Joshua Marcus Resurrects Folk Music

Meet Philly’s foremost academic -- and practitioner -- of environmental folk justice.

By Dan Eldridge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Dec. 1, 2009

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Not your average banjo: Joshua Marcus makes a difference with his brand of folk.

Photo by © Jacques-Jean Tiziou / www.jjtiziou.net

It’s a little after 9 p.m. when Joshua Marcus finally climbs onto the pulpit at Calvary United Methodist Church in West Philadelphia’s Cedar Park neighborhood. Technically, that puts the musical entertainment portion of this evening’s fundraiser for the local Mariposa Food Co-op at more than an hour behind schedule. But no one here seems to mind. And by the time Marcus settles back into a metal folding chair and readies the four-string banjo in his lap, the dozen or so folks spread out among the church pews are so silent and attentive, you can almost hear them breathe.

“This is my good friend Harmony,” Marcus says, nodding to the woman on his left, the local violinist and vocalist Harmony Thompson. “This is the first time we’ve performed together in about a year and a half.” A polite trickle of applause slowly makes its way throughout the room.

And with that, Marcus begins to pick slowly and rhythmically at his banjo strings. His voice is somehow odd and timeless, with a high-pitched and hollow sound. The song is “Buried at the Love Canal,” and it tells the notorious story of the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., which in the late 70s was used by the Hooker Chemical company as a burial site for 22,000 tons of chemical waste. Massive rates of cancer and birth defects among the neighborhood’s population were some of the eventual results, and when the city refused to take measures to solve the problem, a group calling itself the Love Canal Homeowners Association responded with a swift bit of guerrilla reaction: They poured food dye in the sewer system that drained into the Niagara River, thereby forcing the Coast Guard to finally investigate.

American folk music, of course, has a long and storied history of acting as the voice of the common people. And on Marcus’ recently created CD and website project, This Land: An Environmental Justice Folk Recording , that tradition continues. Along with the infectiously catchy “Buried at the Love Canal,” there are six other heartbreaking tunes, each one telling the story of a particularly cruel miscarriage of environmental justice, and accompanied by a brief interview with a currently involved eco-activist.

But what truly makes This Land a project of hugely unique proportions isn’t necessarily its addictive singability, or even the haunting emotional depth of Marcus’ vocal approach. In fact, This Land isn’t technically a CD at all. Rather, it’s the final stage of a thesis paper Marcus developed while studying for a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

After he received that Master’s in August 2008, Marcus was awarded a $12,500 fellowship from the Idaho-based Wild Gift foundation, which he subsequently used to turn his thesis into an actual product. Marcus is currently touring to support the album—or more accurately, to support the environmental justice groups whose extensive conversations with Marcus formed the basis of the seven songs on This Land . Through a combination of CD sales, live performances and donations, he hopes to raise $7,000 for the various causes—that’s $1,000 for each organization. And once those goals are sufficiently met, Marcus hopes to carry on the proverbial torch by going back to grad school to study folk music and social justice movements in a doctoral program. “One of the reasons I’m thinking about applying to a Ph.D. program,” he says, “is to look at this kind of work throughout history in our country, and to see what effects social movements have had in shifting the social paradigm.”

Marcus first began learning about the power of music and live performance back in high school, when he took a guitar class as an elective. “I really liked being able to have an exchange and a positive experience with an audience,” he says of his earliest days on the stage. “I like creating an experience of community through music. I feel like that doesn’t happen a lot of other ways in our culture.”

He went on to play in a number of rock bands throughout high school and college, and by his mid 20s, he began having some commercial success. He was eventually signed as a solo artist to Chicago’s eclectic Contraphonic label, which has since released three of his Appalachian-style folk albums, including This Land .

Still, Marcus was realistic enough about the limitations of his career. “I could never make it just as a musician,” he admits. “So I thought, if I’m going to get an office job, I want to do something cool.”

He began hatching a rather ambitious plan for himself, which included securing a part-time job at UPenn, which offers its employees the perk of attending classes for free. He spent over two years doing administrative and research work, all the while taking courses in the Environmental Studies department and working toward a tuition-free Master’s degree.

Initially, Marcus was leaning toward a specialization in education and advocacy. But according to the department’s Director of Professional Master’s Programs, Dr. Yvette Bordeaux, he was experiencing a serious lack of excitement for the material. “So I said, ‘Well, what do you really like to do?’” says Bordeaux. “And he said, ‘You know, I really like music. And it’s been going really well for me.’”

As Bordeaux readily admits, “At first, it sounds pretty ridiculous for a thesis, to be something centered around music. But the final paper was amazing. He spent most of it talking about how folk music has been used in the past for political change, and he wrote about how the country is now ripe for using folk music to further the agenda of the environment.”

The potential political influence of folk music, of course, is something Marcus was well aware of all along. It also goes a long way in explaining why the seven environmental injustices documented on his album were chosen in the first place: Aside from the situation Marcus sings about in “Love Canal,” every last eco-nightmare chronicled on This Land remains currently unresolved.

“It’s definitely had a lot of major effects on me,” says Marcus of his monumental project, and the long months of travel and extensive research it required. “Seeing some of the despicable conditions first-hand has really ingrained the impact of environmental destruction in me with a severity that seeing it in movies or looking at it in pictures hadn’t. I definitely bit off a little more than I anticipated.” ■

Wed., Dec. 2, 7pm. Free. West Chester University, Phillips Autograph Library, 600 S. High St., West Chester. thislandourland.org

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1. Levi Landis said... on Dec 6, 2009 at 05:47PM

“I am proud to call Marcus a fellow Philadelphian. The latest project is entirely folk and entirely well-executed. Marcus uses his talent in the perfect way: illuminated injustice and actually doing something to end it!

Levi Landis
Executive Director, Philadelphia Folksong Society”

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