On just about any summer Saturday morning at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market, there’s someone strumming a guitar and singing while shoppers peruse the vegetables, plants, baked goods and artisan wares. That someone is usually a K’zoo Folklife Organization member.
K’zoo Folklife, or just Folklife, as board members and participants call it, is a local group for musicians who play acoustic instruments, including guitars, banjos and mandolins. It became an official nonprofit organization in 1985 but truly got its start in the early 1970s at Western Michigan University. At the time, the campus boasted the Canterbury Coffeehouse, a hub for coffee and live music modeled after clubs like those where Bob Dylan began his career. From 1971 to 1982, Canterbury Coffeehouse was where local folk musicians would gather.
Although the coffeehouse no longer exists, folk musicians have continued to meet in Kalamazoo ever since, said John Speeter, president of K’zoo Folklife. Now the group can be found holding jam sessions at Louie’s Trophy House on Monday nights, performing at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market, as well as at other local folk-music events.
Kalamazoo has long been a hub for folk music. The Kalamazoo Valley Museum has hosted its annual Fretboard Festival, which celebrates string music, for more than a decade. The Great Lakes Acoustic Music Association (GLAMA) marked its 16th Cooper’s Glen Music Festival this past February at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in downtown Kalamazoo. The festival has brought in big-name folk music performers like Tom Paxton as well as Traverse City’s Don Julin.
While Folklife members play a variety of genres, bluegrass and traditional folk music are the most prominent. Speeter, who joined Folklife in the 1970s and became a board member in the early 2010s, says the organization’s goal is the same as it was back in the Canterbury Coffeehouse days: to give musicians a chance to get together to play or find a place to play. The organization also helps schedule musicians for local events like parties at senior centers and for summer farmers’ markets.
“We are a clearinghouse for those looking to hire acoustic musicians,” Speeter says. “Sometimes they’re not interested in a concert. They want background music, or what you could call ‘campfire music.’”
Most of Folklife’s events are jam sessions held throughout the Kalamazoo area, including the Monday night events at Louie’s and events at the VFW Hall in Augusta and grange halls in townships like Oshtemo and Alamo. Musicians are always welcome to join jam sessions, not only to play, but also to meet other group participants. At a jam session, a handful of musicians will sit in a circle and play. One musician kicks off a song they’ve been practicing, and those who know the song can play along while others listen carefully to learn it for the next time it’s played.
“There are a lot of different venues and a lot of different styles,” says Folklife participant Russ Meade of Climax, who has been a musician for about 50 years and was part of the bluegrass trio Franklin, Meade and Webster until last year. While Meade says he doesn’t play as much now as when he was younger, he’s appreciative of what Folklife does for Kalamazoo-area performers.
Meade says Folklife helps performers learn about one another and stay in touch in a busy world where music is typically just a hobby. Performing in front of audiences regularly is not only the way to improve musical skill, it’s also the way to find more chances to perform.
“Folklife is keeping the music alive,” Meade says. “Once people get to know who you are, you start to get to know venue owners. You’ve got to have an organization (supporting you).”
Speeter isn’t sure how many Folklife participants there are, since the organization is funded exclusively by donations and there’s no formal membership. He estimates, though, that “several hundred” people have been part of the group over the years. The move away from funding by membership dues was done in part to make joining Folklife more affordable, Speeter says. The strategy seems to be working, since a separate chapter of the organization was established in 2016 for artists and venues hosting folk music in Allegan County.
Despite folk music’s traditional championing of progressive causes (think of performers like Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie), K’zoo Folklife doesn’t take stands on political issues. The organization, is socially minded, however — in the past two decades, it has raised $10,000 for Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes through an annual benefit concert for the food pantry.
Folklife’s contributions to the community were recognized in 2017 when it received the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo’s Epic Award, which recognizes nonprofit organizations that are “of high artistic quality and serve to enhance life in our community through the arts.”
Speeter says such accolades help bring the organization attention and reach people “who wouldn’t ordinarily listen to folk music.”
“The goal is to get the word out,” he says. “Guitar, mandolin, banjo — whatever it is, we’re here to help.”