Karen Kramer: Connecting the Past and Present of Folk Music

Renegade Dreamers

The folk singers of the 1960s were the voice of a generation, putting social anxieties and worries to music and beautifully singing them for whoever would listen. The tradition of this type of folk music was thriving in New York City, as artists attended open mic events and protests, armed with guitars and words. Karen Kramer documents the history of folk music and its transformation from the 1960s to now in her new documentary, Renegade Dreamers. #DirectedbyWomen was able to speak with Kramer about her latest film, what it was like filming in the city, and exploring the past through the present.

DBW: What drew you to this topic and this community? Was it a desire to make a documentary about the past and the present or was it always conceived of as a joint project?

KK: I’ve always been interested in people who step off the path prescribed for them and question authority, challenge the status quo. Several years ago I made another documentary about Greenwich Village, which was an overall nod to the many fabulous movements that came out of this small community. But the movement that really fascinated me was the scene around the MacDougal street coffee houses. Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso reading poetry at the Gaslight Café. Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Peter, Paul and Mary (the list goes on) performing important music that challenged America. All of these artists were castigated at that time but now when we look back we see what an impact they had. I wanted to make a film that would honor those legends. But I didn’t want the film to just be a nostalgic look back: I wanted to include young, contemporary spoken word artists and radical songwriters who are doing the same thing. This idea was strengthened by the fact that I kept meeting people in their twenties and early thirties who revered the work of Woody Guthrie and Ginsberg and others and were following in their footsteps. I’ve been fortunate to live in Greenwich Village for most of my adult life and it never ceases to amaze me how much these few small streets contributed to the culture of America and to the counterculture. 

DBW: How did you find your interview subjects?

KK: As for the younger people, I just put the word out, describing what I was looking for and a few came that way (not all of whom are in the film). But when Occupy Wall Street happened I went down to Zuccotti Park every day and just hung out at the Peoples’ Stage a lot. It was an open mic for spoken word artists and songwriters who were using their art for social change. Before that I had been feeling discouraged because I wasn’t finding any great songwriters. And while I was at Zuccotti Park I heard Matt Pless and Gio Safari and was just blown away. Tiffani Hillin came about a year later at a protest event. I met Sean at Occupy Wall Street also. He and I were discussing Kerouac (he was a big fan) and I asked him if he was also knew a lot about the work of Allen Ginsberg. All of a sudden he just started reciting HOWL verbatim. Later on when I started attending open mic spoken word events I met Nick and Roya and Germ. There were a few others who I wanted to be in the film, but after I had met them they left New York and were either unavailable or I couldn’t find them again. As to the older people in the film, there were a few like Tom Paxton and Richie Havens who I had interviewed for another documentary I had made, The Ballad of Greenwich Village. They or their estates generously allowed me to use some of the footage from that film again. Others like Peter Yarrow and David Amram and Wavy Gravy I simply contacted and they were so easy to work with. Very generous. I also called Pete Seeger but he confessed to me that his voice was fading and put me in touch with his singing partner in The Weavers, Ronnie Gilbert.

DBW: I realized that many of the younger musicians and poets you interviewed are male. Was it difficult to find women to interview? Did you see a gendered dynamic within this community?

KK: Yes, I think in general there were more males than females especially in the songwriting and music performing. The poets were more equally divided. I wanted to find an equal number genderwise, but I also really needed to be true to the project. I wanted to find people who were in a certain age range, as well as had a story to tell, used their art for social change and were also GOOD. If I added gender to that it made it more difficult. I wanted to find the best people.

DBW: Many of your subjects speak about the power of music, but what do you think about the power of music in helping enact social change?

KK: Absolutely, music can affect social change. Audiences are often more receptive to hearing a message in a song or a poem than they are in direct rhetoric. In the sixties a lot of protest songs were sang at rallies and demonstrations. But it is important to note that this can not be just done once and then change will happen.  The songs must be sung over and over and over again. And in large numbers of people. They must be sung at political rallies but also in small venues such as living rooms and cafes.   

DBW: Do you have a personal relationship with music and/or poetry?

