By Stewart Hendrickson

It is the first of June, the day after Folklife, that I am writing this column, although you won’t see it for another couple of months. But I thought it best to start when my mind was fresh, and share my thoughts after another Folklife weekend. Is Folklife becoming too commercial, has it strayed too far from its original folk roots? Has it evolved from a small regional festival into just another huge international world music extravaganza? Has it run its course, and is it now time for a change? These are just a few questions I would like to address.

I am a relative newcomer to Seattle. I moved here from Minnesota eight years ago, so I have not experienced the early Folklife festivals or their evolution to the present time. But people like Don Firth and other old-time Seattle folkies have told me some of the history. My understanding is that the seeds for Folklife were planted during the 1962 World’s Fair at the new Seattle Center, where every Sunday a group of singers, including Don Firth, Bob Nelson and others would gather on the lawn in front of the "U.N. Pavilion" and sing their hearts out. The Festival was organized by the Seattle Folklore Society in 1971. It was small and fun. It was an outgrowth of the natural folk music that was happening in Seattle area living rooms and the occasional small club and coffee house. Later it outgrew the Seattle Folklore Society and was taken over by a separate non-profit organization.

In 2001 I got my first performance stage at Folklife. I was quite excited.  The next two years I applied, but was turned down each time. This whole selection process is still a mystery to me. Each year I changed my performance title, my focus, and supplied a new demo CD, but to no avail. But then there were so many other good performers, better than I, so perhaps I needed to improve my musical abilities.

Last fall I again submitted a performance application and also a workshop proposal. I was told that they wanted more workshops, so I proposed a workshop on “The Irish Session – Music and Craic” with my Sunday afternoon Fadó’s Irish Pub Session. I got the workshop, but not the performance – I guess one out of two isn’t bad.

So with a lot of self-promotion (Folklife doesn’t list workshops on its schedule grid, but only in another part of the printed guide) we had a successful workshop – about 40 people including about 25 playing musicians. Since we were the last scheduled workshop in the Orcas room on Monday, we just continued to play tunes after our allotted time. The Center staff quietly came in and removed extra chairs and tables, but let us continue. Finally when we left at about 6:15, I thanked them for letting us continue. One of the Center crew said "you were making such fine music, we didn't want you to stop". This is what Folklife should be about - ordinary people  making good music.

But as I walked around the Festival I was assaulted by incessant damn drumming and other cacophony, crowded walkways and soundwaves, ethnic junk food, vendors of all sorts, rock music bands, and everywhere appeals for money, money, money. I took refuge around the NW Court Stage where there was mostly good Celtic and maritime music, the free sign-up stage in the Silver Platters CD sales room with some surprisingly good impromptu performances, participatory workshops, the Intiman Court sing-along stage, and the tribute to Phil Thomas and the songs of British Columbia in the Seattle Center Theater. Otherwise the Festival felt more like a cross between Bite Of Seattle and Bumbershoot.

Traditionally, Folklife performers were just musicians from the Pacific Northwest who shared their music for no pay other than travel expenses for those outside the Seattle area. And it used to be that most performers, even non-professional folks who applied got a chance to play. Now with more and more invited and paid international performers from outside the Northwest it is difficult for ordinary folks to perform. And paying some invited performers is insulting to those who perform for free.  Folklife should be a celebration of local talent from the many different ethnic communities in the Pacific Northwest – a sort of large community back-yard jam.

Selection of performers should favor those who perform traditional or folkloric music rather than acoustic pop. More programs such as the recent Phil Thomas Tribute Concert and the Seattle Coffeehouse Reunion of last year should be included in place of the international performances. After all, this is a Northwest regional festival. It should represent the complete ethnic diversity of the Pacific Northwest, but not performances from outside this region.

Folklife needs to provide more space for jamming where friends can get together and share their music. Excessive drumming, rock bands, pop music, and other non-folkloric music should be banned. An effort should be made to control decibel levels. Some free stages should be set up for impromptu performances on a first-come sign-up basis.

Folklife should stop taking a cut of a performer’s CD sales. It’s offensive and insulting to those who already donate their performance. They should at least be allowed to sell directly from their stage without excessive red tape, restrictions, and paying commissions. This would also bring the performers and audience closer together.

Perhaps the Folklife Festival has run its course and should end or at least the word “folk” be taken out as false advertising. Maybe it’s time to start a new folk festival, reinvent the event, provide something for those of us who are truly interested in the “folk” of folklife, and provide a place where everyone can participate.

Stewart Hendrickson

Response from Michael J. Herschensohn, Executive Director Northwest Folklife

To The Editor:

I am pleased to respond to Stewart Hendrickson’s comments about the 2004 Northwest Folklife Festival. Mr. Hendrickson apparently loves those aspects of our festival that coincide with his personal musical tastes. He misses the spirit of community that drives our festival and makes it different from so many others. He also dismisses the economic realities of producing such an enormous community celebration and makes hollow ivory tower arguments that betray his academic background.

 Your readers may be interested to learn that performers at Folklife are not all chosen by our staff. Rather community advisors regularly review the submissions and make their selection based on performer quality, the degree to which the work is representative of the tradition in question and, in some instances, the frequency with which performers have previously participated. Not all of the criteria are necessarily weighed equally, and wide latitude is given to the advisors.

 Insofar as paying performers is concerned, Mr. Hendrickson correctly notes that a few people are paid to participate in the festival. It is our policy to pay only those individuals who have been identified by community advisors as important bearers of cultural traditions, who are from the community that is the subject of our cultural focus and whose participation is assured by grants. U. Utah Phillips was paid for participating in our benefit concert. His performance was also supported by grants. He was not paid for workshops, radio shows, the liars’ contest and other events.

 The benefit concert raises the question of why we ask for money at all. First, it costs about $1,500,000 to produce the entire festival. Even though we request a donation at festival entrances, no more than 15% of our visitors actually contribute. Consequently and ironically, with 85% of our audience experiencing the festival at no cost, we have to raise a lot of money in a brief period of time to keep the festival free of charge. The commissions on CD sales (it costs approximately $10,000 to operate the store over the weekend for the 100 musicians who sell CD’s there) and on food and craft sales are all part of the mix that raises the money to put on the festival.

 The anarchy of the simple community backyard jam Mr. Hendrickson suggests sounds naively good. It probably wouldn’t reach the large slice of the community that Northwest Folklife attracts. It surely would not be representative of the entire community and would have no way of attracting the Korean, Somali, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Sephardic or Native American participants who have enriched the festival over the years. It might also miss the gospel, Eastern European, Latin American traditions that are so special to Folklife. It certainly would not have a Roadhouse or a Big Bamboo Dance Floor attracting thousands of people from around the region, the state and the country.

 Mr. Hendrickson may be right that there is a place in the Pacific Northwest for a backyard community jam. It wouldn’t compare to the grandness of the Northwest Folklife Festival, and it couldn’t be the diverse, all-embracing community event that has become a hallmark of summertime life in the Pacific Northwest. Thank you for this opportunity to respond.              

Michael J. Herschensohn, Executive Director Northwest Folklife

Stewart Hendrickson is Chemistry Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor Emeritus  University of Washington, and in his new career, an unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, guitar; Reprinted from The Victory Review, July, 2004.