The nuts and bolts of the Folk Festival

The 2011 Richmond Folk Festival will begin this Friday. If you haven’t attended one of the previous Folk Festivals, you’ve at least heard of it. Before it gets underway, we take a look at just how monstrous this festival is, where it came from, and where it’s going.

Around 200,000 people are expected to watch over 30 musical acts and look at artisan crafts from October 14th – 16th at the Richmond Folk Festival. Some appreciate the sheer size and breadth of what the Folk Festival means to both the city and to folk music. But even devoted fans and attendees don’t understand just how big this festival is.

“You plan for a full year,” says Lisa Sims, Director of Events at Venture Richmond, a city established organization created to promote and coordinate events to showcase and improve the vitality of Richmond, especially the Downtown area.

Sims says that the Folk Festival began, and remains, a “broad community event.” Around late 2003, Joel Katz, former executive director of the Carpenter Center, decided to make a play to host a three-year stint of the National Folk Festival beginning in 2005 (the National Folk Festival chooses an American city to host the event for three consecutive years before moving to another host city). Richmond won the bid in late 2004.

James Ukrop (chairman of the former Ukrop grocery chain) requested Lisa Sims to head the marketing of the 2005 National Folk Festival. Sims remembers that it took the dedication and work of “lots and lots of volunteers” to make the event successful. Unfortunately, Mother Nature was not as accommodating.

Rain persisted for three days, until clearing on the event’s Sunday. “I had to buy my first rain suit,” says Sims, with a fondness that comes in retrospect. She says the event “gave us the opportunity to put something on of this magnitude.” Close to 60,000 people attended the rain-soaked event. It turned out to be “our smallest year,” says Sims.

Aside from the weather, one of the problems, says Sims, that the Festival coordinators encountered back then is a problem that they still have: trying to communicate to Richmonders what folk is. Sims puts it tersely: folk is the “art of the people.” While it certainly makes room for pre-electric Bob Dylan or Pete Seeger or Woody Gutherie, folk is not limited to the traditional conception of what many consider folk music to be. As more people become aware of this distinction, it’s more likely that people will visit the free event to take in the international music and art of the people, as Sims says.

Close to 200,000 people attended last year’s Folk Festival, which in 2008 became the Richmond Folk Festival, as the National festival moved to Butte, Montana (it is in Nashville, Tennessee beginning this year). Performers as varied as Tibetan monks, Original P, Chatham County Line, and Bassekou Kouyate will travel to Richmond and play one of seven stages. Many of the performers, says Sims, would never appear in Richmond were it not for the Folk Festival bringing them to local audiences. All of these performers, however, require accommodations.

Each performing musician must have a hotel room, meal passes, buffet access, a rest location on the performing grounds, etc. “There are a million moving parts,” says Sims. “It’s all challenging.”

There are over 1,000 volunteers who “keep the event running.” Some of these volunteers serve as Bucket Brigade members: those who accept donations during the event, which totaled $88,000 last year. All money goes to funding the Folk Festival, which Sims says “helps a lot.”

Not only is the event free to the public, but there will be remote parking and shuttle buses that will take visitors to the event between 2nd and 7th streets, and from Tredegar to Byrd Street, including Brown’s Island (RVANews has compiled a FAQ section in our 2011 Folk Festival Guide).

Although Richmond has hosted a Folk Festival—be it national or otherwise—since 2005, this year’s festival will have a different personality, as there are 30 new performers participating. “The whole thing is new and different.” The work that goes into putting the festival on, however, proves to be a joy for Sims.

“It’s a pretty great festival.”


photo by taberandrew

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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