- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

''We are an idea whose time has gone," deadpans folk music lion Alex Hassilev of the earnest uplift and close harmony of the late '50s folk revival.
And you thought folkies had no sense of humor?
Mr. Hassilev is a founding member of the Limeliters, the kind of folk group affectionately parodied in "A Mighty Wind," the new mockumentary from Christopher Guest and the gang that brought you "This Is Spinal Tap" and "Waiting for Guffman." Because he was performing last weekend, Mr. Hassilev had to turn down his invitation to attend a preview of the film in his hometown of Los Angeles. He says, however, he is "eager to see this movie, and I'm praying that it's funny."
The film opened nationally on Wednesday to a rousing chorus of media attention, much of it praising the satiric improvisation that Mr. Guest and his collaborators previously used to send up community theater, competitive dog shows and, most famously, heavy metal music in the film that defined the genre, "This Is Spinal Tap."
Bob Shane, the last original member of the Kingston Trio who still performs with the group, the most successful act of the folk revival, thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Guest's 2000 film "Best in Show."
Observing that his band never took itself quite seriously, Mr. Shane, now living in Phoenix, promises he won't be offended by the satire of the folk era.
"We were the biggest spoof of them all," he says of the Kingston Trio. "We never called ourselves folk musicians at all. We started out as a calypso group, which is how we got the name 'Kingston Trio.'"
When the group won its first Grammy, for the 1958 hit "Tom Dooley," Mr. Shane points out, it was for Best Country and Western presentation, as there was no category for folk. Or for summer camp weenie roast songs, either.
The Kingston Trio celebrated its 45th anniversary exactly a year ago at the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria in scenes not unlike the reunion concert depicted in "A Mighty Wind." The Limeliters also appeared in that two-night show.
The event's sponsor, the Washington-based World Folk Music Association (WFMA), is currently putting finishing touches on a video of the concert. WFMA President Dick Cerri, producer and host of the "Music Americana" folk radio program, says he is considering breaking a five-year hiatus from movie-viewing to see the film. He also wonders if the film might boost interest in folk music.
"We all have different tastes," Mr. Cerri says. "I take folk music seriously myself, but I don't expect the world to take it seriously."
New York folk singer, songwriter and radio host Oscar Brand says he's looking forward to seeing "A Mighty Wind."
"I think it's a marvelous idea," Mr. Brand quips. "It might increase my bookings."
"Making fun of a period is a very good idea, because it illuminates what was wrong as well as illuminating what was right," Mr. Brand says. Plus, he says, referring to "Spinal Tap" cast members Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Mr. Guest, who appear in "A Mighty Wind" as the Folksmen, "these guys can really make music."
"All the shibboleths we live by, they are a marvelous target," Mr. Brand says.
Previewing critics point out that Mr. Guest and company glossed over any political aspects of folk music. Folk artists such as the Weavers were blacklisted in the 1950s for suspected communist sympathies. Social reform and antiwar sentiments also heavily influenced the music of counterculture artists who emerged from the folk tradition in the 1960s, such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
Sonny Ochs, sister of 1960s protest songwriter Phil Ochs, says she was "annoyed" to learn from the advance press she read that "they didn't mention any of the political stuff."
"You can't do a thing about that era and not mention the political aspect of it," says Miss Ochs, a retired teacher who is host of a radio show in New York state. She also volunteers at folk events across the country and is a leading torchbearer for songs written by her brother, who committed suicide in 1976.
Still, she says, "I'm curious as all get out" about the film. "I love humor. I love comedy."
"This movie, I'm certainly able to laugh at it if it is funny," Mr. Hassilev says. "One has to be passionate about one's work, but one also has to be large in spirit, something the doctrinaire folk-Nazis are not."
"If it's funny, it's not going to offend me in any way. Funny is funny," he says. "If it makes me cry tears of laughter in recognizing my own foibles, I'll be delighted."
The cultural and commercial aspects of the folk spoof intrigue singer-songwriter Hugh Blumenfeld, former editor of Fast Folk magazine and Webmaster of BalladTree.com, a site for and about varying aspects of folk music.
"With the media attention that it's getting," he says of the film, "it seems a shame that a real group can't get that kind of media attention."
Also, he says, the film serves to highlight the ambivalence among folk fans toward the commercial success enjoyed by groups during the folk boom, notably, how the polished commercial sound of a group such as Peter, Paul and Mary could take a rough gem from Bob Dylan and turn it into a chart-topper such as "Blowin' in the Wind."
"Maybe it's time for one of these groups to come along and popularize some of the great songs that are being written today," Mr. Blumenfeld says.
Mr. Brand echoes that sentiment, but says he doubts the film will stir much new interest in folk music.
"I don't think it's going to make any difference," Mr. Brand says. "Folk music goes on. What they are making fun of is the moment when folk music became industrial."
Of the folk era, says Mr. Brand, "it never ended and it never began. There was just a time when there was a lot more money to be made."


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