A good folk song might feel innocent on the surface, especially when it’s a lilting, acoustic-driven ballad, but hardcore folk fans aren’t drawn to this genre because it’s easy listening. Good folk music demands more of its listeners. Gentle deliveries often bely an urgent message, whether it’s a Dust Bowl-era protest song about the bloody battle for worker rights sung clear and true by a young Woody Guthrie in the 1930s or secret messages hidden in the African folk slave music that gave birth to the genre long ago.
The Ark's marketing director, Barb Chaffer Authier, tells Pride Source that folk is about combining the personal with the universal. “It’s poised to draw in the listener and create connection,” she says. Authier points to a quote from modern queer-loved folk legend Ani DiFranco, who once said, “Folk music is not an acoustic guitar — that’s not where the heart of it is… It’s an attitude, an awareness of one’s heritage, and it’s a community. It’s sub-corporate music that gives voice to different communities and their struggle against authority.”
The Ark will soon play host to the 47th annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival, set for Jan. 26 and 27 at Hill Auditorium, featuring two jam-packed nights of music, including headliners Old Crow Medicine Show on Friday and Emmylou Harris on Saturday. Over the years, the lineup has included musicians recognized as grandparents to the genre like John Prine at the first show in 1976 to nationally acclaimed artists like DiFranco, Bonnie Raitt, Arlo Guthrie, Patty Griffin, Indigo Girls, Brandi Carlile, Aimee Mann, and beloved Michigan acts like Nervous But Excited and the Michigan Rattlers. The mix of performers is unpredictable, but always eclectic and always focused on vulnerable, raw songwriting and performance.
Each year, Authier carefully curates the lineup alongside a team of employees at The Ark, a non-profit music venue dedicated to folk and roots music that began in 1965 as a community gathering spot for four local church groups. The process, Authier says, can feel like “putting the pieces of a jigsaw together.”
Under the direction of longtime Program Director Anya Siglin, the team is in constant discussion for months about bands they’ve discovered, artists they follow and performers they’d like to include. “We go into the process thinking about all the ways to showcase the diversity of the music The Ark presents,” Authier says. “That diversity shows itself in gender and racial identity, but also in music style and genre and even the makeup of the performances with a mix of solo singer-songwriters, full bands and diversity of instrumentation.”
Authier says it can be challenging to narrow the lineup with just a handful of performers each night. Still, she says, “we definitely believe in the importance of striving for that diversity to showcase the full spectrum of Ark artists.”
One diverse Ann Arbor Folk Festival artist ready to hit the stage Jan. 27 is queer, Black, gender-nonconforming harpist, singer-songwriter and guitarist Lizzie No, who tells Pride Source that performing at the festival, which they call “legendary,” is a dream. “I tour a lot,” they say, “but honestly, some of the best shows and experiences are folk festivals, because it’s not just about you playing your songs. It’s about the audience. The folk community really shows up. I’m so excited.”
The performer agrees that there’s something inherently inclusive about folk music. “I think there is a storytelling capability that folk music has that brings a lot of people to the genre as both listeners and as artists,” they say. Folk, they note, has always been a format for political messaging. No says they feel a responsibility as a folk artist to speak truth to power while being inclusive of all working people. “It’s not just about you and your ego. It’s about the audience and the community.”
“Pretty much every political possible opinion on the spectrum can be represented in folk music, but ... it has to be inclusive — it’s for everybody. If it’s not, then we’re not really doing our jobs when it comes to folk music," they add.
No’s brand of folk somehow manages to mesh a lush, sometimes cinematic note with poetic but straightforward storytelling. They aren’t one to drop Easter eggs into lyrics like some artists; they say storytelling isn’t really about sharing completely factually accurate autobiographical details, either. Every now and then, someone from an audience will confront them about the lyrical content of a song. They understand why this happens, but still, it can be frustrating when people miss that they are telling a story, not delivering a list of facts. “You always want to be understood when you’re sharing art,” they explain.
No’s storytelling frequently focuses on their identity as a bisexual, gender-nonconforming person and the importance of queer community. The prospect of coming out can be terrifying, they acknowledge. “There’s a really dangerous accepted wisdom based on the sad truth that people are often rejected and marginalized or harmed or in some way pushed out of their community,” they say. “I know so many people have had that painful experience.”
What queer people who haven’t come out yet may not realize, however, is how welcoming the community can be on the other side. “We can miss out on the bigger story, which is that being a queer person and living authentically as yourself makes you a part of a huge community across the world and across time.”
No’s experience growing up within a Baptist evangelical family included a great deal of negative messaging about what it would mean if they came out. “What I didn’t realize was that there was going to be this whole community of queer people that would catch me when I made that leap to be more open about my bisexuality and gender identity,” they say.
Queer community was at the heart of No’s 2022 experience touring with what they call a “queer country house band,” headlined by the late Patrick Haggerty of the ’70s gay country band Lavender Country. “It was just a ragtag group of amazing queer artists, and it was my first experience of feeling like I was physically in community with other queer people,” they remember. “I was out and I was accepted, and I was explicitly saying that we were together on tour as queer artists. It was exhilarating.”
No says the experience helped them learn how to lead with their honesty and values and how to live and perform without shame as a queer person, feelings they channeled into the song and video for “The Heartbreak Store,” which opens with the stanza, “The cashier knows the drill/I came to sell all the hurt I couldn't keep/And she gives me that box to fill/Don't know who's buying what I'm selling cheap/If I can't fall out of love at least I'll set it down.”
The song was the first single off No’s latest album, “Halfsies,” out now. When the catchy, guitar-driven tune was released in November, No said in a statement that the lyrics are about ridding oneself of the remnants of past loves. “In this velvet-walled speakeasy are a dozen other rejects who have set their burdens down,” they wrote. “This is country music, so dancing and crying are both encouraged. Heaven is a honky-tonk full of queer people who have stopped being ashamed.”
Shame doesn't seem to be a part of this earnest folk musician’s vocabulary in 2024. Today, No is living out and proud and building community wherever they can find it. “I have definitely been guilty of forgetting that being queer isn’t just about tweeting your truth into the void — you have to actually connect in person with other queer people. Otherwise, it’s a really lonely journey.”
No will have LPs and CDs for “Halfsies” and other albums available for sale at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival. Their music is available for streaming in all the usual spots. Visit lizzieno.com and theark.org/folk-festival for more information.