Art Works Blog

A Day at the Richmond Folk Festival

NEA National Heritage Fellow Wayne Henderson (right) at the 2012 Richmond Folk Festival with piano player Jeff Little.

Although I have lived in Virginia for 14 years, I had never visited the state’s capital before this past Saturday. This weekend, however, offered something special: the Richmond Folk Festival. So I dragged my family the 100 miles south to the festival, right on the James River and partially on the site of the American Civil War Center, formerly the Tredegar Iron Works that made cannons for the Confederacy during the war.

The festival began five years ago as a continuation of the National Folk Festival, produced by the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA), which Richmond hosted from 2005 through 2007. This year the festival offered something special: a stage---organized by the Virginia Folklife Program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities---dedicated to NEA National Heritage Fellows from Virginia. Those who passed away got tribute performances; those still alive and kicking did the performing themselves.

Before we got to the Virginia stage, though, we decided to check out the rest of the festival, which was chock full of Heritage Fellows from places other than Virginia as well, starting with Dr. Michael White, who was playing a set when we arrived at 11:30am, before the festival even started. His bracing set of Dixieland jazz transfixed my kids, who refused to leave until his set was over. Making our way past the other stages, we came across NEA National Heritage Fellow John Dee Holeman playing with harmonicist extraordinaire Phil Wiggins while Willette Hinton did some superb buckdancing that, as former NCTA director (and NEA National Heritage Fellow) Joe Wilson noted, “dates back to colonial times.”

Another Heritage Fellow, Irish fiddler Liz Carroll, was sharing her stage with Cape Breton fiddler Troy MacGillivray, ping-ponging between their respective styles of playing to, as Carroll put it, “keep ourselves fresh, keep ourselves scared,” a way of staying innovative that applies pretty much to all the arts.

When we finally made it to the Virginia stage, world-renowned luthier Wayne Henderson was on stage. Not only does he make such beautiful handcrafted guitars that the likes of Eric Clapton want them, but he’s also an outstanding musician. His set included a couple of numbers that fellow Heritage Fellow Doc Watson made famous, which makes sense: his old-timey guitar style resembles Watson’s intricate picking. He played with rollicking piano player Jeff Little from North Carolina, an unusual move given that the piano is not a traditional instrument in the Appalachian music field, but Little showed a keen understanding of the musical style and blew through one of the most interesting versions of “Orange Blossom Special” that I have heard. Henderson introduced many of the songs with amusing (and slightly ribald) stories about his hometown of Rugby, Virginia, in the western part of the state near the North Carolina border, with a purported population of seven. Probably the most amusing story, though, was by Little, who told of Eric Clapton wanting to stop by and see Henderson when he was playing nearby, and Clapton’s manager calling to ask if it was okay to stop by and if there would be any security concerns. Henderson said no, and then after getting off the phone, commented, “Why would there be any security concerns? It isn’t like he’s Ralph Stanley or something.”

Apocryphal or not (and Henderson wasn’t saying), the story drew laughs from the full-house crowd. This led into a medley of songs by another of Virginia’s musical stars, the Carter Family. To end the concert, Henderson offered a song to ease those still lamenting the Washington Nationals’ loss the night before: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The crowd lustily sang the verse twice before Henderson and Little took it on a little musical ride.

After that, I could hold the kids off no more---it was off to visit the American Civil War Center, eat ice cream, play with parrots (yes, parrots), and then roll down the hill (them not me) before the ride back home. In these times of economic unease, everyone wants to talk about the economic benefits of arts events, and certainly, by the amount of money I spent, I would think the festival brings in a goodly amount of income to the city and its merchants. But arts events are about more than the economic benefits---every stage was filled to capacity with people communing with each other through the arts, bringing all aspects of the community together. The crowd was anything but homogeneous and mixed locals and those from elsewhere, like me, all enjoying the traditional arts that make up who we are and what our nation is about.

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