As you sit in your lawn chair on the waterfront listening to music by Bahama Junkanoo Revue or strut your stuff to Don Vappie and the Creole Jazz Serenaders, you may find yourself asking the question: Is it really possible to have such a good time in, of all places, Bangor?
It’s a good question, and one that local observers began asking several years ago when the National Folk Festival first pitched its tent on the shores of the Penobscot River. The answer from leaders at the National Council for the Traditional Arts, which produces the National – taking place this October in Richmond, Va. – is yes. The endorsement has included comments about the city’s romantic past, its lumber industry, Indian culture, French music roots and riverside beauty.
Before the National chose Bangor, Joe Wilson, then the executive director of NCTA, made a scouting expedition to the city of 32,000 to determine its feasibility as a summer festival site. When he arrived, the state was covered in snow, but the determination and commitment of local leaders and administrators warmed him to the place.
With the Washington-based team, Wilson, who is now chairman of NCTA, has watched the National in Bangor break all attendance records, going from 80,000 the first year to more than 130,000 in 2004. “As cities go,” said Wilson, “Bangor looked good. It looked organic, like real people lived here and did real things here.”
The newest “real thing” in Bangor is The American Folk Festival, modeled on the National but blazing a trail as the city’s and the region’s largest cultural event in recent history, if not the last 100 years.
Wilson recently reflected upon the Bangor experience: “The quality of a festival is determined by the quality of the people organizing it. What I found during our first snowy visit to Bangor was a gang of top-notch people hellbent on creating a great summer festival. I’m proud of that gang, their city and what they have accomplished. Put simply: They’ve created a world-class festival. I know they will try to make every festival better than the last, because they are that kind of people.”
Such success has served to raise the confidence of the leaders and cheerleaders in Bangor, the smallest place ever to welcome the National. The city has turned into the little engine that could and has become the NCTA poster child of sorts for the payoff that comes with hosting the major outdoor event. But deciding to launch The American comes with a new question: Can Bangor sustain a festival of its own?
“Clearly there were big question marks after year three of the National,” said John Rohman, an architect in Bangor and one of the city’s indefatigable visionaries. He was mayor at the time Bangor emerged on the NCTA list of possible sites, and he was instrumental in getting Wilson to consider the central Maine location in the first place.
“The city is now taking ownership of its own festival,” said Rohman. “It doesn’t have the same national catch as a festival that has a 20-, 30-, 50-year history. People are right to ask questions: Is the quality going to be there? Will the same number of stages be there? Is it going to be as good in year four as it was in year one? Fortunately, we can answer yes, yes, yes, yes.”
Rohman is no longer mayor, but he is on the festival’s board and helps with programming. When financial supporters indicated last year that they would support an ongoing festival, and when the community continued to express an interest in both volunteering and in attending the festival, Rohman knew The American would fly.
He also saw Bangor being watched around the state: “When I go out into communities all over Maine to talk about the creative economy, everybody in those communities says: What the heck has happened in Bangor? They know about the Folk Festival. They’ve seen the art museum downtown or they’ve been to the waterfront concerts. They see our city, and they want to know what they can do to be like it. It has given me so much more pride about Bangor.”
The strong sense of place created by the National and reinforced by The American was one factor that influenced Eric Buch of Worcester, Mass., to apply for work in the area. In a cover letter he sent with his resume to a Bangor-based charity, he mentioned the Folk Festival as a factor that attracted him to the area. He and his family had attended the National each year and saw it as an indication that the city was a place they might enjoy living. They will attend The American this year, now as area residents because Buch is the new president of the United Way of Eastern Maine.
“I saw it as the community embracing a very creative form of family entertainment,” said Buch. “The festival showcases how important arts and culture are to the overall fabric of community life and the economy as well. We found all of that very impressive, and it indicated how strong these kinds of values are to the region. Obviously, the region has the ability and desire to support very strong and creative arts and culture offerings.”
In three short years, Bangor also has developed a reputation among festival performers as a place that takes care of guest artists.
“I’ve done the folk festival in three places,” said guitarist Dale Watson, who has played at the National and at fund-raisers in Bangor. “I think that if there is any place it was going to take root, it was Bangor. You can feel the appreciation. It’s not just for your show or the moment you’re doing it. You can feel it in the air. The festival is filled with people who genuinely want to be there and want to be a part of it. The whole community has that quality.”
Julia Olin, now NCTA’s executive director and producing partner for The American, called Bangor a “keeper of the flame” when it comes to the festival. It is always the hope at the National that host cities find the event valuable enough to make it a tradition of music and other cultural expressions.
Bangor’s record bodes well for securing a tradition, she added. Heather McCarthy, executive director of The American, added that the tradition comes not only in the music.
McCarthy put it this way: “Making a connection – or, rather, dozens of connections – with the myriad traditions represented at the festival gives us a stronger link to our heritage, and a vested interest in seeing that heritage kept alive – today and in the future.”
Correction: This article was also published on 08/25/2005 on page A1.