April 20 2011 12:00 AM

WKAR’s Bob Blackman signs off after 37 years of hosting ’The Folk Tradition’


Folk music aficionado Bob Blackman, host
of the “The Folk Tradition” on WKAR-FM, has been a valued part of the
Lansing folk scene since he first started spinning American folk vinyl
at the East Lansing station in 1974. 

On Sunday, his final show will air at 6
p.m. on WKAR, featuring Blackman’s favorite singers and musicians — the
ones who’ve inspired his love of folk music over the years. As for his
reasons for ending “The Folk Tradition,” Blackman said it was just time
to move on and spend more time with his family. 

Blackman, 58, a computer programmer by
day, was also a key player in founding the Ten Pound Fiddle series, as
well as choosing talent for the Great Lakes Folk Festival in East
Lansing. For him, radio was always a passion and a hobby. 

Replacing Blackman’s show will be “Folk Alley,” a nationally syndicated show hosted by Jim Blum, based in Kent, Ohio. 

Blackman recently talked about the history of his popular folk show.

How has folk music changed over the years since you started your show?

“There was a time when bluegrass
musicians played strict bluegrass and Irish musicians played strictly
Irish music, and people who sang traditional folk songs did that.
Gradually, musicians have realized that there’s no need to stick within a
particular box, and so there’s been all this cross-fertilization where
bluegrass musicians and Irish musicians will get together and play some
sort of hybrid of the two, and they’ll join forces on an album or for a
concert. That’s really fun, and I enjoy that. As a result of those kinds
of changes, the range of music that I play on the show has certainly
widened over the decades because my taste has changed. It’s still what I
would call ‘folk music,’ under a very general definition, but it’s not
as strictly acoustic musicians playing old songs, as it was in the early

How has radio changed in the time since you started?

“Certainly at WKAR it’s gotten much more
professional, much more organized. National Public Radio has grown into
this huge network, and there are other public radio networks as well,
from which we get programs. So far more of our content comes from a
national source rather than being produced locally at the station, and I
think that’s probably true around the country.”

Do you remember which records you were playing when you first started out?

“I played a lot of Pete Seeger and some
of the anti-war singer/songwriters, the protest singers who were still
active in the 1970s: Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan. Groups like
Peter, Paul and Mary were a big influence on me in the early days. It
was a more gradual thing for me to begin embracing bluegrass, or to
become interested in Irish music or blues. As time went on, I would
start listening to some new branch of the music and get interested in it
and begin incorporating it into the show. The show evolved along with
my own musical taste over the years.”

When you started radio, there were probably some Vietnam protest songs happening.

“Yeah, that’s right, because when I was
in college it was still going on, but it was starting to wind down. I
was class of 1975 here at Michigan State, and it was right around that
time, so those kinds of songs were still very popular. And even after
the war itself ended there were still all kinds of other protest songs:
civil rights songs, the beginning of the ecology movement, the women’s
movement — they all generated lots of songs as well. So that was two of
the big threads in folk music at that time: the protest singers, like
Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton, and the people who were listening to old
traditional songs, what you might think of as real folk songs that went
back for generations.” 

Are there as many protest songs now about the Iraq war? 

“Not nearly as much. I think there were
some, but for whatever reason not as much. There are certainly pockets
of topical songwriters who are still creating music about the war in
Iraq, about the ecology movement, about global warming, about working
people’s struggles. It seems to be more under the radar than it was back
then. During the 1960s and into the 1970s, if you thought about folk
music you probably thought about protest music first. That was almost
the quintessential folk music of the day. I think now it’s a much
broader palette, and protest music is not as obvious a part of it,
although it is certainly still a part of it.”

Why did you decide to call quits with the show?

“There are other things at this point
that I want to spend some of my weekend time doing. And because the show
is a hobby and it’s not how I make a living, I just hit a point where I
didn’t want to spend my whole weekend working on the show, as I have
all these years. I spend close to 15 hours over the weekends on my show
in one way or another. And even though it’s pleasant work, I just need
to find time to do some other things. I’m certainly not in any way tired
of the music, and I love radio. But I just hit a point where I felt
like I was ready to move on and do something else.”