After taking a year off because of the pandemic, the National Folk Festival returns this weekend, Sept. 10-12.
With a new surge in Covid-19 cases and low vaccination rates in rural stretches of the Delmarva Peninsula, no one is sure whether this 80th anniversary event will be the massive success that drew more than 150,000 people in 2019, or a toned-down, caution-is-the-rule experience.
There was hope that, by this time, folk festival enthusiasts from up and down the East Coast would be ready for a return to Downtown Salisbury. But a hesitant fan base is still waiting for a true return to normal.
That, and the roster of performer-artists who have only in recent months gone back on the road to greet audiences — and who are following reduced schedules, prompted organizers of the Salisbury festival to reduce the event’s physical footprint.
A popular market where local artists displayed their talents and sold their creations has been shelved. The three-day event’s hours have also been slightly reduced.
“Clearly, this year will be an unusual year at the National Folk Festival as we are still experiencing impacts from the pandemic,” said festival manager Caroline O’Hare. “We know our festival audience will support us in being good neighbors at this year’s event and understand we are committed to hosting a safe, welcoming and vibrant celebration.”
To that end, festival organizers are following recommendations from the federal Centers For Disease Control in regard to large crowds and outdoor events.
Festival-goers will need to wear a mask, and should either bring one or pick up a mask from the supply that will be readily available.
“Come prepared, bring a mask, be a good neighbor and protect our community,” O’Hare said.
Per CDC guidelines regarding mass gatherings, there is an inherent risk of contracting COVID-19 at any location where people are gathered. While the event is designed so that all public activities take place outdoors, the expectation is that there will be crowds and situations where social distancing is not possible.
Free Covid-19 vaccines will be available for those attending.
Three-year event becomes four
Announced in June 2017, Salisbury was supposed to host the National Folk Festival from 2018-2020. Last year’s cancellation added a year to its stay.
Where the event, which is organized by the National Council for the Traditional Arts, goes next year has yet to be announced.
In its place, Salisbury will become home to a nearly identical folk festival event of its own — the Maryland Folk Festival.
The National Folk Festival began in 1934 and is the oldest multicultural festival showcasing traditional arts in the nation. Cities apply for the opportunity and, if selected, hold the event for three years and then introduce their own festival for the years following.
Salisbury was a surprise selectee four years ago, but had many things in its favor. Most prevalent was that the judges detected that local residents believed in their city and a renaissance was underway to revitalize the municipality.
“We had all the right things going on at the right time,” said Mayor Jake Day. “A lot of people and forces came together to do the work that was needed. It says a lot about who we are as a community.”
Salisbury’s journey to becoming a host of the National Folk Festival actually began a decade ago. Lora Bottinelli, the then-executive director of the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury, first suggested it to Mayor Day, who was then president of the City Council.
Bottinelli had heard about the event through Maryland Traditions, a folklife program of the Maryland State Arts Council.
When she suggested the idea to Mayor Day, he agreed it was a great idea but “the reality was we weren’t ready yet,” she said.
When the application process reopened in 2016, Ms. Bottinelli made another plea. By now, the festival bid had the support of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Wicomico County leaders, Salisbury University and a host of business leaders and foundations ready to secure upfront funding.
As an aside, Bottinelli’s efforts in working with the National Council for the Traditional Arts led to her later being hired as the NCTA’s executive director.
The event’s first year in Salisbury — 2018 — got off to a great start with a jam-packed Friday evening launch that featured a parade of musicians and performers through Downtown. Saturday’s attendance was pegged at a remarkable 63,000 people and was held under ideal fall weather.
Then came Sunday — it rained heavily all day. While the performances went on as planned, the crowds were greatly diminished.
The 2019 event was deemed a true success, with a three-day crowd estimate of 153,000 or more. Some of the food vendors had to make emergency supply trips when they ran out of food. Spectators spilled out from performance tents. The weather was ideal.
The expectation is that crowds — as well as revenue and community economic impacts — would grow each year as the festival gains traction.
Weather crimped the first year, but year two was regarded as a triumph. Year three should have been even better, but then the pandemic hit and ruined those hopes.
And now, with caution in the air, this year’s event is expected to fall short of 2019.
But when the Maryland Folk Festival takes hold, the economic boosts should return. According to Salisbury University’s Business, Economic and Community Outreach Network, different stakeholders — visitors, sponsors, vendors and local businesses — will benefit in distinctive ways.
