When the first National Folk Festival opened to such enormous success on the Bangor riverfront in 2002, we longtime locals strolled through the crowds wearing expressions of jubilation and disbelief.
It was as if we’d awakened on Christmas morning to find a magnificent present under the tree that we’d been dreaming of but never thought we’d see. We’d spot familiar faces in the throngs and just grin at the amazing transformation we were witnessing in our humble city. We could hardly recognize the place anymore.
Perhaps it’s because we Bangor residents had long had a mild inferiority complex about the community we called home. Sure, it was famous far and wide as the home of Stephen King and of the Paul Bunyan statue that tourists would snap pictures of on their way to somewhere else. As we were fond of reminding ourselves, it might not be the most dynamic city, but it really was a great place to raise a family.
But outside of the high school basketball tournament, the state fair, a fine symphony orchestra and good local theater, Bangor was a fairly sedate little city that closed up early for the night. Those of us looking for a lively weekend on the town tended to look to Portland or Boston for our fun.
Now that the final installment of the National has come and gone, it’s fair to say that we’ve changed a lot as a community over the past three years. If that first festival was a test of our ability to summon the civic spirit necessary to do big things, this most recent shindig was proof that we’re more than capable of meeting the challenge. Even as the tents were being erected last week, there was a city-side sense of quiet confidence that this event would go off as advertised and possibly top all that had come before.
Not that many years ago, of course, we were not nearly ready as a community to pull off something of such grand scale. Our thousands of out-of-state guests this weekend could not have known that, however. What they saw – and will remember – was a small city with a lovely riverfront park that truly knew how to throw a fantastic party. It’s also easy for us locals to forget, in the giddiness of our recent successes, all the slow and barely perceptible baby steps we took to get to this place. Looking at the charming, picturesque riverfront, it’s difficult to remember when, just 15 short years ago, it was a neglected, derelict, oil-soaked and thoroughly inhospitable piece of real estate. While the steady improvements of the past several years had finally made us aware of the economic potential of the former eyesore, it was the Folk Festival that gave shape, character and reality to that emerging vision.
A year ago, as I sat chatting with festival president John Rohman, he summed it up this way: “There is absolutely no doubt that none of this could have happened several years ago. It took years of physical changes on the waterfront, of course, but also a sea change in the mentality of a city about how it views itself and what it’s capable of.”
So now, as the National moves on to a new city next summer and Bangor prepares to go it alone putting on the American Folk Festival, there’s a natural tendency to worry whether we can possibly stage a show of comparable scope and quality. Three years ago I might have wondered the same thing, but I don’t now. We’ve not only met the high standards we set for ourselves back then, but we’ve exceeded them, and there’s no reason to settle for anything less.