Published: Friday, May 2, 2008, The Everett Herald
Local folk singers kick off concert series in Everett
By Sharon Wootton,
Special to The Herald
Bob Nelson remembers the days of hootenannies and coffeehouses, of folk music that connected listeners to the country's roots and struggles, of a genre steeped in Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and others who spoke up through music and set a country's stories to song.
The Everett resident has gone through a couple of folk-music revivals over the years; he's now working on his third wave and Snohomish County will be part of it.
When he was 16 in 1953, Nelson became a co-founder of the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society, which collected, promoted and presented the folk songs of the Northwest. The society ran into the FBI and the Red Scare and folded (more on that later) a few years later.
Last year, after Nelson, Don Firth and Stewart Hendrickson realized that the Seattle Folklore Society was rejecting traditional folk singers and booking mostly singer-songwriters, they took matters into their own hands, first by hosting house concerts, then resurrecting the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society and creating a Web site pnwfolklore.org.
Soon they were putting traditional folk singers on stage. A free Folk Song Series was developed for the Everett Public Library.
Nelson and Reggie Miles start the series at 2 p.m. Sunday in the auditorium of the Everett Public Library. Nelson, part of the folk music revival in Seattle in the 1950s, performed in coffeehouses and on radio and TV. He loves old ballads and has a large repertoire.
Miles, of Sultan, fuses early blues, ragtime and folk with original songs.
"He's one of the most versatile performers I've known … and an inventive songwriter. I'll throw a word on the floor and out will come a song. He's a wordsmith," Nelson said.
Miles, who has been a regular busker at Pike Place Market for years, plays on vintage and homemade instruments, including a hand-built resonator slide guitar and musical saw.
This folk series is very important to Nelson.
"These songs belong to us, to Everett, to Washington state. These are the traditional songs that we sang, that we still sing. Good grief, this is where we came from. … People in the Northwest, when we got here from the East Coast, we brought our songs. Once here, we changed our songs to fit us. (We sang) about how Puget Sound greeted us and how we laughed at our struggles. This is our music. These are our roots reflected in music," Nelson said.
Now back to the FBI and folk music.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, what was to become known as McCarthyism was rampant, discrimination against anyone even vaguely associated with an alleged Communist or other subversive was accepted, loyalty oaths were required and blacklists destroyed lives.
In that atmosphere, Walt Robertson of Seattle, who had conscientious-objector status, hosted folk singer Pete Seeger, who stayed on Robertson's houseboat. According to Nelson, a couple of weeks after the concert, Robertson lost his C.O. status because he had hosted a Communist and suddenly found himself in the Army.
"After three grand years (of the folk song society), every other folk singer in it was an FBI agent. I was hauled into the FBI office in Seattle. They wanted me to be an FBI agent."
In this case, "agent" meant informer.
Seeger stayed at Nelson's home in 1957 for a Seattle concert.
"Shortly after he left, I had FBI agents running around my neighborhood asking (questions). I went into the Army and had to sign the loyalty oath" and was asked to check off any association he had had with those groups on a long list of "suspicious" organizations.
"I checked off 14 or 15 of them," Nelson said, mostly because he had sung for them, including the Seattle Labor Council.
He was asked, "Why sing these Communist songs?"
Nelson answered: "It's because they have the best songs."
Nelson said that it wasn't until recently, after reading a book on J. Edgar Hoover, that he realized why Hoover was offended by so many people, including musicians.
"We were singing songs of social unrest. To Hoover, any social unrest had to be Communist by definition. If we were not happy where we were, we obviously had to be Communists. So many people got so terribly hurt. People committed suicide. I know some. It was a very dark period."
Now some of the songs from that dark period are coming back into the light.
Published Friday, May 9, 2008, The Everett Herald
Everett folk series starts well
EVERETT -- Sunday's opening concert of the Folk Song Series in Everett was a hit.
"It was a great success, largely due to the large and enthusiastic audience," said Bob Nelson of the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society and one of the performers.
"Everyone arrived ready to enjoy themselves and they certainly did. It was clear to both of us (Nelson and performer Reggie Miles) that Everett seemed starved for this kind of down-home music. It was a great start to the concert series," Nelson said.
The next four concerts are on June 1, July 13, July 20 and Aug. 3 at the Everett Library's main branch or the Evergreen branch. For more information on the Pacific Northwest Folklore Society, go to http://pnwfolklore.org.
-- Sharon Wootton