On March 25, Former News Editor and Folk enthusiast Victoria Borlando attended Postcrypt’s first Folk Fest since 2017 at St. Paul’s Chapel. The festival was hosted as a fundraiser for WE ACT Harlem, an environmental justice non-profit based in New York.
Brightly colored hair wrapped in bandanas. Earth tones, baggy corduroys, and silk midi skirts. Flash tattoos and the gentle strumming of guitar strings filling the solemn quiet of St. Paul’s Chapel. If you had not seen the advertisements for Postcrypt’s Folk Fest around campus yet still walked through the open doors, you would have figured out where you were anyway.
On March 25, Postcrypt held Folk Fest—a mini-festival with performances by a variety of folk musicians—at St. Paul’s Chapel. The event was free for anyone in the community, with food and merchandise being sold as donations to WE ACT Harlem, an environmental justice non-profit representing low-income neighborhoods in New York. Five artists performed throughout the night: Jane Bruce, Clara Joy, June McDoom, youbet, and Joe Taylor Sutkowski. Each artist sang for about an hour, with short breaks in between the acts.
I reached out to Cassandra Bartels (BC ’23), the head manager of Postcrypt, to learn more about the organization of Folk Fest, as well as the decision to revive a Columbia tradition no current undergrad had fully experienced before. As Bartels explained, the last time Postcrypt attempted to organize Folk Fest was “foiled by the pandemic,” and that “this year’s seniors are the only individuals who retain any institutional memory of how it is done.” Bartels stated that the seniors in Postcrypt had an idea of what the tradition looked like from its beginning days in the early 2010s—they depended mainly on the knowledge of former Postcrypt members who organized Folk Fest when Bartels and others were freshmen—but their decisions were crucial in establishing a future for the event. If they did not revive Folk Fest this year, Bartels claimed, no one after them would have, and a beloved campus tradition would have been lost.
However, Bartels also wanted to incorporate some new elements to the traditional Folk Fest, mostly concerning its impact in the local community. Throughout the pandemic, Postcrypt had held several, smaller benefit concerts, gradually transitioning to in-person events this past year. Each benefit concert aimed to help non-profits working to protect lower-income families in the greater Harlem community. Raising money and helping local New York communities, then, had become a vital part of Postcrypt’s folk identity.
“We imagined continuing this tradition of working with a neighborhood organization to raise awareness for their activities as well as funds where we can to support their work, thus engaging further with our mission as a folk music venue—a natural part of which is caring for and engaging with local folks,” said Bartels. “We envisioned the evening as being a joint space then for activism and appreciation for music, which [was] not how it used to be back in 2017, but we think a sustainable vision for Folk Fest moving into the future.”
According to Bartels, Postcrypt managed to raise $684 for WE ACT Harlem, a strong and hopeful indication that partnering with local charities is a viable future for Folk Fest.
As a lover of folk music, I knew I had to drop everything and go to Folk Fest. And, though I could only listen to the first two performances (Jane Bruce and Clara Joy), I walked away from the festival convinced that this was the most enjoyable event students at Columbia have ever organized and hosted. Between the gorgeous acoustics of the chapel, the amazing performances by the artists, the hospitality of Postcrypt, and the peace and happiness of the crowd, I immediately felt at home, even if I had no idea who the artists were prior to that evening.
Jane Bruce, who sang first, set an incredibly high standard for the rest of the performances. Her silky yet expertly controlled voice, introspective lyrics, and easy-going attitude made her a delight to not only watch, but experience. She mainly performed songs from her 2022 debut album, My Bed, but also sang a few from her earlier EPs, as well as some new, unreleased songs. She also sang a cover of a Joni Mitchell song, where she jokingly told the audience that, like almost every woman in folk music, Joni was obviously one of her biggest inspirations. As she performed her set, the crowd sat still and silent, mesmerized by her ability to fill up a chapel with just her voice and guitar. Then, toward the end of the set, she captured the heart of the audience by bringing her fiancé to the stage, handing the guitar over to him while she sang a sweet song he wrote about her long before they even began dating. If you wanted to know how moving and powerful Bruce’s overall performance was, note that the person next to me teared up several times throughout the set. Bruce’s songs swirled around in my head, and by the time her setlist was over, I had no idea an hour had even passed.
Folk singer Clara Joy performed next, and while Bruce was a hard act to follow (it came as no shock to me when I found out Bruce was the leading role in the Broadway production of Jagged Little Pill), I was extremely happy I stuck around to see her play. Joy brought a certain boldness to Folk Fest: her haunting melodies, combination of singing and spoken word, biting lyrics forced the audience to concentrate hard on what she wanted to say with her music. I personally resonated a lot with her setlist—I tend to like the longer, slower songs and grotesque imagery she did not shy away from in her lyrics—and while she did not particularly engage with the audience between songs, her vulnerability in the music itself established a strong connection among everyone in the chapel. Joy performed songs from her several EPs, yet the two that defined her performance were “Body on the Sidewalk” from Do You Remember Me (2018), and “Goodbye Spaceship” from 2019. The two perfectly encapsulated her angsty, haunting, and critical poetry, and her awareness of the spooky acoustics of the chapel only added to the experience. I never wanted her set to end, and when I had to leave after her performance, I immediately went to Spotify to relisten to her songs.
Unfortunately, I could not stick around for the last three performances, so I cannot review their sets. However, from what I did see, I fully trust that Postcrypt made excellent selections, and that youbet, June McDoom, and Joe Taylor Sutkowski gave equally stunning performances.
I asked Bartels about the process of choosing musicians for this year’s Folk Fest. According to the head manager, Postcrypt had a well-thought-out plan prior to picking their lineup. First, they wanted the artists to be local. “We chose artists based off of our contacts in the organization,” said Bartels, “either historically or through connections with NYC artists that we found, through the efforts of our working team on the streets, or through Bandcamp and other music delivery platforms.” They wanted artists who could perform an acoustic set due to volume concerns, for St. John’s Chapel carries a lot of sound and could unintentionally distort louder music.
These concerns about acoustics and volume also brought Postcrypt to seriously consider what “Folk music” is. Like any genre, to define “folk” is extremely hard, for the artists typically associated with the genre each bring something wildly different to the table. For Postcrypt, however, picking artists for Folk Fest allowed the organizers to think about the “Folk” Postcrypt had been advertising in the past, and where the organization stands now. “Our definition of ‘folk’ music is one which has become much more relaxed over the years, and at this point in time, encompasses most music and art produced by ‘folk’,” said Bartels. “This definition has allowed us to incorporate more types of music and, while we retain an artist-base primarily [of] singer-songwriters and individuals playing the guitar, our expanded definition has brought in more jazz and contemporary musicians.”
While the setlist for this year’s Folk Fest did rely mainly on the “singer-songwriter with the guitar” archetype for volume and space concerns, I do believe Postcrypt demonstrated their fluidity of their definition. The artists I saw perform were only similar in the fact that they identified as folk artists; how they used the guitar, wrote lyrics, and sang melodies gave the audiences wildly different experiences. In short, the diversity of the genre, like the ‘folk’ themselves, is what makes it so magical, and Postcrypt certainly kept that in mind this year.
Bartels is a graduating senior, and while she will not be able to organize the next Folk Fest, she hopes that Postcrypt will be able to continue this tradition and combine students’ love of music with the love for our local community. I echo these statements: I found that this years’ Folk Fest embodied everything I love about my favorite music genre. The celebration of the human experience through music, finding a strong and vibrant community through our interests, and being willing to be vulnerable for human connection—Folk Fest was the perfect event for people like me, and I hope students continue this tradition next year.
Jane Bruce at Folk Fest via Author