As the pandemic hushes the live musical world, the Ministry of Folk helps its community connect

by Sean Smith
Special to

It has been a tough spring for many Irish/Celtic musicians, their performance and teaching schedules decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic — and the summer doesn’t look to be much better.

But a recently launched online initiative, whose leadership team has a strong Boston connection, aims to provide support for artists involved in folk and traditional music by giving them means and ideas to promote themselves and build their following.

The Ministry of Folk [], which went live in mid-April, includes a directory for performers/teachers and a calendar of virtual concert or workshop events originating in Greater Boston and elsewhere and featuring folk and traditional music. In addition, the website offers links to resources such as financial assistance campaigns for musicians and information related to teaching and performing online. The Ministry’s Facebook page and Instagram, linked from the website, augment its outreach.  

Ministry of Folk’s creators/administrators, who include two current Boston-area residents and a local native now in Washington, DC, represent a mix of professional skills and personal proficiencies as well as musical interests. Their charge, as they see it, is to address short-term issues facing folk and traditional artists, but also take the long view on how musicians can best survive in an environment not so much created as exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis.    

“A big part of folk and traditional music’s appeal is the personal contact: being together, whether it’s at a session, a concert or festival, or a music camp. We are all missing that so much now,” says Sarah Collins, an Irish-style fiddler who lived in several Boston communities before settling in Washington. “Even when the crisis lessens, its impact is going to be felt for months, probably years afterward. For folk and traditional musicians, that means adapting to the changes in how they present the music and interact with their audiences.

“But well before the coronavirus, there was definitely a trend toward online concerts and teaching, and music streaming and downloading. Those things will be more important than ever. Our hope is that the website will be a useful guide to supporting and exploring folk and traditional music in this new, uncertain age.”  

“Much of what brings us together, literally, as a music community has disappeared, and that has affected everyone,” says Summer McCall, a Scottish music and dance enthusiast who moved from California to Medford last fall. “For musicians, of course, this has created many concerns about being able to make a living. But for the community as a whole, we miss the opportunities to be together and share the music, learn and be inspired. So one way to think of the Ministry of Folk is that it’s helping to keep the glue dry – creating a place to hold onto and build those connections.”

Neither Collins nor McCall nor the Ministry’s two other co-founders, Jackson Clawson and Brendan Hearn, makes a living as a full-time performing musician. But all can attest to the personal enrichment music brings. Collins, for example, fondly recalls going to the Boston Harbor Scottish Fiddle Camp as a pre-teen and learning from eminent musicians like Hanneke Cassel and Barbara McOwen, while forming friendships that led to growth experiences – such as Chasing Redbird, the band she and three other Boston Harbor attendees later started. When she moved to the DC area, Irish music sessions were an avenue to meet people and get settled into a new environment.

Camp also proved a boon for McCall, who began attending the Sierra Fiddle Camp in California as a 13-year-old cellist self-conscious about her zest for music: “I was apprehensive about going to the camp, but then I saw all these kids a little older than me who were really into music, and suddenly I didn’t feel like ‘the weird kid in school who sings.’” She also found a mentor and role model in the person of Natalie Haas, a pioneering cellist in Celtic music.

Somerville resident Clawson, meanwhile, plays accordion and keyboards with the Boston-based acoustic folk quintet Pumpkin Bread – whose guitarist, Conor Hearn, is Clawson’s roommate and the brother of Brendan Hearn, the fourth Ministry of Folk co-founder and a cellist whose interests run to American folk, traditional, and old-timey music.

Collins and McCall point to March 15 as the date when the seed that became the Ministry of Folk began to germinate. During the previous fortnight, they had noticed on social media an increasing sense of alarm among their musician friends and acquaintances as gig cancellations mounted in the wake of the coronavirus spread – all this taking place during what is typically a boom period for Irish/Celtic performers. And then when McCall awoke on the 15th, she found all the gigs she had lined up had been scratched.

“I still had music students and some side work, so I wasn’t suffering,” she says, “but it was clear that a lot of people we knew were being hit hard.”

