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Funky folk Toshi Reagon demonstrates how genre can transcend

Defining folk music these days is a tough proposition.

Technically, folk music is an idiom passed directly from person to person, transmitted aurally and in real time. That rules out recorded folk; "real" folk music is not recorded, but only heard when someone is actually performing it.

Maybe we should forget that whole idea. Folk music is at the heart of some of the strongest records of the rock era, after all. It has also grown to assimilate elements of funk, blues, pop, rock, punk, jazz and just about anything else a particular songwriter wishes to work into the mix. It's not all protest music, but some of it is. Much of it is played on acoustic guitars, but all of it isn't. It's supposed to be thoughtful, reflective music, but some of the best of it just makes you want to dance.

No modern folk artist this side of Ani DiFranco better encapsulates the form's ability to transcend any strictures placed upon it, real or perceived, than Toshi Reagon. She was born to the gig -- her mother is Sweet Honey in the Rock founder Bernice Johnson Reagon. Sweet Honey brought serious gospel chops to bear on folk music, in the process bringing Leadbelly to church, so to speak. (For proof, check out the transcendent version of "Sylvie" Sweet Honey offers on the Folkways tribute to Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.)

Toshi Reagon has plenty of gospel in her aggressive, often funky folk, but she also grooves like an unplugged Prince, or lays down a four-on-the-floor funk workout that would make George Clinton proud. For Reagon, folk music is whatever she decides it should be.

"Have You Heard," Reagon's Righteous Babe debut, crams all of this inspired disregard for genre classification into 11 celebratory songs which, taken together, speak well of folk music's future in the post-"direct aural transmission" world. Imagine Odetta covering an unplugged Led Zeppelin covering Robert Johnson. Toshi's in there, somewhere.


Going to see Toshi Reagon or any other club shows this weekend? Give us your take in 250 words or less, and send it to or Gusto Comments, Newsroom, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240. Include your name and phone number. All submissions are subject to editing.

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