Does Your Ficus Prefer Simon and Garfunkel to Iron Maiden?

Modern living, especially in the big city, is sometimes not all it’s cracked up to be. Our circadian rhythms are screwed up, we spend all day running (well, Ubering) from place to place, and some of us have to deal with hundreds of people per day instead of the few dozen we’re really equipped for psychologically.

True, the risk of being mauled by a wolf or dying of dysentery has been minimized, but sometimes all of us feel a hankering for a simpler time and a closer connection with nature. For those of us who by choice or necessity live in an apartment, this sometimes leads to surrounding ourselves with living things.

Creating Your Own Horticultural Paradise With Indoor Plants

Folk music festivals held in the outdoors, especially in a wild spot, are normally far more enjoyable than those held under cover. In the same way, a little nook of living green can be the perfect place to relax with a cup of tea and some soothing music after a long day; a kind of island away from the cares of the greater world. This is actually highly appropriate: some people have theorized that the roots of folk music can actually be found in the sounds of nature: a rhythmically splashing brook, whispering leaves, chirping birds and so forth.

This sounds really great in theory, but many people quickly find that taking care of indoor plants is something of a hassle. You can use grow lamps that illuminate with LEDs, or install automatic misters and fertilize them with the most expensive organic gunk you can find. Yet they keep wilting and turning yellow, eventually simply giving up. Unless you’re a totally committed materialist, it’s easy to think that the plants are simply sad at being cut off from their legitimate place in the world.

Does Playing Music to Plants Really Help?

The answer does seem to be “yes”, and experiments under scientific conditions seem to confirm this. In fact, in some cases their growth and general health was improved to an amazing degree when they listened to various kinds of music for up to six hours a day.

However, this shouldn’t be taken as a sign that they enjoy melody and rhythm as such: most trials found that any kind of noise will do. The speculation is that the vibrations stimulate plant cells to produce more growth hormones, although this is still far from established. They seem to prefer high tones over bass, but don’t seem to care whether they’re “hearing” a violin sonata or the beep of an alarm clock.

Keeping Greenery Alive Indoors

The first thing to know when planning an apartment garden is that plants that require direct sunlight will never thrive in an indoor environment without some special measures being taken. The nursery where you buy them should be able to advise you as to which species are suitable, or you can search for information online using the botanical name.

One of the secrets of keeping plants in containers is that far, far more of them suffer from overwatering than drying out. If a plant seems to be wilting and its leaves are turning brown, make sure that its soil at root level isn’t just constantly waterlogged. A moisture meter can help you here.

Finally, one of the most common problems with indoor plants is that they don’t get rained on, causing a layer of dust to build up on their leaves. This can affect their health even if it’s not visually noticeable. The easiest cure is to regularly mist them with a spray bottle, or simply leave them outside for a few hours if rain seems likely.

1960’s Folk Music Concerts Rehashed: Coming Soon

Although purists might disagree, there’s little doubt that we can today hear Leonard Cohen, even his earlier recordings, much more clearly than someone listening to

the original LPs. In the old days, music was usually recorded first on magnetic tape, then passed on to a special type of turntable which cut grooves into the surface

of a soft plastic disc. This disc was then coated with metal; when the metal plate was ready and the plastic removed, it was called the master.

This master was as a negative is to a photo: it had ridges instead of grooves to represent the music. The master was then stamped onto a blank vinyl disc, leaving the

appropriate grooves and producing a record that people could buy and listen to.

While this process worked, it was far from perfect. A digital copy is always identical to its original (although DRM advocates would love to change this), but an

analogue reproduction is always just a little bit worse. With no fewer than four steps involved in the process, some relying on very delicate physical operations, some

degradation was bound to occur.

Digital Remastering

Today, digital signal processing is king of the recording studio. Used in everything from telecommunications to military applications, the basic idea is that once a

signal such as music is available as digital data, a whole range of mathematical operations become possible on it.

