Today’s Top 5: Artists & Songs I First Heard via Fast Folk Musical Magazine

Earlier this week, I tripped through the time portal that is Richard Haswell’s With the Changing Light and landed in late 1983. Most weekday mornings that autumn, I boarded a SEPTA bus in downtown Hatboro and traveled to the Willow Grove Park Mall, where I switched to a second bus that took me to the Red Lion Diner opposite Abington Hospital. Myself and other carless souls, and there were quite a few of us, then trekked by foot the final stretch of road to Penn State’s Ogontz campus. In total, the journey took about an hour – but I couldn’t complain (much). I almost always had headphones on and a Walkman clone in hand, plus an assortment of cassettes stuffed into my backpack.

Mine was, is and will always be an eclectic taste in music, ranging from pop to rock to new wave to soul/R&B to country to folk but, as I’ve noted before, my bent towards country and singer-songwriters developed at a slower pace. Which is to say, if you pulled out the tapes I carried with me that fall, you’d likely have found offerings by Kate Bush, the Jam, Joan Jett, Paul McCartney, Lou Reed and Neil Young, among others, as well as homemade mixes that gathered together select album tracks and 45s.

Flash forward two years, by which time I’d beamed aboard the Penn State mothership in State College, and you’d have found tapes from Lone Justice, the Long Ryders and other of the era’s below-the-radar acts, including the pre-“Manic Monday” Bangles, scattered around my new-old car, a trusty if slightly rusty Chevette with some 80,000 miles on it. Country, country-rock and folk-rock were my genres of choice by that point, though I also had developed a hankering for the Paisley Underground’s Day-Glo sound.

I start there for context’s sake. We all are the products of our environs and, in my slice of early and mid-‘80s suburbia, for music that meant friends, mainstream radio and such magazines as Creem, Musician, Record, Rolling Stone and Trouser Press. Rock, punk and New Wave got ink in each, of course, but country and folk did not. The Nashville Network cable channel, aka TNN, helped with the former, but for the latter? It was a void I didn’t know needed filling.

Now, I’ve written before of becoming a Folk Show deejay on student-run WPSU-FM, which had recently changed its call letters from WDFM and would, within a few years, morph into an NPR-affiliated, professionally run station, so I won’t rehash too much here. But know this: the shows I hoped to host (rock and/or oldies) were filled by returning students, so I took what I could get. When I slid behind the microphone for my first shift at 6am on Sunday Sept. 29th, 1985, I didn’t have much planned beyond Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Stephen Stills, plus a smattering of old LPs from the Folk Show-branded metal shelves in the record library.

All of which leads to this: yesterday morning, I discovered that Apple Music houses the Fast Folk Musical Magazine compilation series within its catalog – not every entry, from the looks of it, but many. For those who’ve never heard of the sets, which I imagine is most, this Wikipedia entry provides the basics: Fast Folk released its first compilation in 1982 and its last in 1997, and featured hundreds of folk-flavored singer-songwriters in between; some were known within the folk community, others not. Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin, Lucy Kaplansky, John Gorka and Suzanne Vega, among others, appeared on the comps before releasing their debut LPs; others, I imagine, appeared while between labels (or, if not, with the permission of same).

That’s a long way around to get to this: I stumbled upon the LPs in the WPSU record library not long after my first shift and, truly, they were a revelation. Folk music wasn’t a thing of the past, as I assumed, but of the present. Thus, within Old Grey Cat lore, they’re truly touchstone sets. Sure, there’s a plethora of overly earnest songs by overly earnest artists…but that’s par for the course when it comes to folk and singer-songwriters in general, and I actually enjoy earnest – it’s much preferable to cynical. Some shifts, and it wasn’t me being lazy (well…maybe a little), I’d play an entire Fast Folk LP side.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s today’s Top 5: Artists & Songs I First Heard via Fast Folk Musical Magazine. 

1) Suzanne Vega – “Cracking.” Featured on the very first Fast Folk comp in 1982, when it was billed as CooP, the song would become the lead-off track on her 1985 self-titled debut.

And here she is again, circa 1983, performing “Some Journey” on the CooP Vol. 2, No. 5 edition; it’s one of my favorite tracks on her 1985 debut.

And here she is yet again, this time performing “Tom’s Diner” in the Vol. 1, No. 1, edition of Fast Folk Musical Magazine circa 1984; the song became a highlight of her 1987 sophomore set, Solitude Standing.

2) Shawn Colvin – “I Don’t Know Why.” The same year’s No. 2, edition features Colvin performing a sublime rendition of this track, which became a highlight of her 1992 album, Fat City.

Another Colvin song, “Stranded,” was a highlight of 1984’s eighth edition, which was subtitled “Women in Song.” She recorded it again it for her 1989 debut, Steady On

3) Nanci Griffith – “Daddy Said.” That same “Women in Song” LP opened with Nanci Griffith’s “Daddy Said,” which she recorded for her Once in Very Blue Moon LP; it was the first time I heard the self-described “folkabilly” artist and lead me to her 1978 debut, There’s a Light Beyond These Woods…and, in a roundabout way, my Diane.  

4) Lui Collins – “Moondancer.” This was a song I loved at the time, playing it on-air fairly often. Listening to it today is like meeting up with an old friend who hasn’t aged a day. It’s found on the Vol. 1, No. 10 edition. 

5) Tracy Chapman – “For My Lover.” One of the distinct musical memories of my life is hearing Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” while browsing T-shirts in a Honolulu store sometime during the spring of 1988. It wouldn’t be until a month or so later, when I picked up her solo debut, that I realized I’d heard her before…singing “For My Lover” on Fast Folk’s 1986 “Boston One” edition. 

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