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Folk Bands Learn to Survive in World Dominated by Rock

January 08, 1988|DAVID WHARTON | Times Staff Writer

Sometimes the Victor Banana band plays at small clubs, and sometimes it plays at an alcohol rehabilitation clinic that hires entertainment for the patients. The Sherman Oaks band is lucky to get two bookings a month.

Victor Banana plays folk music, and there aren't a lot of clubs in town featuring that type of act. "You can't dance to folk," explained one club owner. Not many people pay to listen to it either, says the talent booker at another club.

Still, like a number of such bands in the San Fernando Valley, Victor Banana persists in playing folk. The four members of the group meet to practice in the drummer's backyard. They hope to get an audience every once in a while.

This Saturday, Victor Banana will appear at BeBop Records in Reseda, the one place that semi-regularly pays them to play. BeBop isn't really a club; it's a record store where the owner clears out the back and sets up four dozen folding chairs.

"I don't see how we could ever have a huge audience come to listen to us," said Tim Hensley, Victor Banana's 21-year-old singer. "I'm willing to stick with it because I like the stuff we do. I just like writing good songs."

Those songs include an innocent tune about children's summer camp ( The counselor was real mad and stared down at me, after I had shot a kid while trying archery ... la-la-la . ... The songs we sang like 'Kum Ba Yah' still fill my heart with awe ) and a more politically oriented song about pollution and world hunger masked in a tale of Paul Bunyan:

Paul Bunyan cooked a stack,

Of one-mile - high flap jacks,

He gave not a thought to all the smoke that clouded the sky.

Paul Bunyan ate a stack

Of one-mile - high flap jacks,

He gave not a thought to those who starve and truly need.

These lyrics are set to the music of acoustic guitar, viola, stand-up bass and brush drum.

This is the music of folk--strumming guitars and twanging banjos, mandolins and dulcimers, the fiddle and the auto harp. Clubs prefer snappier music, be it rock, country or jazz. So do record companies. Only small labels with names like Flying Fish or Kicking Mule specialize in folk. Only a few folk-oriented entertainers--such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez--can hope to gain widespread appeal.

"You're never going to make a living at folk music," said Ed Willett, a cellist for the Valley band Chance, which gives its music a pop flavor to get work at mainstream clubs.

Richard Bruland, the owner at BeBop, says he books traditional folk simply because he likes it. Dylan, Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary popularized this kind of music in Bruland's youth. The 41-year-old shopkeeper calls folk "a music by the people, usually by unschooled people." He reminisces about protest songs of the 1960s, black berets and turtleneck sweaters.

"The great majority of people are followers, not leaders," he says. "Folk music has always appealed to a small group of people."

Two folk acts will play at BeBop this week: Victor Banana and a woman named Sumishta Brahm who calls herself "13 Frightened Girls" and adds electronic keyboards to acoustic songs. Chance also appears at BeBop once a month or so.

With so few clubs booking folk, local musicians have been turning to private homes for an audience. Folk music aficionados hold "house concerts" for 30 or so friends, collecting $5 or $6 a head for the musicians.

During the early 1980s, there was an underground concert circuit of 100 family homes stretching from the Valley to San Diego, said Dorothy Chase, owner of the Folk Music Center, a music store and instrument museum in Claremont. But house concerts are becoming scarce, and folk lovers have to search for infrequent club performances.

"They have to either be on mailing lists or know who to call," Chase said. "The life of music is checkered, it has its ups and downs. But it never disappears."

Not as long as Bruland is in business, it won't.

"I like to book bands that, when the evening is over, I know more about that person," Bruland said. "Folk musicians sing about things that are personal."

And folk players swear by their music, no matter how few people care to listen to it.

"If that's what you love, it just comes down to not having much of a choice," Willett said, speaking of Chance.

Hensley says it's also a matter of convenience.

"When I first started playing in clubs, I played electric instruments," he said. "It was punk-New Wave-type music. I had to carry around amplifiers, and they were really heavy. Now, all I have to do is pick up a guitar and an accordion. It's easy."

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