This means that the original metal master disc can be read again (this time with lasers instead of a needle) and digitized. Now all the flaws (some would say the character and soul)

of the recording can be removed: for starters, hiss (white noise) can easily be eliminated, while needle jumps or some idiot in the crowd yelling “whoo-hoo” take a

matter of minutes to fix.

Things become even more interesting when other nerdy tools are applied, especially if the original tracks from each instrument are available. Recording equipment from

the good old days was prone to generating “artifacts” – extraneous sounds that aren’t part of the music. Microphone noises can therefore be taken out, as can fumbles

in the editing process from when this couldn’t be done in software.

Perhaps just as importantly, although not as complex in technical terms, the tone of the recording can be restored to something more closely resembling the original sound of a band. Older recording technology didn’t

always emphasize the bass, treble and mid-range sounds equally, resulting in a flat, pale effect. Today, fixing this is as simple as pressing a button and waiting a

few minutes.

Nearly as Good as Being There

If time travel were possible, would you go back to 1969 and visit Woodstock? Ravi Shankar played his sitar in the rain, Joan Baez performed even though heavily

pregnant, and The Grateful Dead managed to blow up the stage’s electrical system. In terms of energy, audience dedication and of course the artistic development of

folk music, the 40th anniversary concert was no more than a joke in comparison.

Virtual reality concerts are already here, although the technology clearly has quite a way to go. Still, advances

are made at an enormous rate in both the VR and CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) fields.

This leads to an intriguing possibility: what if legendary performances of folk music greats could be recreated in three dimensions? Of course, footage would have to

be available and the computer would have to guess more than 90% of the details, but the concept is certainly within the realm of possibility.

Folk Music, Occupy Wall Street and Social Justice

Almost everyone over the age of four will be familiar with the Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land”. Almost none will ever have heard the 5th and 6th verses:

“As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?”

These words and several similar songs were, not surprisingly, written by someone who had lived through both the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl years. At the time, they were seen as dangerously subversive and Guthrie often clashed with censors over his “radical” politics.

Are sentiments such as these still relevant in today’s United States? It certainly seems that they are: in fact, many of the issues folk singers addressed in the 50’s and 60’s are still musical talking points today; environmentalism, minority rights and a dangerously authoritarian government being some examples.

The Meaning and Music of Occupy Wall Street

Economic disenfranchisement is, of course, yet another social concern that has turned up in music over the decades. There is plenty of reason to be concerned: the average wage for non-management workers in the U.S.A, adjusted for inflation, has remained effectively unchanged since the 60’s while real GDP has grown by over 400%. Of course, the population also grew by about 170% during that time, but these figures are still well out of whack.

At the same time, there’s a reasonable case to be made that the cost of maintaining a socially acceptable, comfortable lifestyle has increased. Kids are no longer satisfied with bicycles; they want a board with electrical drive for Christmas. Consumers are more “financially educated” and in consequence assume higher levels of debt, meaning that it becomes that much more difficult for them to build up any savings. People need to buy a $600 cellphone to replace a still-working, functionally similar one just to fit in with the crowd, and so on.

The Occupy movement drew together a whole range of people who realized that something is wrong with the system, whether they could define what it is or not. Numerous musicians of all stripes joined them in spirit if not physically. These include pop names such as Moby and Katy Perry, rappers like Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco, while Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello performed the song quoted above.

Of course, OWS inevitably failed due to having no clear ideology, no real leadership and no political platform. What it did do, much like folk music did in the 60’s, is raise awareness of certain issues that threaten society as a whole and serve as a focal point for a whole range of already disaffected people.

Modern Folk Music and the Open Society

Whether the debate is about bombing a jungle on the other side of the world is really necessary or whether beat cops should carry machine guns, protest music most definitely still has a job to do. Musicians using their art to challenge prevailing views, inform their fans or simply bring some issue to the forefront offers a counterpoint to what consumer-citizens are constantly exposed to.

