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A Conversation with a Folk Singer

By Hana Frenette

Folk music has always been around. It’s been played on porches and along country roads, in back seats of cars and inside crowded cafes or cheap hotel rooms. It’s existed longer than the genre title has, and goes back to when a song was just a something that someone sang to you and you might only hear it again if you learned to play it yourself.

Folk music fades in and out of the interests of generations, and whether you’re giving it a nod like the Coen brothers with their latest ‘60s era film, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” or strumming an old song daily, the genre is never too far from sight.

Mike Potters is a local folk singer who has been playing and sharing music for many years. He plays small shows at various bookstores, cafes and homes around town. He will be putting together a collection of songs to perform at Open Books. During one of his performances at a small coffee shop, Potters took some time to talk with the IN about what folk music really is, why people still care about it and his upcoming show.

IN: What is folk music to you?
Potters: We’ve all heard recordings. Back in the 1800s, what was familiar to people’s ears was whatever was played in their community, or their yard, or maybe something they heard someone play who was traveling through town. The folk music that I am interested in and like to play is less of an event or a performance, and more of a social gathering where people are all around, talking and communicating. I think folk music at its best is personal and a more intricate exchange. Sometimes I’ll see a band play but I can’t hear what the singer is actually saying. Sometimes I just want to ask to see the words.

IN: Why do you think people are still interested in folk music?
Potters: The songs transform, and they keep transforming through the years. It might happen if someone was passing through town and played a song for a few people, and then those people tried to play the song afterwards. They probably weren’t able to write the words down, and so those might change a bit. Maybe they’ve used objects in the song that are more familiar to them or that they’ve seen before. The melodies, they can transform too. A southern Appalachian song will probably sound a little different once it’s crossed the ocean a time or two. It’s always changing a little bit.

IN: How did you get into playing and loving this kind of music?
Potters: I’ve been in love with folk songs, particularly American folk songs, since early high school. It’s become very important to me later on to continue to play them, because if not, they might not be heard as much anymore. They need to be kept alive.

IN: What is it about cafes and bookstores that appeals to you for a performance venue?
Potters: Open Books is just the perfect place for this kind of thing. I’m a folk singer, and I like to sing songs where there are stories to be heard in the songs. Listening to the words is just as important as listening to the music. At the bookstore, there isn’t a lot of background noise and it’s quite small. I’m always tickled when I can get people to join in on the chorus of a song too. And the shows at Open Books are early enough on a Friday so that if you have some kind of plans you can still attend those as well. I usually won’t play past 7 p.m.

IN: What kind of songs do you have planned for the Open Books show?
Potters: I have a mix of topical and traditional songs. Songs that have been written over the years for certain groups of people, like the working class or people that have been oppressed. Some songs are about peace or the environment, or people taking advantage of other people. It will be a mix of songs about all of those things.

Mike Potters
WHEN: 5:30- 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 4
WHERE: Open Books, 1040 N. Guillemard St.
COST: Free