Thursday, April 15, 2010

Music: At 95, Bay Area's 'queen of folk music' still holds court

Photo Deborah Klein

Newcomers like Eileen and Mitchell are always welcome to join in the music-making in Petric's living room

For a change, I am making a heart-warming article the lead story of the day

For the last five decades, Faith Petric has taken center stage as the heart and soul of the San Francisco Bay Area's folk music community

It's Friday night in San Francisco and several dozen musicians are arriving at Faith Petric's home with their guitars, banjos and mandolins. They enter a large living room, where the woman they call 'the queen of folk music' is holding court.

Petric has been a mainstay of the San Francisco Folk Music Club since the 1970's. As a long-time labor and political activist, Petric says she was drawn to folk music because it was radical, out of the mainstream and spoke to the human condition.

"People sing to their babies before they're born and we keen for the dead," Petric says. "It goes through all of life. There's no aspect of human life, I believe, that is not recorded in folk music."

Regular jam sessions

Twice a month, Petric hosts the folk club's jam sessions at her house, where everyone who shows up is welcome.

"Probably everyone who's picked up a guitar or sung songs has at some point been introduced to Faith and to the folk music club and the music community," says Don, a member of the club since the mid 60's.

He says Petric's living room has been the heart of that community. "Faith's been around a long time and been a real leader. She's created a whole family. People like myself, many hundreds and hundreds of people like myself. I started playing music in this living room many years ago."

He credits Petric's spirit and energy with keeping the music club vital.

A musical focus after retirement

After retiring from her government job at age 55, Petric became a full-time folk performer and the task of keeping the San Francisco Folk Music Club together fell to her.

"I was doing pretty much everything that had to be done," she recalls, adding that one of her most important contributions was the monthly Folk-Nik newsletter, which went out to all club members.

"I would write it and put it on a stencil and run it on a mimeograph machine and address it and mail it. All the little odds and ends that needed to be done. But there was a time when I probably was - I called it the glue that held it together - I think that's a fairly accurate description."

San Francisco musician Adam Miller admits that the Folk-Nik was the reason he joined the club. "It's got all the listings for all the performances of any kind of folk music or dance." He was a member for 10 years before starting to attend the jam sessions at Petric's house.

Miller says he's amazed at her encyclopedic knowledge of folk music.

"They call her the Fort Knox of folk music. She knows more songs than anyone I've ever encountered." He says that if you sing a song and don't get the words right, "she'll correct you. 'You got the words a little bit out of kilter.' She'll nail you on that."

Still, he says Petric is a pleasure to sing and play with. "It's quite a treat to make music with someone who's been making music so long, who knows so many songs. It's a pleasure to sit up till 3 in the morning on a Friday night with her, doing old Carter family songs and harmonizing."

Nurturing and preserving folk music traditions

The great jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong is quoted as saying "all music is folk music." And, indeed, folk encompasses elements of almost every musical genre--blues, country, old time, Cajun, even classical and jazz.

Over the years, Faith Petric has done much to nurture these folk traditions and encourage everyone to sing along and participate.

She's proud that hundreds of amateurs have attended the club's annual free folk festival, or come to make music in her living room.

"The people who come here are not professional singers. This is not a performance arena at all," she says. "You'll hear some of the worst music you've ever heard in your life and you'll hear some very good, also because it's accepted. You can just be horrible and you don't know a chord and your guitar is out of tune and you couldn't carry a tune if you had a bucket. But it's accepted, it's all right."

In recognition of her contributions to folk music, Petric received a lifetime achievement award last year from the Folk Alliance Region West, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting and promoting folk music.

Faith Petric is turning 95 this year. Although age and disability have slowed her down, she insists she will continue to make music as long as she can.

Published with the permission of Voice of America
JoAnn Mar

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