Projections were for a $30 million annual impact, but the estimate for 2019 came in at $45 million. Officials believe that number can be repeated once the festival regains its local hold.
Cities that have previously hosted the event have seen psychological shifts — basking in the light of a successful festival helps residents and leaders believe they can achieve the changes they want to see happen in their community.
Shows must go on
City and festival officials had many discussions this spring and summer about whether to continue with plans for this year’s event, and polled performers and staff members on how they felt about going forward, said Mayor Day.
“Not a single person has pulled out,” he said.
This year, there are four performance stages instead of the previous seven, but there will be some big names, including blues singer Shemekia Copeland, bluegrass group The Del McCoury Band and the U.S. Army Blues Band with a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Beginning Friday and continuing through Sunday, a wide variety of artists, dancers, storytellers and tradition bearers will take part in the National Folk Festival.
From a forward-thinking bluegrass legend who has expanded musical boundaries to the reigning Queen of Chicago blues and the keeper of a West African tradition nearly a millennium old, this is a collection of artists befitting the 80th National Folk Festival, the nation’s oldest multicultural celebration of traditional arts.
“In announcing these artists, we have added rich layers to the story we will tell at this year’s festival about the wellsprings of tradition and creativity found in the country’s many cultural communities,” said Bottinelli, now of the NCTA.
“Whether a historic, pioneering gospel ensemble, an exquisite ambassador for Argentina’s national dance, or an ensemble that offers a snapshot of the remarkable talent and friendship that thrives in Irish American music, there will be plenty to celebrate,” she said.
Music and dance traditions from every part of the country are represented — blues, rockabilly, gospel, jazz, polka, tamburitza, cowboy, bluegrass, klezmer, R&B, old-time, Cajun, rhythm and blues, mariachi, beatbox, breakin’, western swing, honky-tonk, and zydeco, as well as traditional music and dance of Native American, Celtic, Acadian, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, Asian, Appalachian, Latino, Eastern European, African and Pacific Island cultures, among others.
This year’s artists:
Balla Kouyaté & Famoro Dioubaté (Boston and New York City): balafon masters.
Two masters of the ancient West African balafon explore new musical terrain together, treating audiences to heights of virtuosity and the thrill of the unexpected.
The Del McCoury Band (Nashville): bluegrass.
Both an icon of bluegrass music’s past and architect of its future, this visionary “high lonesome” tenor keeps it in the family with his adventurous, eponymous band.
Grupo Rebolú (Queens, N.Y.): Colombian.
Savoy Family Cajun Band (Eunice, La.): Cajun.
One of Cajun music’s most recognizable families shares an infectious passion for their culture, from accordion-driven house party two-steps to timeless French ballads and twin fiddles.
Shemekia Copeland (Chicago): blues.
Schooled in the blues by her Texas bluesman father, this powerhouse singer is heir to the rich tradition of blues divas blazed by such greats as Ruth Brown, Etta James and Koko Taylor.
Sri Lankan Dance Academy of New York (Staten Island, N.Y.): traditional Sri Lankan dance.
Staten Island’s vibrant Sri Lankan community is home to this accomplished ensemble that is introducing the nation to the traditions of Kandyan dance.
Héctor Del Curto’s Tango Quartet (New York City): Argentine tango.
The elegant, subtle and intensely passionate Argentine music and dance called tango could find no higher expression than the superb artistry of this bandoneónist and his ensemble.
Panfilo’s Güera (San Antonio, Texas): Tejano conjunto fiddle.
Single-handedly keeping alive the conjunto fiddle tradition is the foremost practitioner of this art form that expresses the deep roots of Tejano culture on the Texas-Mexico border.
Spencer Taylor & the Highway QC’s (Washington, D.C.): gospel.
Audiences will feel their spirits lifted by this gospel mainstay with over 70 years of ministering in song, known for their tight vocal harmonies and hard-driving rhythm section.
Springfield Exit (Winchester, Va.): bluegrass and traditional country.
This exceptional ensemble of award-winning musicians, led by a powerhouse vocalist, combines bluegrass and country with sounds stemming from their Appalachian roots.
The Irish American All-Stars (Chicago; Detroit; Boston; Bristol, Vermont; and Asheville, North Carolina): Irish.
Though accurate to call this collection of artists a supergroup of Irish American music, it would be just as truthful to describe them as five longtime friends thrilled to perform together again.
