Thursday, March 6, 2008

creating a legacy: slumming and story songs (updated)

WHAT'S UP THE PIKE: Developers present Konterra plan to West Laurel residents; Neighbor's complaint over White Oak mega-addition shot down; Leggett throws support behind Praisner's widower for District 4 race.

Part THREE of a series about Lisa Null, Silver Spring folk artist, who performed solo for the first time in twenty years last Thursday. Today, we're taking a look at her contributions to the Folk Revival movement; tomorrow, we'll see what she has to say about the "folk ghetto" of Silver Spring.

Stepping into Lisa Null's living room is like walking through all four decades of her musical career. Two walls are lined with bookshelves, whose contents have spilled out across tables and floorboards. A mass of old boxes and pamphlets form another wall behind the couch. And musical instruments are everywhere - an electric keyboard, an acoustic guitar in a case, and something on the mantle that I can't determine what it is.

"I can't ever say I made a great deal of money, but it was self-sustaining," she says contentedly.

Null's musical journey began at home in New York, where she grew up "with a family that loved to sing," Null explains. In high school, she began attending conservatory to become classically trained, but found it was killing her love of music. "My family had always told me that music was a joy, not a vocation," she says. Null left school and became entranced in the burgeoning folk scene coming out of New York City's Greenwich Village.

During the 1950's and 60's, once-obscure blues and folk artists from the turn of the twentieth century were being rediscovered by Baby Boomers who rejected the growing commercialism of popular music. Along with jazz, the so-called "folk revival" became the dominant form of musical expression for the early counter-culture.

there's so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

There were a number of music clubs Null liked to frequent, notably the Village Gate. "There were so many places you could enter for a couple of dollars and the price of beer and you'd get to hear so many great musicians," she says. The venue hosted a variety of artists, from Charlie Mingus to Pete Seeger. At smaller clubs, she'd come in the afternoons for an audition and she'd be allowed to play the same evening as an opening act.

That led to jobs singing in bars, where Null discovered she wasn't necessarily cut out for all kinds of music. "It was very good money at the time . . . you'd get a free steak dinner and a couple hundred dollars to take home," she says. "I tried to sing blues, and I heard someone say 'you sound like a Smith College girl slumming.'"

Null looked to the story songs and ballads she'd learned as a child for a direction in which to take her career. She traveled to Ireland and conducted "field collection" trips throughout Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, building up a library of songs to use in her performances.

In the early 1970's, Null and commercial folk-musician Pat Sky founded Green Linnet Records, headquartered in her New Canaan, Connecticut home. It was named after a code-word for Napoleon used by Irish sympathizers hoping that an alliance with him would gain them independence from Britain. While Null sought to create an outlet for the old airs and songs she'd cut her teeth on, her co-workers wanted to capitalize on the growing popularity of "revved-up" instrumental Irish music, and she sold the company. "This sort of hard-driving Celtic music really took off and I was more interested in . . . less commercially-viable music," Null says.

As the commercial folk revival was dying down in the late 1970's, Null joined forces with guitarist Bill Shute and hit the academic circuit, touring folk societies, schools and museums throughout North America. College campuses were another popular venue, as school administrators opened on-campus coffeehouses and cabarets to give students an alternative to drinking. The pair also made several apperances on A Prairie Home Companion, the NPR radio show hosted by humorist Garrison Keillor.

While the money was decent, the touring life was proving to be a strain on Null and her fellow musicians in the dwindling folk community. "My colleagues . . . they were having car accidents, traveling farther for gigs, it was a very grueling life" compared to acts that could play clubs, she laments.

Fatigue eventually got the best of her, and Null performed her last solo concert in Rochester, New York in 1989. She delved into study, earning a degree in History at Yale and a degree in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1991, she settled in Washington, D.C., attending library school at Catholic and eventually taking a job at the Library of Congress.

Next: Lisa Null moves to Silver Spring and discovers a whole new dimension of community.

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