When did folk music develop a reputation as being hopelessly uncool?

That was the thought racing around Border Radio's mind last week, when we heard one of our favorite childhood ditties, "I'm Gonna Be an Engineer," in a used bookstore. Written by Peggy Seeger, half-sister of Pete Seeger and widow of UK folk stalwart Ewan MacColl, this lively classic immortalizes a lass who bucks traditional Eisenhower-era dreams of being a ballerina, insisting instead that she wants to drive locomotives.

Somewhere along the line, the enthusiasm and joy of the folk revivals of the '60s got derailed. Personally, Border Radio blames certain humorless purveyors of the genre circa the mid-'80s. Would it have killed Tracy Chapman to crack a smile? But we do not blame the Indigo Girls. Which is why readers are encouraged to go check out the solo show by one-half of that duo, Amy Ray, at Neumo's on Friday, May 6.

The media and public alike automatically assume that anything associated with the Indigo Girls means standing around a campfire with a bunch of barefoot, sandalwood-scented earth mothers. Wrong. Ray's new solo album, Prom, boasts DIY punk attitude aplenty. Which makes perfect sense, since American punk rock picked up where the folk movement left off--even the most cursory listen to anything in the X canon confirms that argument.

Prom's 12 originals primarily deal with high school, an emotionally charged time in anyone's life, regardless of gender, race, or sexual preference. As on Ray's 2001 solo debut, Stag, the Georgia native is once again joined by kick-ass cohorts, including guitarist Donna Dresch and drummer Kate Schellenbach (Luscious Jackson). Musically, she spans a gamut, from a brooding meditation on addiction that recalls vintage Neil Young ("Covered for You") to vibrant power-pop ("Driver Education"). What Ray offers here may not be straight-up folk, but it is definitely cool as fuck.

However, if you crave an audience with purveyors of more traditional--but equally interesting--fare, head over to the Triple Door on Saturday, May 7, for the second Seattle Secret Music Showcase. This benefit for the Homeless Youth Clinic at Wallingford's 45th Street Neighborhood Health Clinic features lesser-known but noteworthy regional artists. Rebel Voices, the duo of Susan Lewis and Janet Stecher, has been carrying on the legacy of Peggy Seeger, peddling folk songs of the last century since 1989. Headlining are the Kings of Mongrel Folk: multi-instrumentalist Orville Johnson and harmonica/clarinet whiz Mark Graham, who brought a smile to Border Radio's mug with their original "Oedipus Rex".

Also this Saturday and Sunday, May 7 and 8, Fremont's Dusty Strings emporium hosts the Clawhammer Banjo Weekend, featuring three leading authorities on this distinctive playing style: Bob Carlin, Molly Tenenbaum, and Dan Levenson. This is a great opportunity for banjo fans to participate in a variety of workshops, jam sessions, and a Saturday evening concert featuring all three guest instructors. For more info, or to register, visit www.dustystrings.com or call 634-1662.

kurt@thestranger.com

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