Zuni Olla Maidens (Zuni, N.M.): Zuni dance and song.
These dancers transform their foremothers’ essential, life-giving work of carrying water — in vessels called olla balanced on their heads — into a reverent dance tradition.
The U.S. Army Blues (Washington, D.C.): classic big band jazz.
Acclaimed military ensemble carries on the American big band tradition with both precision and style, continuing a legacy that began with the Army Dance Band during World War II.
Family Folklife Area
The National Folk Festival will also host performers, craftspeople and demonstrators in a special section of the festival — the Maryland Traditions Family Folklife Area.
The area shines a spotlight on the distinctive music, rituals, crafts, occupations, foodways and other traditions at the heart of Maryland heritage, expressing both the state’s deep history and its evolving character.
Performances, demonstrations, displays, exhibits and narrative presentations by Maryland master artisans and performers explore a wide range of cultural traditions, including those of its First Peoples, the cultural legacies of European settlers, and the expressions of the newest Maryland residents whose cultural roots come from around the globe.
“Maryland Traditions is proud to have the platform of the National Folk Festival to share a glimpse of the vibrant spectrum of living traditions practiced throughout Maryland,” said Chad Buterbaugh, state folklorist and director of the Maryland Traditions program at the Maryland State Arts Council.
“From our Indigenous tradition bearers with the Pocomoke Indian Nation, to the Cumberland Marbles Program and the distinctive dance traditions of Puerto Rican diaspora, as well as emerging immigrant communities that are new to the Eastern Shore and dance expressions that thrive in urban centers, the Maryland Traditions Family Folklife Area & Stage reflects the richness of the state’s cultural expressions,” he said.
This area will be open Saturday and Sunday, from noon to 6 p.m.
The following demonstrators, craftspeople and performers will be featured:
— The Barnstormers & the RockCandy Cloggers of Emmitsburg, demonstrating and performing the old-time music and dance traditions they are known for at community barn dances in western Maryland.
— Blacksmith Guild of Western Maryland of Boonsboro, represented by founder Wallace “Wally” Yater and fellow blacksmith Erin Aylor, sharing their expertise at shaping hot metal.
— Cumberland Marbles Program, a unique and decades-old partnership between volunteers, local government and public schools in Cumberland, demonstrating competitive marble playing.
— Janice and Anna Marshall of Crisfield, demonstrating how to make the famous Smith Island cake, a delicious, multilayered cake that is the state dessert of Maryland, and telling stories about the Smith Island way of life.
— Los Hijo ‘e Plena of Howard County, performing and demonstrating bomba y plena, closely related, percussion-driven music and dance traditions that are a touchstone for Puerto Rican identity.
— Pocomoke Indian Nation of Eden, an indigenous tribal organization of the Eastern Shore, demonstrating and interpreting varied Pocomoke traditions, including coiled pottery, flint knapping (shaping) and corn cob darts.
— Salisbury-area Filipino community members, sharing cultural traditions closely associated with annual fiestas celebrated in their community, such as the Festival of Santo Niño de Cebú.
— Sylvia Stephens of Hyattsville, sharing traditional quilting techniques passed down through six generations of her family.
— Urban Artistry of Silver Spring, a collective of artists dedicated to art forms inspired by the urban experience, demonstrating the basics of popping, a dance tradition characterized by robot-like, mechanical movements.
— Washington Samulnori of Kensington, performing samulnori, an age-old percussion tradition that serves as a beacon of Korean culture.
Festival hours, details
The festival opens on Friday at 6:30 p.m. and closes at 9:30 p.m. Hours on Saturday are noon to 9:30 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.
Food vendors and the Festival Marketplace will open at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, and at 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Admission is free, but festival-goers are asked to make donations. A group of volunteers known as the bucket brigade will be circulating, asking for support. The suggested donation is $10 per person per day.
Designated handicapped parking spaces are available in all city lots and the Downtown parking garage. There will not be onsite transportation available between the various stages.
Fourteen food vendors will be located throughout the festival area, offering everything from crab cakes, jerk chicken, soba noodles, barbecue, pad Thai and mac and cheese to fruit smoothies and ice cream.
Throughout the festival, there will be a variety of non-alcoholic refreshments, as well as beer and wine. Additionally, there will be water bottle refilling stations.
The folk festival will take place rain or shine. The long-range forecast for the weekend calls for clear skies, with temperatures in the low 80s.