Through various circumstances and mutual contacts, Clawson, Hearn, Collins, and McCall had gotten to know one another and thus were familiar with their non-musical skills and talents. Conversations began between the four about the best way to help musicians: A relief fund? Benefit virtual concert? A consensus emerged that a more sustained, and sustainable, form of assistance would do the greatest good.

“Brendan had a rough idea for a resource page,” says McCall, “and that was a good starting place.”

As Collins notes, the answer was right there on Facebook and other social media. “How many posts do you see that say ‘Hey, I’m looking for a guitarist,’ or ‘I want to find a fiddle teacher’? And on the other side of the coin, you see musicians posting that they’re looking for students. So why not have a directory that will help match the two up?”

Each of the four had specific roles in conceiving and building the site: Clawson worked on design and functionality; Hearn contributed his engineering know-how; Collins handled writing and other communications-related needs; and McCall concentrated on the programming aspects.

“It was a ‘dream team’: We all have these different skill sets and personalities, and figured out what we were each best suited to do,” says McCall. 

They also, of course, had to come up with a name for their endeavor, and found one through a shared childhood pastime.

“We all loved reading the Harry Potter books,” Collins explains, “so we thought it would be fun to have the name be a variation on the Ministry of Magic. And you know, we’ve found music is pretty magical in how it can inspire, excite, and comfort.”

The Ministry of Folk launch came on April 14, in conjunction with the Pure Dead Brilliant Livestream Concert, a virtual event involving dozens of Celtic performers from around the world that solicited donations to help struggling musicians. Within a short time, some 80 folk and traditional artists had registered to be on the site’s directory.

All along, the four had considered other features to make the site useful, such as information about relief programs and fundraising initiatives and events to benefit musicians, and a calendar of virtual concerts. It was also clear that, as livestreaming events and online lessons became the norm during the pandemic, some musicians were more savvy than others about the technology and organization involved in utilizing the Internet.

Why not include tips on, for example, using the Acapella app to make music videos or Zoom teleconferencing to give lessons? Or advice on putting music online – like having the right equipment for recording, and sharing your music through different platforms (Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc.) on a regular basis?

This is where the long-term vision for Ministry of Folk lies: Someday, the coronavirus lockdown will cease, at least to some degree, and the folk and traditional music community will set out to resume its activities. But what will that look like? How can sessions, concerts, festivals, and music camps function in an atmosphere of social distancing and other restrictions and safeguards?  

The answer, its co-founders say, is to create a virtual alternative – not a replacement. Nothing can capture the experience of being in a music camp, obviously, but a series of small classes for, say, fiddle or flute held via Zoom regularly in a short span of time can still be enjoyable and productive. Watching a concert on your computer monitor can’t compare to sitting in a pub or coffeehouse a few rows from the stage, but it’s possible to take pleasure from what you see and hear. And instead of a virtual tutorial with one teacher, what if you could have an online lesson in which five different instructors – all teleconferencing from different locations – playing the same instrument each explained and demonstrated their individual style, and could answer questions and give critiques? 

What’s important is to make use of the medium’s capabilities, say Collins and McCall, and given the advances in Internet-related technology in recent years, these are only beginning to be appreciated.

“There’s a learning curve for everyone,” says Collins. “As someone used to fiddle lessons ‘in person,’ the idea of doing it online felt strange to me. But then I realized I could take lessons from somebody in Ireland or Scotland while sitting in my living room. That doesn’t take anything away from the importance of playing music together in the same place. It’s a way to extend the possibilities of what you can do with the music.”

McCall agrees: “Everyone wants to get to that place where we are able to be together once again, and it’s going to be so sweet, so joyous. Gathering via Zoom or Skype is nice, but we know it’s not the same, and that feels kind of sad. But I’ve been seeing a lot of gratitude for online concerts and other events that wasn’t there before, so it’s possible we can accept the benefits this technology can bring us. 

“None of us [the Ministry of Folk co-founders] are making a profit on this. It’s such a unique situation, and we’re trying to find our way along, too. We just want to help the folk community connect – to build relationships, share ideas and tunes, and support music that nourishes us.”