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Who Were the Fast Folk Artists...and What's Fast Folk, Anyway?

By

Shawn Colvin

Shawn Colvin has been one of the most successful Fast Folk alumni.

photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

What Was Fast Folk?:

Fast Folk was a magazine and recording co-op which grew out of a weekly songwriter series at the Cornelia Street Cafe in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. The series began in 1977, inspired by a songwriters' night folksinger Jack Hardy had been holding. Once Hardy's songwriter night was discontinued, some folks from that group migrated to a different venue (Cornelia St) and developed a more formalized song-swap idea. Their weekly gathering was an opportunity for folksingers and songwriters to get together and share their work, get feedback on new songs, strike up collaborations, and work out some kinks in their live performances.

Fast Folk in the '80s:

After some evolution in the late '70s, the group started calling itself the Songwriter's Exchange and, together, they released an album in 1980 on Stash Records. Hardy played a big hand in helping the group grow, strengthen, and evolve. Eventually it outgrew the Cornelia Street Cafe and took over at another club called the Speakeasy in 1982. There, the Songwriter's Exchange became "The Co-Op" and, eventually, "Fast Folk."

The Original Indie Folk:

In the 1980s, with few exceptions (ahem, Paul Simon), the mainstream recording industry seemed mostly disinterested in emergent singer-songwriters. So, Fast Folk filled in the holes by pooling resources, energy, and ideas in order to help these up-and-coming singer-songwriters launch their recording careers despite the expensive nature of indie recording and production. The Fast Folk group developed a magazine and recording collective that helped establish artists like Michelle Shocked, Suzanne Vega, and Shawn Colvin before they ever attracted major label attention. It also established a collaborative spirit which fueled the songwriter community. Colvin eventually toured as a backing vocalist with Suzanne Vega and, for a time, had a songwriting duo with fellow Fast Folk participant Lucy Kaplansky (who also has a successful solo career). Kaplansky joined with Richard Shindell and Dar Williams for Cry Cry Cry, and with John Gorka and Eliza Gilkyson for another collaborative project.

Who Were the Fast Folk Artists?:

Some of the Fast Folk artists included:

Jack Hardy
Cliff Eberhardt
David Massingil
Suzanne Vega
Lyle Lovett
John Gorka
Shawn Colvin
Tracy Chapman
Michelle Shocked
Richard Shindell
Suzy Boguss
Christine Lavin
Lucy Kaplansky
Carolyne Mas

Recommended Albums by Fast Folk Artists:

Suzanne Vega - Solitude Standing (A&M Records, 1987) compare prices

Richard Shindell - Somewhere Near Paterson (Signature Sounds, 2000) compare prices

John Gorka - Company You Keep (Red House Records, 2001) compare prices

Purchase/download Fast Folk Artist Mp3s:

"Cold Missouri Waters" (by Richard Shindell, Lucy Kaplansky, and Dar Williams from Cry Cry Cry)
"I Don't Know Why" (by Shawn Colvin, from Polaroids)
"I Saw a Stranger With Your Hair" (by John Gorka, from Land of the Bottom Line)

Where Are They Now?:

A number of Fast Folk alumni have had remarkably successful careers. In her memoir, Shawn Colvin remembers Suzanne Vega being one of the early crossover artists who signed a major label contract and moved up in the world from her place in the Fast Folk family. When she toured Europe early on, she brought Colvin along as a backup singer. Colvin, of course, eventually inked her own major label deal and earned Grammys of her own. Michelle Shocked enjoyed some mainstream success late in the '80s as well as did Lyle Lovett. Many of the Fast Folk singer-songwriters continue to play the folk circuit, and remain hugely influential in songwriter circles. Both Gorka and Kaplansky now record for Red House Records, while Richard Shindell moved to South America and remains one of the finest unknown American songwriters.
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