Jay Farrar is no stranger to the folk tradition. A songwriter nearly all his adult life, Farrar’s music with seminal bands Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt is a prime example of the genre’s breadth, bridging aspects of punk rock and traditional country through ragged guitars and his own narrative lyrics.
33rd Annual Ann Arbor Folk Fest
At Hill Auditorium
Friday and Saturday at 6:30 p.m.
But his appearance at the 33rd Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival tomorrow night highlights another aspect of American folk — namely, the literary tradition of the Beats. Along with Ben Gibbard (lead singer and songwriter for indie rockers Death Cab for Cutie), Farrar will be performing songs from 2009’s One Fast Move Or I’m Gone, a collaborative project between the two songwriters based on prose from Jack Kerouac’s 1962 novel “Big Sur.” The record also doubled as an extended soundtrack for Jim Sampas’s documentary of the same name.
“There was probably an element of a kid being unleashed in a candy store,” said Farrar of the project in an interview with the Daily. “I was so familiar with Jack’s work and I was just inspired to be able to, in a weird way, work with Kerouac, or at least his words and his concepts.”
The lyrics throughout the record borrow heavily from Kerouac’s actual prose, with Farrar adding some of his own Midwestern experience in between.
“I started with the poem at the end of the book,” Farrar said, explaining the writing process behind One Fast Move tracks “Breathe Our Iodine” and “Low Life Kingdom.” “With those songs in particular I had to do a little more filling in with some of my own words to make it a little more cohesive.”
As a lifelong fan of Kerouac’s work, writing and recording the album had a uniquely personal effect.” ‘Big Sur’ resonated in a way because I was at a similar age as Jack was when he was writing about the experiences in the book,” he explained.
Gibbard and Farrar met while shooting the Sampas documentary, in which both artists provided their own personal commentary on Kerouac’s prose. Farrar had previously worked with Sampas on a tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s iconic Nebraska record.
“Jim must’ve had me in his Rolodex file or something,” Farrar joked.
Gibbard shares songwriting credit and sings throughout the album, giving Farrar’s earnest, achier vocals a lighter, more boyish foil. The pair have been touring through the late fall, showcasing tracks from One Fast Move throughout the country and garnering much favorable press along the way.
But Farrar is convinced the project’s success comes from the chemistry between the two songwriters.
“That’s probably what gives the project strength,” Farrar said. “We have a shared sensibility and pretty much speak the same musical language.”
Folk music tends to breed the kind of sensibility Farrar describes — an environment where artistic collaboration and impromptu, organic performance reign supreme. Ask any of the performers at this year’s Ann Arbor Folk Festival and they’d probably agree.
Hosted by historic folk venue The Ark, the annual festival — all proceeds from which benefit continued operations and programming at The Ark — has been bringing top names in contemporary and traditional folk music for over 30 years. Now in its 33rd year, the event brings yet another fantastic lineup to Hill Auditorium this weekend.
Beginning Friday evening, dream-folker Iron & Wine will headline alongside Gibbard and Farrar, with additional support from Philadelphia bluegrass/Americana outfit Hoots & Hellmouth, Jer Coons and Po’ Girl. Saturday night features Rosanne Cash, Richie Havens and the incomparable Doc Watson as headliners, with Raul Malo, Hot Club of Cowtown and Enter the Haggis supporting. Singer-songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips (the mastermind behind ’90s rockers Grant Lee Buffalo) performs both nights, with Patty Larkin emceeing.
In keeping with the trend of recent years, Friday’s lineup aims to represent more of the contemporary, younger talents within folk music, while Saturday showcases roots-ier acts and shifts the focus toward more veteran performers. Last year even featured a brief appearance by the legendary Pete Seeger.
Appearances like Seeger’s play a central role in keeping the folk tradition alive at events like the Folk Festival — while many of the younger faces in last year’s crowd may have been unfamiliar with all but a few of Seeger’s songs, all could recognize his warmth and undeniable influence on the artists and devotion to the craft.
Folk music, like the emotional urgency of punk rock or Beat poetry, survives precisely because of the kind of stewardship between older and younger artists, dead writers and contemporary muses. It’s exactly the kind of community that makes writing songs from a Kerouac-like stream-of-consciousness an inherently folk endeavor.
“There’s an immediacy to it that can’t be denied,” Farrar said. “Acoustic music is important because it’s mobile, you can take it anywhere.”
The 33rd Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival begins at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow night at Hill Auditorium.