Faith can be everything when it comes to the National Folk Festival, and Joe Wilson, executive director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, is a man of faith. When he visited Bangor more than a year ago, he saw a city he could believe in.
“I saw the interest and passion not only for the festival but for the city,” said Wilson, who chooses the sites for each National as it travels across the country. “I think things like this work for believers.”
Bangor is one of the smallest venues Wilson has ever tapped to play host to the music and culture festival. If the prediction of 70,000 participants proves accurate, then Bangor could swell to more than double its population in the course of the three-day event.
Is Wilson worried that summer complacency will stifle people’s curiosity and keep them from turning out even in their own city?
A man of faith has only one response to that: “No, I am not worried,” said Wilson, who was at the Lowell Folk Festival in Massachusetts last month.
Wilson continued: “If you go back in the history of the National, there was a Covington, Kentucky, one which might be even smaller than Bangor. We were also in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. What developed there is a very fine festival that continues now. It has grown into the community. Just as it did here in Lowell. That didn’t happen initially. They didn’t come the first year. They didn’t come the second year because they knew nothing good ever happened in
Lowell. But the third year, they came. They saw that the festival was not an aberration, that it wasn’t one of those oddities that pass by. They wanted to see why thousands of people were coming to their town.”
Those thousands of outsiders, said Wilson, taught Lowell and Johnstown and Covington something about their own worlds. Wilson’s professional mission is to promote folk culture and produce folk events – roles which won him a Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship last year. But he also hopes to inspire communities to discover their own community arts.
In Lowell, where the National took place in 1987-1989, Wilson is a well-known figure. On the first night of the Lowell Festival last Friday, Wilson stood onstage with several other producers and was introduced to the crowd as “Mr. Folk Festival himself.” But the crowd needed no reminder about Wilson’s place in the proliferation of cultural activities in Lowell.
“Joe is very bright. He’s very personable,” said Sue Leggat, special events coordinator at the Lowell Festival. “His incredible importance to Lowell is the quality of the performance onstage. He kept it traditional. He kept it high. We still rely on Joe for that.”
With the National as the centerpiece, Bangor stands to create a new milestone on its waterfront. It also may begin to see itself in a new light.
“By seeing the art of other people, you can understand your own art and value much better,” said Wilson. “All of life is transition. Why do we keep some things and discard others? We know that the complete preservationist instinct never quite works. The bug caught in amber may be beautiful but it will never buzz and never bite and never make another beautiful bug there in the amber. So we have to make choices about what we keep and what we value. Folk festivals get a little closer to the heart that way. You learn about the arts that people keep because they love them, not because they are profitable or an industry supports them or there’s a big infrastructure geared toward them. It’s a little closer than that. It’s kept by family and community.”
Finding authentic folk performers is a complicated task. But Wilson, who was raised on a farm in the mountains of northeastern Tennessee, grew up surrounded by the sounds and sights of rural America. His father, a farmer, played the harmonica and sang in a gospel quartet. His mother, who raised four children, sang old English ballads. His aunt, who ran a boardinghouse, played a fretless banjo.
Before landing at NCTA in 1976, Wilson had been a country record producer, a door-to-door salesman, a civil rights reporter, a publicist and a marketing consultant. Under his leadership, the NCTA has grown into a leading producer of the folk and traditional arts in this country. Wilson has built his own reputation as an unstoppable, uncompromising force in the folk arts – whether fighting congressional budgetary cuts or coping with a kidney transplant that took place last year.
In programming the National, Wilson said he looks for music and craftspeople who “speak to the spirit.”
“I am looking for something that comes from a place or a set of people,” he said. “It’s not a style or a whim or a fad that’s just passing by. It’s more basic – an emanation from a family. It’s a little thing that binds you together, a way of singing or playing or an instrument or a sound.”
A cadre of singers and songwriters from these traditions can claim that Wilson helped establish their careers. Most notably, bluegrass fiddler Alison Kraus and Irish step dancer Michael Flatley.
“Joe has a knack for finding wonderful musicians and traditions that have been forgotten,” said Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress. “For every National Folk Festival, he and his staff find a few groups that aren’t well-known. And usually, if he feels very strong about something, he’s right.”
When you ask Wilson about the personal qualities it takes to produce a festival that is reliably successful, exciting, authentic and rich, he may pause. Is he a hillbilly? an intellectual? a politician? a philosopher?
“I’m just a guy having fun,” said Wilson with a twinkling smile. “I enjoy it all.”