How do those folk festivals get booked anyway?

If you’ve ever been to the Lowell Folk Festival, the American Folk Festival in Bangor, Maine, or the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the nation’s mall, you might wonder how particular musicians or craft artists get chosen to participate. Folklorist Chris Williams writes of his experience planning a portion of the 2008 Richmond Folk Festival here. It’s a good read. And so are the other essays you can find posted on the Mid Atlantic Forum. The Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation initiated this series to further the exchange of information and ideas among folklorists and their peers. Sally Van de Water, who curates the series, served as city folklorist for Boston back in 2003.

Folk Traditions Flourish in Norway

Successive waves of immigration have always been a source of America’s vitality. Areas with high concentrations of specific ethnic groups often hold rich centers of traditional arts activity. If one were looking into Norwegian American culture, it would make sense to go to the upper Midwest. But I recently discovered a micro-community of people passionate about Norwegian folk dance and music right here in New England. There are regular folk dances where people swirl in elaborate folk costumes. Devotees from Vermont to DC attend summer camps and immerse themselves in springars, gangars, and hallings (traditional dance forms). And surprisingly, many of these individuals were not born into this tradition but rather discovered it as one one might pursue swing dancing, knitting, kayaking, or raising show dogs. A few dancers and fiddlers can claim the cultural heritage passed down to them through their genes, but many devotees of Norwegion folk culture are not of Norwegian heritage.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, work in the fishing industry drew large numbers of Norwegians to the southeastern Massachusetts towns of New Bedford, Fairhaven, and Dartmouth. By the 1930s, New Bedford had a thriving Norwegian community that quickly rose to command the scalloping industry, owning most of the boats and processing plants. Many of these people emigrated from Karmoy, an island off the coast of Bergen. Today, there is a great cultural pride and an enduring sense of national identity among the area’s older generation of Norwegian Americans. However, there seems to be a general concern that the young people aren’t interested in their heritage or in learning traditional skills. Though the Norwegian craft traditions of rosemaling , cutwork embroidery, and knitting can still be found amongst descendants of Norwegian immigrants, the hardanger fiddle tradition – if it ever existed here — has died out. Sadly, many of the old timers passed away without passing on their music.

On a recent vacation, I discovered that, in the home country, Norwegian folk traditions continue to thrive. Maybe it has something to do with the long, dark, cold winters. Or Norway’s geography – the spectacular yet isolating terrain of mountains, valleys and fjords. Whatever it is, folk culture is alive and well in Telemark, Norway. Even in this age of iTunes and Facebook, regional styles of dancing, fiddling, and adornment remain in tact.

Couples dancing to a single fiddler playing a hardanger is a common social activity. And young musicians continue to learn from master players in weekly spelemannslags.

Regional and national competitions called kappleleiks are well attended by dancers, musicians, and singers. Musicians are careful to acknowledge whoever taught them a particular tune. Many of the fiddle tunes have stories associated with them.

Rosemaling (Norwegian rose painting) embellishes wooden surfaces of all kinds — furniture, cabinetry, walls, fiddles.

Rosemaling, in the form of embroidery, adorns clothing as well — even undergarments. Dancers literally wear their cultural pride on their sleeves. The traditional folk costume, known as a bunad, varies from district to district and identifies a dancer’s home region.

The hospitality of Norwegian locals and their generosity in sharing traditions was heartening. Being there reminded me of what led to my becoming a folklorist in the first place.

All photos except first one by Maggie Holtzberg.

Caribbean Kings and Queens in Dorchester

Shirley Shillingford wearing Fruit Cocktail, 2007. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg.

This Thursday, August 21, marks the opening of Boston’s Caribbean Carnival – a Trinidadian style extravaganza now in its 35th year. I attended this annual festival for the first time in 2003. Four years later I was offered a prime seat in the judges’ viewing station, where I shot this photo of Shirley Shillingford. She is a member of the Trinidad and Tobago Social Club, which is one of 9 area mas (masquerading) bands that compete each year.

A succession of bands march their way down a 21-block parade route, ending up at Franklin Park. The King and Queen costumes are spectacular and they are followed by sections of exuberant dancing masqueraders. Be prepared for loud calypso music, the smell of jerk chicken, and vendors selling trinkets from Trinidad, Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados, and a number of other West Indies islands. Many in the Caribbean cultural community live for carnival. More than 600,00 people attend carnival, though most Bostonians have no idea this event takes place each year. Art critic Greg Cook previewed the event in the Boston Phoenix last week. It would be nice to have additional press coverage for a change.

Soca and Associates band members, 2007. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg.

Festival season

Poised to dance. Photo by Maggie Holtzberg

Fall (and shorter days, cool weather, and school) may be just around the corner, but festival season is still going strong in Massachusetts. Two in particular are well worth attending.

On Sept 12-14, the Irish Culture Centre of New England hosts Icons: Irish Music and Arts Festival. Luminaries in the Irish music world will be there, including Solas, John Whelan, Chulrua, and many more. Plus Irish wolfhounds, soda bread, and stepdancing. It’s like the Washington area Irish festival has been reborn.

The last weekend in September, I suggest heading to New Bedford for the Working Waterfront Festival which is the flagship event celebrating the region’s commercial fishing industry. Fishermen’s contests, fresh seafood, boat tours, live music — and it’s free. The festival brings together a cross-section of the commercial fishing community — both those who are currently working in the industry as well as old-timers who haven’t been down in to the docks in years. Don’t miss it.

Tugboat Muster Shucking osyters

Photos courtesy of Working Waterfront Festival.

To find out more about great festivals taking place around Massachusetts, visit Worldfest.

Metalsmiths demonstrate their skills at Lowell Folk Festival

The art of metalsmithing was one of 15 craft traditions on display at the 2008 Lowell Folk Festival. Retired sheetmetal worker Dick Clarke of Local #17, assembled and disassembled a tin man, explaing how the human form was fabricated from flat sheet metal.

Weathervane maker Marian Ives worked in copper on a codfish vane. One of her vanes tops the Merrimack Mills, a textile mill building just a short distance from the festival site. Marian had never seen the finished weathervane mounted atop Merrimack Mills and was eager to find the building. The jury is still out on whether Hook Lobster will have Marian repair the six-foot lobster weathervane she made for the 3rd generation business, which was recently damaged in a major fire.

Strong showing of Massachusetts crafts artists at Lowell Folk Festival

 

Massachusetts was well represented in the crafts area at this summer’s Lowell Folk Festival. Festival goers got to meet and ask questions of artists who demonstrated the making of weathervanes, duck decoys, Chinese calligraphy, hooked rugs, porcupine quill work, native twined baskets, Ukrainian decorated eggs, Cambodian ceramics, hand carved signs, Puerto Rican carved saints and carnival masks, wooden boatbuilding, ship’s wheels, tin men, and white ash baskets. The participating craftspeople are are just some of the artists featured in the exhibition, Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts, on view at the National Heritage Museum through February 8, 2009.