KK: I can’t play any instrument but before I was a filmmaker I was a writer and really have a love of well-written (and spoken) words. I’ve had a few poems published but I was not a poet. I was also strongly influenced by the Beat writers and love the way they were able to knock down barriers with their work—both in topic and structure.

DBW: You used a wide variety of archival photos and footage, from commercials to political video to footage of folk singers. What was it like working with archives and archivists to gain access to these pieces of history?

KK: I’m glad you asked about that. I had done a previous film that used archival footage and I said “never again.” But Renegade Dreamers needed a lot of archival and we ended up incorporating more than I ever thought we would. It’s difficult to do that under any circumstance, but especially when you have a very, very low budget. Before we started editing I worked with a young archivist and we made lists of what we thought we might need. Various archival houses sent us low res footage that we used for the editing. But then in the process of the editing, the editor, David Petersen, went online and found a lot more that he wanted to use to make a scene work. It’s very labor intensive to use archival material.  First you have to figure out what you need and then you have to find the source of who owns it and then you have to figure out how to pay for it. The material that we got initially was material that we knew the provenance. But the material that David found online we had to do extra work to locate the owner. There was a lot I couldn’t afford and we just didn’t use. Not all archival houses are honorable. One house wanted to charge thousands of dollars for footage that ended up being in public domain. Another house realized that the footage they offered us was not footage that they actually owned the rights to and we had to stop everything to figure it out. On the plus side, most of the houses were easy to work with. Also, the act of discovering footage that we had never seen before was exhilarating. For example, the footage of the coffee house protest was footage that I knew existed somewhere but had no idea where we would find it. Very few people knew about it.   When we found it I was ecstatic. It’s probably my favorite scene in the film.  Remember, it’s not like today when everyone is filming everything. Sometimes there just isn’t footage of something that happened.

DBW: What was it like filming in NYC, especially on public transportation? It’s always so impressive watching camera crews maneuvering these spaces, so I wanted to hear about your experience with it!

KK: I have to say I have NEVER had any trouble filming in New York….not for any of my films. I think that’s because I am very low key and do most of it myself with a hand-held camera, no tripod, no lights. We have several scenes of people in the subways, either playing music, waiting on platforms, sitting on the train. There was not one problem. Not only am I low key with very little equipment, but sometimes I think it helps to be a woman.

DBW: Do you see parallels in American culture today to American culture in the 1950s and 1960s?

KK: Of course, whenever protest is involved there are similarities. The way of life may be different, the way of getting messages across may be different, but the goals are the same. Question authority. Be aware of personal and political freedoms  Fight for whatever you think is right.

DBW: The Beats were such an influential part of American counterculture. Do you think we’re currently experiencing a resurgence in counterculture? Could a new kind of Beat be emerging in this era of Trump?      

KK: The original Beats were not political, or at least not in an obvious way. They came out of the very stagnant, materialistic, conformity-laden period of the 1950s and they didn’t want to be part of that, didn’t want to climb the corporate ladder or be the Man In the Gray Flannel Suit, the woman with the saucepan. They had different values from the norm at that time and in order to get away from mainstream America they fled to coffee houses where they could find like-minded people and put their ideas into poetry which was then spoken aloud. Today’s generation does not have the same exact challenges. Getting away from conformity is both easier and more difficult. It takes great effort to be an individual and to think for oneself……and that does not necessarily mean being part of a counterculture. So, I don’t think a new kind of Beat is emerging.  However I definitely think that a new counterculture is forming. In a weird kind of way, Trump has done us a favor in forcing us to look at who we are and examine our values. There is a great need now to think about and re-configure America and yes, I think a new counterculture is merging 

DBW: Thanks for taking time to share about your filmmaking process.

KK: You’re welcome. Thanks for taking the time to write about Renegade Dreamers and to help us get the word out there.  We  hope to get as many people as possible to the theater.   

Renegade Dreamers will enjoy a week-long theatrical release starting May 31st at Cinema Village in New York City. Learn more about Karen Kramer on her website.