Every year, there’s a performer who stands out that really makes you proud to be an American, a North American, a Western Hemispherean, or simply a human being.
Each year, since the festival’s inception in 2005, there’s one standout Folk Fest performer or exhibitor that gets everyone talking. Sometimes it’s an instrumentalist, sometimes it’s a dance troupe. My favorite part of the Folk Fest is the Folklife part, where makers show you how they make the tangible stuff–chairs, blankets, salt, masks. And those are just the demonstrations you’ll see this year!
I spent an hour or so thinking back on my favorite Folk Fest moments from years past. What were yours?
2006 — The Country Mice
A string band consisting of a family of mice that immigrated to New York from Russia back in the mid-90s, the Country Mice were huge when they made their Folk Fest debut in 2006. Those tiny fingers and toes sure know how to pick! I found them fascinating because their name is a play upon the reverence they have for their home country as well as the home they’ve found within old-time bluegrass music from the American South. And they really had the musical talents to back it up–Russian-influenced jams about friendship, family, and the common misconception that the streets are paved with anything but hard work. Plus, mice in clothing is the cutest thing!
2012 — Letter-Writing
The quiet and humble Lester Campbell from Fairfax turned out to be a popular draw. Campbell’s family has been passing down the art of writing by hand for at least six generations, and his demonstration was dedicated to his father, who had recently passed. In addition to writing the entire alphabet with an authentic ballpoint pen in both uppercase AND lowercase, Campbell let the crowd watch him, over the course of an hour, create an entirely legible sentence (“Meet u at the gate in 10”) without the aid of any digital device.
1777 — King George and the Redcoats
Easily my favorite of 1777, I will never forget how bad I felt for this army of grown men wearing boiled wool Revolutionary War uniforms when the Virginia temps were in the low 90s. I remember the color of their jackets was so bright, they stood out in the Virginia forests, making it easy for festival-goers to shoot at them from behind trees. Their music, though, was almost haunting, with its mournful tunes about the life of a soldier interrupted periodically by rifle fire and moans.
2011 — The Mystified Gen-Xers
How good was this group out of Chicago?? I was singing “Blame It on the Millennials (We Were Never as Young as They Currently Are)” for weeks after their performance in 2011.
2008 — Making Folk Demonstration
The organizers took a different direction in 2008, giving the festival a theme that focused on the “folk” themselves, not just their talent. Special demonstrations abounded, but none so popular as the “Making Folk” area of the fest, at which Robyn and Karl Ventnor showed onlookers (and invited to participate!) exactly how new folk are made.
2007 — The Medical Doctors
Doctors who had immigrated to America from countries with universal healthcare demonstrated their skills in live operations during 2007’s Folk Fest. Word of mouth quickly spread around the festival that this team of highly respected practitioners would not only take requests for free surgery, but would, upon successful completion of each procedure, immediately jump on the operating table and break out into a soulful and even sultry version of Aretha Franklin’s “Doctor Feel Good.”
2010 — The Maple Singers
In 2010, a group of 12 cultural ambassadors came down from Canada to sing and dance in the traditional Canadian style. Their mission is simple: to explain slowly and carefully to Americans how much better they do things up north. “Look at Us” was a big hit, with lyrics like “Look at us, why dontcha, we’re at a higher latitude / We eat, we drink, we have a better attitude / Our gun deaths are low and our fun factor’s high / Our maple syrup’s better and we’ve got lights in the sky.” I can still smell the moose meat cooking at their Flannel Shirt Jamboree. O Canada! You recruited a bunch of Americans that day!