Folklife Festivals Refocused

While having to endure a scattered schedule of various part time jobs, it’s the festivals and concerts that keep me going during the summertime. My planner reads something like, “Work. Babysit. Work. HOUSE SHOW!! Work.” My favorite events, and I’ll bet my fellow ethnomusicologists and folklorists can relate, are the local folklife and heritage festivals!

I’ve been an attendee and volunteer at the annual Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival every June for the past three years. I love this festival, not just because it’s based in my home state and hosted in Baltimore City, but also because there is a compelling vibe when you wander through the strategically mapped crafter tables and music stages. Everything from the food vendors to the overhead festival tents has deep historical and cultural roots in Maryland. The purpose is to celebrate and educate—rather than to simply entertain—attendees about Maryland folklife.

MTFolklifeFestival2015

I wrote detailed artist biographies for our festival program last year, and I watched how the folklorists and ethnomusicologists in charge meticulously fine-tuned the performance schedule. Then one day I read Charles Camp and Timothy Lloyd’s essay from 1980 entitled “Six Reasons Not to Produce Folklife Festivals,” which put into perspective why the Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival is designed with a foundation of self-evaluation and constructive criticism. After all, Camp was a highly influential mentor to his successive directors at Maryland Traditions and Lloyd is the current director of the American Folklore Society.

The essay did not advocate stopping folklife festivals all together; rather, each of the six points were good reasons to host a folklife festival. Camp and Lloyd followed up on each point with an analytic review of why each can be important and problematic for the bearers of traditions. For example, the third reason: Folklife festivals provide an occasion for the celebration of our rich and diverse cultural heritage. Sounds like a great thing, right? They go on to reflect, “First of all, the music we hear around us, over the radio, in our cars, is not being performed in festivals. The objects fashioned by festival craftspeople are not often things we have around the house, or things we can and do make for ourselves. Rather, what is presented at folklife festivals is substantially exotic culture.”

“Exotic” is one of those buzz words that make people in the anthropological fields cringe. What they mean is that folklife festivals should bridge the gaps in cultural traditions so that onlookers may understand and relate rather than feel isolated while reflecting on their own family traditions (or lack thereof). Anything to avoid that “zoo” mindset, which keeps the festival attendees separated from the participants. So I reminded myself that a lot has changed and improved since 1980. Nevertheless, it is important to evaluate the benefits of applied research on folk communities and even be hypercritical at times. Festivals are one of the key opportunities to educate the local public directly about cultural heritage. As ethnomusicologists, we need to make the most of these events to create a lasting impact on living traditions.

MTDrumCircle2015

Hey, it’s not all bookish though! I had my fill of Smith Island Cake over the years while dancing to Maryland polka bands, cheering during crab picking contests, and watching the Baltimore urban community walk out their doors and fill the festival street in awe. That’s the real reward. On that note, I’ll need to get to DC and catch the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this week before it ends!

– Jennie

Well worth checking out sometime:

Camp, Charles & Lloyd, Timothy, “Six Reasons Not to Produce Folklife Festivals.” Kentucky Folklore Record, Vol. 26:1-2 (January-June, 1980), 67-74.

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