Friendly folk warms museum

'Cool" and "austere" are words that often describe museum culture. A different kind of "cool" once fit the culture of American folk music in its "Positively 4th Street" heyday of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and an "austere" coffeehouse acoustic sound. When, in 1965, Dylan released the rough-edged but eloquent albums "Bringing It All Back Home" and "Highway 61 Revisited," the image of folk as comfy, activist-driven music was splintered. But not permanently fractured. Witness the renewed interest in such grassroots music as that offered on the Grammy-winning film soundtrack to "O Brother Where Art Thou." Or witness it "live and in person" at the growing number of local venues offering folk music, such as the "cool" and somewhat "austere" climate of the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens in Winter Park.

Last November, the museum launched its "Folk Fridays," a series of concerts featuring local musicians, scheduled the second Friday of every month. Annie Phelps, a volunteer with the nonprofit organization Central Florida Folk, books the shows with the blessing of Donna Handley, the museum's event manager. Handley hopes the concerts will attract new faces to the Polasek Museum -- a little gem of art history easily lost amid the traffic of Osceola Avenue.

For any skeptics, the wandering minstrels of the area's folk-music scene fit right in at the museum. According to Handley, the concerts are in "keeping with the legacy of `Polasek`. He indeed had folk gatherings. He loved that type of music. He was all about music."

But wood and stone were Polasek's primary instruments of self-expression. Born in Czechoslovakia, the artist headed the department of sculpture at the Chicago Art Institute for nearly 30 years before building his retirement home -- now the museum -- on the banks of Lake Osceola in 1949. Polasek, in fact, died in 1965 at the commercial height of the American folk-music movement. But the artist left behind a museum filled with elegantly sculpted representations of religious and mythical figures: The Madonna, the Greek god Pan, Jesus Christ -- even Daniel Boone -- have a place here, whether in the galleries or serene gardens.

The concerts take place in the main gallery, and "it's an extremely live room," says Orlando musician Stuart Hall. "It's hard floors, hard walls, hard ceiling." When he performed at the museum earlier this year, he says, "You could hear fingers on the guitar. It was cool to get a room of people just concentrating and listening. It's very warm and gracious."

The same might be said of the folk community itself. "It's much more communal than rock & roll," says Hall. At the March concert at the Polasek, the crowd was small (35 or so people), but the age mix was impressive. A teen-ager lounged in one row of folding chairs set up for the concert, while some regal-looking ladies in their senior years fixed their attention on the entertainers. Musicians Dennis Lawson and John Chelowa covered a gamut of songs, many of them old reliables written by such artists as Willie Nelson and John Prine -- there was even a dash of the Grateful Dead.

Of course, the musical choices of the evening bring up an often raised question: These days, what is folk music?

"Sometimes it is an unfortunate word to use because people don't understand what folk is," says DeLand-based singer/songwriter Cyd Ward. "Folk music ... is so diverse now that 'folk' doesn't even come close to describing it." Indeed, there are many labels used to describe it: singer/songwriter, roots or grassroots, or Americana.

"Simply defining the word 'folk' is a dangerous thing," says Paul Gerardi, host of "Acoustic Highway," which airs Sundays on WPRK-FM (91.5), and host of the Wednesday-night "Open Mic" at Guinevere's coffeehouse. Gerardi believes folk is an "evolving" genre, so the issues that Dylan is writing about now aren't the same as those he was writing about in the '60s. Gerardi says that the subject of much folk music is about what is currently relevant. "At its core, it is about what is happening to us as a people and as a country."

If folk music is experiencing a resurgence of interest, perhaps it's because its fans never really went away. On his radio program, Gerardi pulls from two different libraries of music -- one that features international and national folk musicians, the second focusing on local and regional artists. Gerardi, who is also a musician, welcomes occasional guests into the studio, including the critically acclaimed Bob Rafkin and Jack Williams. And Gerardi says the sign-up list to perform at his open mikes is "always full," attracting both older, more established musicians and newcomers in their early 20s.

Central Florida Folk sponsors seasonal concerts in Langford Park from October through March. And at least 10 Sundays out of the year, the organization -- with the help of producer Stuart Hall -- hosts indoor concerts at Leu Gardens. (Hall is excited about national artist Magda Hiller's April 28 appearance, and he confides that he has tried to persuade Byrds-founder and hometown resident Roger McGuinn to perform at the venue -- as yet to no avail.)

If any doubts remain about the number of state and local folk-music offerings available, look through a Friends of Florida Folk calendar (, or visit the website of Orlando's independent spin-off group ( OTownFOFF).

"We have some wonderful folk people within the state," says singer Ward (, who just released her first CD, the melodic and lyrically poignant "Between the Lines." "We're also growing as a group ... just little pockets, and we all work together. ... The same `communal` thing that happened back in the '60s, ... I've been watching it happen in Orlando."

The folks at the Polasek Museum are hoping their "little pocket" of folk music will grow. "My aim is not to be Winter Park's best-kept secret," says Handley, who thinks the combination of folk music and visual art will put the museum "on the tip of the tongue."

No doubt area folk artists hope to reap the same reward.

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