loose jeans and a tie-dyed t-shirt or camouflaging it with a caftan-like garment that probably came with a set of six matching napkins, Mother Earth at a folk show (unlike her real-life counterpart) exhibits a wealth of confidence.
The Menial Worker: She might sell the band’s merchandise or she might deliver bottles of beer to the stage but the status empowers her to act as though she co-wrote half the band’s songs and won a Grammy for each—instead of just being free help. Wearing an I’m-with-the-Bandana around her frizzy long hair and a band t-shirt (which she got for free because—you know—she WORKS for them), The Menial Worker will, at every opportunity, strive to impress you because she holds an Official Capacity for a marginally-famous performer whose net worth is probably 25% of your own. (This category may overlap with Mother Earth.)
The Soprano: What’s that screeching?? Oh my God! It’s like Julie Andrews has leaped off the Sound of Music set, landed in the seat beside you and is singing “Thirsty Boots” in a forced operatic pitch. The Soprano (who has no connection to the HBO show of the same name aside from the fact that you’ll wish you had a gun if she’s near you) will likely arrive at the show with a guitar as though an impromptu guest appearance is likely. (This category may overlap with Mother Earth.)
The Health Nut: “You smoke???? You drink?????” The Health Nut will scold you and aggressively attack your habits, usually while toking on a joint or scarfing down a plate of nachos. She’s “into” tofu and all sorts of vitamin pills but in pursuit of glowing health has somehow totally bypassed the fitness craze. (This category may overlap with Mother Earth.)
The Stalker: She sends her favorite folkie photos of herself and stares at him dumbly when they speak. Far too ugly to be a real groupie and, really, what’s with the hair??? (This category may overlap with Mother Earth.)
The Anglophile: She’s from Brooklyn but uses words like “blimey,” “chuffed” and “quid.” The Anglophile isn’t beyond a cure. Put her in the West Country during a heat wave and it won’t be long before she’s longing for good old American bone-numbing air conditioning.
The Hypochondriac: Starving for attention but too damn dull to attract any, The Hypochondriac adopts real or imagined illness, corners the unsuspecting and relates her symptoms in exhaustive detail. And yet, when there’s a show in Tromso, Norway she will, somehow, summon the strength to travel to it which will, of course, trigger a debilitating relapse of her Fibromyalgia, Burning Mouth Syndrome, Bipolar Disease or other ailment upon her return.
The Rip-Roaring Nut: The zombie-like Rip-Roaring Nut gazes off into the distance during conversation, stares trance-like at you, the band, and even the empty stage. She scares the shit out of me. (This category may overlap with Mother Earth.)
And I could go on.
But as I write this, I’m wondering whether I have the right to pass these judgments on my fellow female folk fans. Probably not. How am I viewed by these women as I walk into a folk club and claim my seat (which, I can comfortably fit in, thank you very much)? Do they snicker at my arrival and my penchant for designer clothes, nose-bleed heels and hot pink lipstick? Perhaps they do. Perhaps they should.
Maybe I should open my mind at my next folk concert and be more tolerant of the differences between the other women there and myself. I’ll celebrate the commonalities that brought us together: A love of folk music and the talented artists who make it. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. At my next folk concert, I’ll open my arms really, really wide and embrace each and every one of my sisters in folk. I just hope they shower that day.