For almost a century now, there has been a political concept called the “silent majority”, implying that people who don’t speak out are basically satisfied with their situation. This quite conveniently ignores the fact that many people may be afraid of raising their voices, unsure that they would be heard or unwilling to be the first to do so. Protest music is certainly not dead if it can appeal to individuals such as these.

Bringing Creature Comforts Into Your Practice Space

While folk music is based on themes ranging from political protest to nostalgia for an earlier time, one of the unifying characteristics of almost every folk song in every sub-genre is that of togetherness. For those who themselves play, this is often celebrated by jamming with others.

While this can be done in any space from a living room to a forest campsite, it’s highly desirable to have your own dedicated, soundproof space in which to play music. In the first place, especially if you live in the city, the sounds of motorcycles revving and police sirens dopplering into the distance can easily knock the atmosphere down a notch or two. Acoustic instruments can easily be overwhelmed or at least have their sound spoiled by too much ambient noise. If you go into a new environment, this is very noticeable, but otherwise we simply filter it out mentally. You would most likely be surprised at how differently a truly quiet room sounds.

Another reason is to be able to make recordings reliably: custom CDs make great gifts, but less so if you can hear your neighbor starting a chainsaw in the background. Finally, although this may seem a little selfish to say out loud, it really is sometimes necessary for you and your friends to have a little privacy from your family. A reasonable amount of alone time will make everyone happier over the long run.

Installing Soundproofing

If you’re lucky enough to have a spare room or basement that you can convert into a studio, you will be happy to know that all that’s required is a few hundred dollars, some basic DIY skills and a weekend’s work.

The first thing to know is that noise easily enters (or escapes) through any gaps in the walls. If you don’t actually want to brick up the windows, window inserts and noise-absorbing curtains can do a decent job of reducing the amount of sound entering from outside without blocking the view. Acoustic curtains can also be hung in front of the door, while installing a door sweep takes care of the gap underneath.

The next step is to improve the walls’ sound insulation by lining them with some kind of material. The cheapest option is to simply cover them with thick, heavy blankets, which will already help a great deal. At the other end of the price scale, professional-quality sound tiles not only damp noise from the outside but also improve the room’s acoustics.

If you choose to use a wall lining specifically designed for sound absorption, pay close attention to its STC rating. The higher, the better, with an STC of 50 being very good.

Beverages and Snacks

Nobody wants to be delegated to go down to the kitchen to make sandwiches for everyone else. Likewise, having to walk two steps for a cold beer is far preferable to having to leave your private space when you’re trying to relax.

A toaster oven makes many delicious snacks possible, and one of the best ones available can be had for under $100. A bar fridge is obviously a necessity, after which an appliance such as a blender or espresso machine will be all you need to turn your music room into a little self-contained paradise.

Choosing Furniture

Since you and your friends will likely be spending many hours in this room, comfortable seating is important. Chairs with armrests are obviously inconvenient for holding some instruments, but a sofa is almost mandatory – it’s pretty difficult to take a nap sitting upright. The only problem here is that stuffed chairs take up a lot of space and are inconvenient to move to another room. The more seating you provide, the less space remains for things like ping pong tables.

As far as decoration goes, the best guideline is always to let your style fit your personality. Looking at what others have done on Pinterest is a good place to start, but remember that this room is supposed to be your own space. Don’t be sidetracked by someone else’s theory about interior decorating, or allow the decor to interfere with the room’s comfort factor. Building a bookcase along one wall is always a good idea, though, as it’s the perfect place to display mementos, photographs and other random junk.

Want to Make Your Own Folk Music? Here’s How to Get Started


Many folk music fans have a secret (or not so secret) desire to be the next Bob Dylan or Carly Simon. The problem is often, as with any dream, simply knowing where to start.

