At the corner of 11th and F streets NW, Flora Molton sits on a stool in front of Beckers Leather Goods shop, raking the strings of an old, weather-beaten guitar. Her voice rises above the din of the traffic in husky, musical moans that play counterpoint to the guitar's high, whining wail.
The fading sunlight flickers across the thick lens of her glasses, and Flora turns her long, thin face skyward, launching into the driving, rambunctious rhythm of "I Can't Stand It," one of her own blues compositions. "My friend and I sit down and have a talk The next thing he says, 'It's all your fault'! I can't stand it, I can't stand to be wounded any more."
A young, neatly dressed woman drops a coin into the white plastic pail wired to the neck of Flora's guitar and continues down the street.
For 35 years now, this nearly blind widow -- now in her 60s, although she will not say exactly how old she is -- has eked out a living singing songs on Washington street corners.
She is the city's oldest street singer and a carrier of an enduring musical tradition in Washington. Today, she also is a symbol of a quiet revival of popular interest in folk music among sophisticated, mostly white, mostly middle-aged music scholars.
Folk music is simply the music of everyday people. It is not hyped, not promoted for commercial appeal, not the music of Bob Dylan or Peter, Paul and Mary. In Washington the music grew out of the folkways of Southern black migrants who brought to the city a rich tradition of Afro-American folklore, including folk chants, blues and gospel music, which came to be centered on the churches and neighborhoods of the uprooted country people.
The city's folk heritage also includes the twang of rural bluegrass music that was first heard generations ago in Washington streets, taverns and vaudeville revues. Today, folk music often carries with it the cry of social protest.
Music experts call Flora, as well as other city folk singers such as Joe Glazer, Luci Murphy, Vgo (pronounced Vee-go), Bernice Reagon, the Jones Boys and John Jackson, the descendants of this more than half-century-old Washington folk heritage.
They sing in simple and personal lyrics of Washington and its problems: bad housing, dirty air and water, racism, the haves and the have-nots. As troubadors in the protest capital of the nation, they never have a shortage of demonstrations where they can peddle their songs. They've sung at Washington's historic protest marches -- the May Day war protest, no-nuke rallies, anitdraft demonstrations -- and their audience was the world. Local protests and rallies have spawned songs about former Major Walter E. Washington, the Cosmos Club, people who work too hard for too little pay and people with empty pockets.
Today, more than 1,000 people belong to the Greater Washington Folklore Society, which promotes the annual Takoma Park and Glen Echo folk festivals. Coffeehouses such as the Singer's Studio in Georgetown, Food for Thought in Dupont Circle and Bethesda's Community Cafe regularly draw respectable crowds. Local folk singers can evan make several hundred dollars a week performing.
Washington's minstrels of folk are not rich, famous or powerful. There is Flora, for instance. And Jackson, a 56-year-old self-employed gravedigger who is world famous for his blues; Vgo, at 33, an "itinerant museum curator," and Murphy, a 30-year-old native Washingtonian and self-styled "leader of participatory music." Washington's folk singers are young and old, some sing mostly of social causes, others lament the unfortunate twists of their own lives. But in the spirit of Woody Guthrie, they sing to change the world, beginning the the District of Columbia. "I belong to a private club A terribly, terribly private club I belong to a private club in Washington, D.C. We don't take colored We don't take Jews We're terribly careful of whom we choose To associate with in this private club In Washington, D.C."
When Joe Glazer, now 61, wrote those words in 1960, Washington's prestigious Cosmos Club had just refused membership to black journalist Carl Rowan. Today, the Cosmos Club accepts blacks and Jews, but still excludes women. While Glazer's song did not itself change the club's exclusive membership policy, it was certainly part of the consciousness-raising that swept out such intolerance here and elsewhere. Action is what Washington's folk musicians say their music is all about.
"I'd like to inspire hope and action with my songs and to get people to do things, instead of being depressed about what's going on," says Peter Jones, reflecting the views of many of Washington's folk artists. Local community organizers often have asked Jones, 28, to support causes with an original song. So he has composed protest songs about polluted water in the Chesapeake Bay, mishaps at the North Anna nuclear power plant in Virginia and the bitter 1978 nurses' strike at Washington Hospital Center. During that strike, Jones and his brother, Steve, were on the picket lines singing about hospital officials, such as hospital administrator Richard Loughery, and workers crossing the strikers' line: "'Mr. Loughery's on the wrong track We're all beginning to feel He seems to think that RN stands for Ready to Kneel You shouldn't steal candy from a baby You shouldn't steal pennies from the blind But nothing could be worse than scabbing on the nurses When they're walking that picket line."
"That's how we get involved," says Saul Schniederman, a 32-year-old folk singer and part-time clerical worker for the government. "Very few of us do it to make a living."
Still, some local folk singers make a better living than others. Flora refuses to say how much the nickels, dimes and occasional dollar bills add up to each week, but a San Francisco street singer can make up to $300 a week, as much as he can earn working a small night club, says Joe Wilson, director of the federally funded National Council of Traditional Arts. Some local musicians also play for money at the few clubs that feature folk music regularly, although the pay is paltry. At Food for Thought, for instance, performers recently passed a straw basket among the wall-to-wall dinner crowd -- but only got nickels, dimes and an occasional dollar or two.
More often than not, Washington folk singers give their time and their tunes to local causes, contributing original music and lyrics, or lyrics to the rhythm of such classic songs as "Sixteen Tons," to inspire the small bands of people protesting various issues.
So Washington's folk troubadors keep on singing about hometown ills and peccadilloes. Glazer sings "Hey, Rocky" about a multimillion-dollar housing development opposed by the wealthy of Foxhall Road on the Northwest Washington estate of the late Nelson A. Rockefeller: "Hey, Rocky! Please say it isn't so Hey, Rocky! Do you really need the dough? Those ticky tacky houses all look just the same For five, six million lousy bucks you're ruining your good name!"
Lucy Murphy sings of the far Southeast Washington people determined to stay in their rented homes in the face of rent increases and wealthy urban pioneers returning to the city in droves, forcing out long-time residents: "The landlord has troubles, the landlord has woes Maintenance cost money, ev'rybody knows He contributes so much money to the mayor's race He can't fix up my place We ain't gonna move, we ain't gonna move When we hold together, we make ourselves strong Together we stay here, right where we belong We ain't gonna move"
And Murphy and Vgo sing what local folks singers call the Washington folk anthem, "Bourgeois Blues," an updated version of a 1944 song by blues folk singer Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter: "Well, it's the home of the brave and the land of the free I don't want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie 'Cause it's a bourgeois town . . . White man in Washington, he knows how Throw a nickel to the mayor just t see him bow 'Cause it's a bourgeois town 'Cause it's a bourgeois town I got the bourgeois blues, I'm gonna spread the news all around
At the corner of 11th and F streets, few stop to listen to Flora Molton wail out her songs, as they toss spare change into her pail. Spreading the folk message all around town is a slow, slow process. All the fuss about Washington's folk revival just hasn't changed Flora's life much. Even singing at folk festivals sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution hasn't brought her the commercial success she always wanted.
"I look at these highfalutin people who tell me they enjoy my music," Flora says, "but I'm still workin' on the street."
But then, being anonymous, being just plain folk, is what makes folk music -- and what keeps Flora Molton wailing out those sad, hopeful, whining lamentations, like "Rejected Stone": "please don't throw this little stone away You may need this stone someday I'm gonna keep on rollin' Lord, I ain't gonna stop I'm gonna roll until I reach the top Cause I'm just rollin' along, singin' my song Ain't gonna do nobody no harm I'm just rollin' along." I'm just rollin' along."