Jan Bell Leads Brooklyn’s Americana Music Renaissance
It’s been a long journey, geographically and culturally, for Jan Bell, founder and artistic director of the Brooklyn Americana Music Festival. She grew up in a Yorkshire, England, coal mining village, where the seeds of her love for what would come to be known as Americana music were sown at an early age.
“When I first heard Loretta Lynn at around seven years old, the penny dropped as far as America having coal mining families and villages as well,” Bell tells Brooklyn Roads. Life on the other side of the Atlantic, she began to understand, “wasn’t all about Disneyland.”
While in grade school, Jan displayed a knack for curating shows (“I was the kid that put on plays at school”). Later she and some friends produced a street theater show for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that was well received (“I couldn’t believe folks were throwing pound notes at us”). Not long after, she took a 3,500-mile leap of faith and landed in New York’s East Village.
“I worked as the technical director at Performance Space 122 and Judson Church,” she tells us. “That’s where I met Great Small Works who did topical shows that combined live music, puppetry, theater, dance and audience participation. That all made an impact on me.” She became part of a circle of East Village artists combining theater, music, circus, “and super original, often political, and also very funny performances. So I have always been a bit of an organizer. I find it creative and challenging – I thrive on that.”
When she lived in the Village, she says, “We would talk about the ‘bridge-and-tunnel’ crowd [coming from Brooklyn]. Now when we talk about that, we mean the folks coming over from Manhattan.” She made the move herself, permanently, in the 1990s.
“I fell for Dumbo 20 years ago because the artists living there were building a community and forms of expression, and ways to have fun from the ground up. There was the one iron workers bar [where] I started a weekly open mic. The bar would be bursting at the seams on those nights. Then I moved the show outside using an old pick-up truck as the stage. It was an amazing time.”
Most of the artists she met via the open mic shows would later perform on her Little Red Hen stage at the DUMBO Art Under the Bridge Festival, more recently known simply as the DUMBO Arts Festival, in the early 2000s. A few years back, when word got out that the long-standing annual event was going to fold, “Just about everyone I saw in DUMBO asked me if I was going to keep the live music going,” Bell tells us. “I had to say yes. The scary part was I had only ever raised funds for charity cases, emergency funds due to natural disasters and so on. Asking for support, writing grants and talking to potential sponsors has been quite the learning curve.”
Bell persevered and, with encouragement from Brooklyn Borough president Eric L Adams and an assist from the office of Councilman Stephen Levin, succeeded in launching the Brooklyn Americana Music Festival in 2015.
By this time, Bell – herself an accomplished singer and songwriter – had been booking the Sunday bluegrass brunch at Superfine for more than a decade as well as shows at the 68 Jay St Bar, which “has two bands every Saturday night in the acoustic and Americana vein. I also help Sunny’s Bar in Red Hook book Friday Night Dance bands, and jazz and Americana as well.”
The Brooklyn Americana Music Festival, Bell concludes, “is basically a way to celebrate what all of these artist-owned-and-operated establishments do year round. The addition of the two outdoor stages – the Archway in DUMBO and the Brooklyn Bridge Park Liberty View Lawn on Pier 6 – are what bring it up to proper festival status.”
Click here to check out some on-the-scene impressions of this year’s Brooklyn Americana Music Festival.