This can be an especial problem for older people without any previous musical training. The good news is that – at least as far as folk music goes – anyone can learn to pluck a string, and you don’t need to be a virtuoso to strike an emotional chord with an audience.

Acoustic, Electric or Bass?

Each type of instrument is associated with a stereotypical kind of person who plays it. One joke goes: “What do you call a person who hangs out with a group of musicians? A drummer.”

There may be some truth to this – at least, most people will have known an extremely laconic bass player or two who occasionally has to be reminded what an octave really is, as well as guitarists with tons of enthusiasm but a total inability to step onto a stage while sober. If someone packs a banjo or lute, there’s a distinct temptation to check if they have all their teeth and know what year it is, respectively.

Still, there are certainly more exceptions than conformity to all of these rules, so choosing an instrument based on your personality is a little silly. Some make their choice based on what instrument seems the “easiest” to become proficient in, such as when when deciding between steel or nylon strings. The truth is that, beyond a fairly basic level, every instrument used in folk music is as hard or as easy as you choose to push yourself.

When deciding which to take up, the most reliable indicator of what you’ll enjoy is how much you like the actual sound of different instruments and which feature most prominently in the music you enjoy most. Most guitar-like instruments are so similar that switching from one to another later will be a breeze, anyway.

Choosing the Right Instrument

A lot of people automatically accept the saying that a craftsman is only as good as his tools. While there is some truth to this, a more accurate way of saying the same thing would be that his tools impose a practical maximum on what he can accomplish.

Whether to motivate themselves, to show their commitment to their new hobby or just because some salesman saw them coming a mile away, too many aspiring musicians think that they’ll need the best guitar they can afford if they want to progress. The thing to remember here is: a $50 pawnshop find played well will always be superior to a $5,000 guitar played badly.

So, unless you intend to rely exclusively on electronic effects to make music, it’s far better to start out small. Eric Clapton may be able to afford a gazillion guitars and has his own reasons for doing so, but learning basic technique requires no more than the cheapest mass-produced instrument you can find. It won’t be as tuneful or as loud as one hand-crafted on some Andulisian mountaintop, but this hardly matters while you’re mostly playing to yourself.

Adding Equipment

As you gain confidence and technique, you might feel the urge to start playing to an audience. Perhaps this will be at open mike night at your local bar or at family get-togethers, but remember that few things look as ridiculous as a musician whose gear vastly outstrips their talent.

An affordable speaker can still be good enough for groups of a dozen or so people as long as the environment is reasonably quiet (and if it isn’t, chances are that nobody will want to hear a Joan Baez cover anyway). Several companies will be more than happy to rent out a more capable rig if you need it.

Another useful piece of kit to have is some kind of recording device that isn’t your cellphone. Even if your intention isn’t to produce a demo tape or even your own indie CD, this is one of the best ways to keep improving after you’ve mastered the basics. The notion here is that most musicians imagine the piece they’re playing while they’re performing it. This means that the music in your head mingles with what you’re actually hearing and any flaws are masked somewhat. Listening to something you recorded earlier as if evaluating someone else’s performance forces you to take an objective look at what you really sound like.

Learning to Play

While it’s possible to learn guitar from a book or video – Jimmy Hendrix and David Bowie were both self-taught – the process becomes much easier when you’re guided by someone who not only knows how to play, but knows how to teach others.

It’s important to ask for references from former students, but it’s equally vital that you make sure that you can mesh both musically and interpersonally. Being told that you’re doing something badly can grate on your feelings, so it’s much better if this comes from someone you can think of as a friend.

Finally, there’s no substitute for time and effort. Learning to play folk music well isn’t an overnight project. You can expect to spend several months before becoming any good at all, which means that someone who isn’t capable of making time for practice (and dealing with frustration) will probably not succeed.


Welcome to the blog section of Pittsburgh Folk Festival. We will bring you information from local and national folk festivals to different national music styles, so if you like our festival and want the latest information on everything folk, stay tuned!