Protest songs have always been a key component of folk music. So it was no surprise that the weekend’s 40th Ann Arbor Folk Festival, especially in the wake of the previous weekend’s Women’s March events and President Donald Trump’s charged first week in the White House, took on a strongly political tone.
The references came both directly and subtly during the two-night event at the University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium on Friday (Jan. 27). Emcee Susan Werner took the lead, rewriting The Beatles “Back in the U.S.S.R.” to reference Russia’s apparent hacking activities into the U.S. presidential election and effectively pairing a biting and defiant new song called “My Strange Nation,” which received a standing ovation, with an emotional, ballady rendition of The Beatles’ “Help.”
The Indigo Girls tossed a timely reference to immigrants into their performance of “Shame on You,” and Jenny Lewis dedicated her rendition of “Door,” by her band NAF, with its refrain of “don’t shut the door,” to President Trump.
Margo Price noted that her song “4 Years of Chances” has “taken on new meaning lately,” also pronouncing that “folk music is alive and well with the state of the world. We need folk musicians now more than ever.” Ireland’s We Banjo 3 introduced “This Is Home” by noting, “If we were to all teach love and note hate, our world would be a way better place.” And Native American singer-songwriter Nahko and Bear and his band Medicine For The People galvanized Friday’s crowd with their charged anthem “Dear Brother” and its call for “Peace In America.”
Kiefer Sutherland, meanwhile, kept politics mostly out of his set (as well as any references to 24), but he did speak about being deeply honored to perform on a stage where the late Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in 1962.
Ann Arbor, of course, has long been a liberal stronghold and hosted one of the Women’s Marches the previous Saturday, so the performers’ sentiments played to enthusiastically kindred spirits. The festival is put on every year by The Ark, which has been operating for 51 years in Ann Arbor and recently completed a $2.8 million capital campaign that allowed the non-profit organization to buy its building and begin renovations.