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Folk for the Future : Fred Starner is dedicated to promoting the lasting value of this 'living tradition' through a series of concerts.

January 07, 1994|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times

VAN NUYS — Let the "folk fascists" sleep in the past, adrift in their musical dreamland, restricted to the sounds of earlier centuries. Singer-songwriter Fred Starner wants none of that, or not too much of it anyway. Too many things to sing about today .

There always have been for Starner and his ilk, whether it was about saving the ruined environment or the travels by rail of modern hobos. Starner is 54 now, and has been singing about such matters since 1969, when he first met up with that ageless folk master Pete Seeger.

"Folk music is a living tradition," insists Starner, who has come to a funky Venice coffeehouse this afternoon to chat, armed with both banjo and guitar. "Folk musicians deal with myths, the great myths. And you have to think up stories and jokes and anecdotes to convince people it's worthwhile to spend tax money on the spotted owl or whatever it is. Art has always done that."

Of course, American folk music hasn't the same high profile it had in the late 1960s and early '70s, when Starner was singing alongside Seeger, Don McLean (of the folk epic "American Pie") and a crowd of others. It's rarely heard on commercial radio. That's in spite of such popular neo-folk artists as Tracy Chapman, and the continuing influence of Bob Dylan.

It's gotten to a point where Pete Seeger now identifies himself not as a folk singer, but as a "river singer," Starner says. "That confuses them; they don't know what that means. I don't know, the word 'folk singer' has a negative connotation or something: old fashioned, out-of-date, sentimental or whatever it is."

Starner is doing what he can to spread the good news of American folk's lasting value through a series of intimate concerts he has organized for this month at Book Grinders, a coffeehouse and bookstore in Van Nuys. Beginning Saturday night with a performance by Starner and the blues-based Del Grossos, the three-weekend series celebrates "Folk Music and Dance Month," as declared by the 3,000-member national Folk Alliance.

Other sides to the folk music tradition will be explored subsequent weekends: Ross Altman performs a tribute to the folk-blues troubadour Leadbelly on Jan. 15; singer-harpist Bobbie Jo Erikson joins Starner on Jan. 22.

Also on Jan. 15 will be an afternoon folk music workshop for children, led by Erikson and by Starner, who has released two albums of folk for children.

The music of Leadbelly, Altman says, was "a forerunner of the protest movement of the '60s. His work for 30 and 40 years before the modern civil rights movement was one of the most public forums for black music."

The Book Grinders shows are one indication of how the growing L.A. coffeehouse scene is providing a popular venue for acoustic singer-songwriters of folk, folk-rock, etc.

"Coffeehouses are natural places for folk music," says Juli Michaud, manager of Book Grinders. "There is a resurgence of folk music right now, and I happen to like it."

"It's helped," Starner says of the new venues for his music, but he isn't completely satisfied. "They don't let people play for six months at a time. . . . Bob Dylan, when he started out, played every night at 10 o'clock or whatever it was. Phil Ochs did the same thing. And management realized they had somebody."

For Starner, who lives with his wife and daughter in Winnetka, folk music alone doesn't pay the bills. This singer-songwriter is also a part-time teacher of economics at community colleges in Glendale, Moorpark and Ventura.

There's only occasional evidence of that and the tenured position he left behind five years ago at the University of Wisconsin at LaCrosse in his original songs. In his song "Marlboro Man," Starner argues the irrelevance of junk bonds, the gross national product and Michael Milken in the simpler world of the hobo.

"I probably know too much about economic problems," Starner says. "I see that as the root of a lot of issues."

For him, the main message is easier to grasp: "There are still a lot of people like me doing this kind of stuff," he says. "And we have a lot of fun doing it. Art has to be entertainment in the end."

Where and When

What: Fred Starner and the Del Grossos, the first of three weekly concerts celebrating "Folk Music and Dance Month."

Location: The Book Grinders, 13321 Burbank Blvd., Van Nuys.

Hours: 8 p.m. Saturday.

Price: Free.

Also: Ross Altman tribute to Leadbelly at 8 p.m. Jan. 15, and singer-harpist Bobbie Jo Erikson with Starner at 8 p.m. Jan. 22.

Call: (818) 988-4503.

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