November 20, 2018

What could replace the National Folk Festival? Next year, catch The American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront!

T.S. Eliot thought the naming of cats was a difficult matter. But he never had to come up with the name for a folk festival so broad in its scope that it reflects national character, regional identity and local treasures. That’s a really difficult matter.

Bangor organizers spent the winter scratching out names – the Bangor Festival, the Penobscot Festival, the River Festival, the North Atlantic Festival – for the festival that will replace the National Folk Festival when it moves on to Richmond, Va., in 2005. The winning name was The American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront, which will take place next August.

“The festival is a window into the city, not only what it has been but what it is willing to be,” Michael Crowley, chairman of the festival’s committee and vice president of Eastern Maine Charities, said earlier this year at a champagne reception to announce the winning name. “In its heart, Bangor can be every bit as cosmopolitan as any area of the country.”

That’s what organizers are hoping the new name suggests. They emphasize the importance of maintaining a national identity – The American Folk Festival – and a regional flavor – on the Bangor Waterfront. And they hope that last year’s 100,000-plus festival-goers all will return and bring even more people to the city for the three-day extravaganza of music, art, food, family and community confabulation.

“We wanted a festival name that would encompass the enormity of cultural representation while focusing on Bangor,” Crowley said recently. “One might interpret Bangor Folk Festival as a collection of talented local artists. But The American Folk Festival is an extraordinary collection of performing and traditional artists. Seldom will the name American Folk Festival be used without reference to its location, whether it be the Bangor Waterfront or Bangor, Maine.”

The name comes with a responsibility, said Joseph Wilson, executive director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, the Washington-based nonprofit organization that produces the National.

“It’s going to have to have a broad scope and deal with a lot of different things, which we have done in the first three festivals in Bangor,” said Wilson. “But to call it The American Folk Festival comes with a burden. You can’t call it American and be purely local.”

Some have said that the new name does not sufficiently reflect the region, that it doesn’t include Canada and that the very word “America” has suffered blows because of the controversial war and military abuses in Iraq. But others see the potential such a bold move can trigger.

Scott Alarik, who has covered folk music and festivals for two decades for The Boston Globe, referred to another festival that spun off the National 18 years ago. Since then, the Lowell Festival in Massachusetts has become one of the most successful folk festivals in the country.

“When the National left Lowell, the festival that remained became the Lowell Festival and retained much of the musical personality of the National Folk Festival and actually grew in popularity,” said Alarik, who hopes to attend the festival in Bangor this year. “One reason it grew is that it felt like it was more locally owned and the community took more of a stake in it. Over the years, it has come to feel like the Lowell version of the National Folk Festival. It has developed its own personality. I wonder which direction a big name like The American Folk Festival will make them go with this festival [in Bangor]. Will it feel like it belongs to this community, to Maine, or bigger in a way that makes it less descript?”

Janet Leggat, executive director of the Lowell Festival, said when she heard about The American Folk Festival, she wasn’t sure what to think.

“I was kind of surprised that it was so all-encompassing,” said Leggat. “In this community, when you put Lowell on it, the community really embraced it. The American doesn’t say Maine or the Bangor area. It could just as easily be San Jose.”

Both Leggat and Alarik said that using the city’s name had brought civic integrity to Lowell, which was always the brunt of Boston jokes. The festival, as well as other local initiatives to improve the city, changed that.

But Bangor does not have a bad reputation. In fact, Alarik said Bangor has “a lot of gusto” and that it’s “very well thought of” in Boston and beyond. Nor does it have a major urban center from which to draw festival-goers. After considering that, Leggat had a new response to the name “American”: “That might work then.”

In East Lansing, Mich., where the National took up residency before moving to Bangor, a similar discussion took place a few years ago when that community decided to continue a large music and traditional arts festival in its place. Previous to the National, an earlier festival of Michigan folk life had been produced by the Michigan State University Museum.

“We had always wanted to expand that festival content to be broader than Michigan,” said Marsha MacDowell, director of the current festival and curator at the museum. “Hence the Great Lakes Folk Festival. We still wanted a good emphasis on traditions that sprang from our region to the country and even to the world. Some people did ask us if it was only going to be about the Great Lakes or would it be national. Once we cleared that up, it worked fine.”

Although Michigan has suffered great economic losses in recent years because of the elimination of manufacturing jobs in the state, the festival showed no sign of drop-off in attendance last year, its second year independent of the National Council.

But experienced festival organizers said that no matter what you call it, there are a few elements that must be in place. The music talent must be excellent. The event must be free. And the community must take enough pride in the event to generate not only the funding but the substantial volunteer corps it takes to run the $1 million festival.

“Bangor still has a great opportunity to continue to grow this festival and demonstrate that culture is important from not only a basic entertainment standpoint but from an economic standpoint,” said Chris Shrum, one of the early organizers of the National Folk Festival in Bangor.

Crowley, the businessman who is at the helm of the fund raising in Bangor, said the campaign was going slowly. Some changes are inevitable once the American gets under way. He is confident that the quality of talent will remain high, and he hopes that Bangor won’t have to charge an admission fee to defray the costs of running the festival.

“The bottom line is that we have to raise the money,” said Crowley. “As we continue to move forward, we will need to look at all opportunities for revenue, and that may change some of the elements of the festival.”

Otherwise, by any other name, The American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront promises to be an event with a future.

“As to the name,” said Ellen Lovell, a National Council board member and president of Marlboro College in Vermont, “I don’t think it’s terribly important. It says what it needs to say. Why not have national aspirations? Maine has a vibrant culture. So does the region. My reaction is: Go for it.”

Bill Kirchen, a guitarist who played in Bangor for the 64th National Folk Festival, put it another way. He said that as long as “America” is an inclusive term when it comes to talent from the entire continent as well as other places, he had only one comment: “You go, Bangor.”

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