Traditional Folk Music Festivals

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Folk festivals in the United States evolved from fiddle contests and ballad singing concerts in the early twentieth century into major public events that symbolized the youth movement of the 1960s and the multicultural celebrations of the 1990s. Most of these festivals were organized around folk music and dance, although later festivals expanded beyond music on the concert stage to craft demonstrations and dramatic performances. The adjective folk at these festivals often signified tradition that suggested continuity with an earthy past in the midst of rapid industrial change. It typically suggested a recovery of the connection to community and land threatened by American mass consumer culture. Folk festivals celebrated ordinary people producing art and offered a sense of authenticity in a commercial society. Even as folk festivals gained popularity through the twentieth century as a sign of appreciation, or creation, of American tradition, they also signaled for many social critics American cultural weakening and the manipulation of folk culture.

Folk Festivals Respond to Industrialization and Immigration

Folk festivals defined as an array of performers celebrating American traditions grew out of the movement to recover "old-time" music in the early twentieth century. Early commercial recordings drew attention to fiddlers performing traditional dance tunes that reached back to traditions brought to America by settlers from the British Isles during the colonial period. As nostalgia grew for a passing, preindustrial America, fiddlers and contests drew publicity at state and county fairs, and at organized annual "conventions" at locations such as Galax, Virginia (since 1935), and Union Grove, North Carolina (since 1924). In addition to knowing many dance tunes, fiddlers also performed ballads and songs that bespoke America's "ancestors," or so many advocates of the music claimed. Particularly in isolated regions such as Appalachia and Ozarks, which supposedly preserved the sense of old-time America, festivals were organized to celebrate songs that represented a connection to the British roots of rural America in the midst of mass immigration to cities.

Among the notable examples of these song and ballad festivals were the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1928; the White Top Folk Festival in Marion, Virginia, in 1931; and the American Folk Song Festival in Ashland, Kentucky, in 1932. As the country entered the Great Depression, and the virtue of the "common man" became significant to maintaining confidence in America's foundations, Sarah Gertrude Knott organized the National Folk Festival in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1934. She had a vision of a folk festival showcasing the many cultural legacies in America that together formed a national tradition. Her framework was to present big shows in large cities, often presenting rural and immigrant performers to urban sophisticates. In 1936, the festival was held in Dallas; in 1937, it moved to Chicago; it then spent five years in Washington, D.C., taking on patriotic themes at the start of World War II. The festival spawned many similar "Americans All" festivals, often presenting orchestrated European American immigrant troupes in picturesque costumes. During this period, smaller versions of national festivals were staged in various states, including the Pennsylvania Folk Festival, All-Florida Folk Festival, and the Carolina State Fair Folk Festival.

Folkniks and the Folk Revival Voice Idealism and Protest

During the 1950s, college-educated urban youth began singing the old songs, and groups such as the Weavers and the Kingston Trio became commercial stars. The folk festival movement moved to college campuses and featured young performers composing new music in the folk song style. An undercurrent of protest songs for civil rights, labor struggle, and nuclear disarmament played on acoustic instruments could be heard across college campuses. A large-scale folk festival at the University of California at Berkeley in 1958 spawned other festivals at the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania in 1961 and UCLA in 1963. The Newport Folk Festival, established in 1959, attracted many college students in an expanded concert and workshop format. At its height in the mid-1960s, Newport attracted 80,000 ticket holders and popularized regional forms of ethnic music—such as Cajun and zydeco, bluegrass, Tejano, and blues—to northern urban audiences. The festivals had an egalitarian ethic as black, Latino, and white performers appeared on the same stage in ways they never could at southern festivals. Folklorists concerned for preserving authentic native cultures, however, criticized the concert presentations of traditional performers and the "folknik" stylists such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez who eclipsed the old-time musicians.

Festivals in a Multicultural Era

As the Newport festival ended in 1969 (it was later restarted), it gave way to the folklife festival conceptualized by folklorists as a contextualized presentation of America's diverse traditions. The model for this kind of festival was the Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Festival organized by Alfred Shoemaker in 1950 and held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. A trained folklorist, he created an open-air setting where visitors encountered crafts workers and performers in different areas demonstrating in front of traditional buildings and structures. The timing of the festival around American Independence Day had a symbolic value for Pennsylvania Germans able to celebrate their ethnic culture as part of an American celebration. As the festival grew into the Kutztown Folk Festival, it was taken over by commercial developers and it became more of a tourist attraction in the "Dutch Country," eventually becoming America's largest folk festival.

The original folklife concept became most evident in the Festival of American Folklife held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. beginning in 1967. Sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, it is held annually around Independence Day. In its early years, the festival featured various American ethnic, working, and age groups showcasing their traditions in areas that integrated music, dance, craft, and customs. From that starting point, it evolved into the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which had more of a global theme. Imitated in various state and city programs, including Michigan, Ohio, and Massachusetts, the folklife festivals emphasized models of face-to-face community in an increasingly mobile, electronic society. Folk music was one aspect of integrated folk arts that worked to chart ethnic-regional cultures in a global map of difference. In addition to regional festivals that emphasized multicultural persistence, other festivals focused on particular ethnic groups or forms of folk music.. Examples flourishing during the late twentieth and early twenty-first century were mariachi, klezmer, tamburitzan, and Native American festivals. For many visitors, attending such festivals revitalized and reinvigorated their participation in, or appreciation for, the featured group tradition. Some critics complained, however, that the experience reinforced the weakening of traditional ties through an intensive entrance into a staged, manipulated event that allowed a safe return to modern life. The fact that the music or culture needed a "festival" was a sign of its fragile state.

See also: Fine Art Festivals; Southern America Leisure Lifestyles; Western America Leisure Lifestyles.


Bronner, Simon J. Following Tradition: Folklore in the Discourse of American Culture. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1996.

Cantwell, Robert. Ethnomimeses: Folklife and the Representation of Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

——. When We Were Good: The Folk Revival. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Cohen, Norm. Folk Song America: A Twentieth-Century Revival. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Collection of Recordings, 1991.

Kurin, Richard. Reflections of a Culture Broker. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.

Peterson, Betsy, ed. The Changing Faces of Tradition: A Report on the Folk and Traditional Arts in the United States. Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Arts, 1996.

Rosenberg, Neil V., ed. Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Simon J. Bronner