October 08, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story

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Trial by Rain 

An oral history of the Richmond Folk Festival.

click to enlarge A scene from the Richmond Folk Festival in 2008.

Scott Elmquist/File

A scene from the Richmond Folk Festival in 2008.

Julia Olin
(Artistic Director of National Council for the Traditional Arts)

The thing that’s really notable about Richmond — it was a rocky start.

The [nonprofits] that applied to host, before we got off the ground one of the leaders retired and someone new came in, then another left town, so there was a leadership vacuum on the operational side. So nothing happened, partly because of changes at City Celebrations. Joel Katz [the former executive director at the Carpenter Center] was one of them, he knew the festival from his days in Maine.

So we kept calling saying we need to get going on this. And we came down for a big meeting in late 2004. I was associate director of NCTA. We had a list four pages long of things that should’ve already been done [laughs].

click to enlarge The Tezcatlipoca Voladores spun down from atop a 30-meter pole in 2015. - RICHMOND FOLK FESTIVAL
  • Richmond Folk Festival
  • The Tezcatlipoca Voladores spun down from atop a 30-meter pole in 2015.

Lisa Sims
(CEO of Venture Richmond)

I was at Richmond Region Tourism when we were bidding on this. I started out as a volunteer marketing committee chair for the festival. It was the idea, as I recall, of Joel Katz, he was familiar with the National Folk Festival and thought it would be cool to bring it here. But there was this one meeting with Richmond Renaissance, Richmond Region Tourism, City Celebrations, all these different nonprofit groups that did things downtown.

It was sort of the NCTA’s come-to-Jesus meeting, saying if you all want this as a community, there has to be one organization that will stand up and take on a million-dollar budget, basically. Everyone kind of looked at each other. And it was Jack Berry, executive director of Richmond Renaissance, who spoke up and said, “I’ll do it.”

Julia Olin

If Jack hadn’t stepped up I don’t know what would’ve happened. He was able to work with civic leaders and keep them involved. … You have to plant the seed early with something like this, and it has to be a success.

But then on the first year, it rained like it was Noah’s ark — just cats and dogs. We were all like, “Oh my God, oh my God!” But we ran it, kept it going.

Then the Monday headline at The Richmond Times-Dispatch was ‘Festival Shines in the Rain.’ They proclaimed it a success. … Again, the community was behind this thing. The coverage was uplifting, a total buy-in. It gave a soggy start a positive lens.

click to enlarge Folk Fest favorite Martha Spencer sings with the Crooked Road String Band in 2005. - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/FIle
  • Folk Fest favorite Martha Spencer sings with the Crooked Road String Band in 2005.

Lisa Sims

Invariably, we get a call from any community who is going to have the festival [that is, run it after the National Folk Fest has moved on], because Richmond is pretty successful. They always ask, “How did you raise the money initially?” Well, we had Jack and we had Jim Ukrop. It never hurts to have Jim involved because he knows a lot of people and adds a lot to any project.

But I think the thing that was crucial was Richmond Region 2007, the anniversary, and Wilson Flohr was heading up that and he was looking for legacy projects that would stand the test of time. They identified the Folk Festival, so for the first three years they committed $500,000 a year to the festival [2005 – 2007].

Now if you look at what we raise from sponsors, it’s maybe $800 to $850,000 dollars. When I tell other communities that, they say, “Oh thanks a lot, we have nothing like that.” [Laughs]. So that was key. …

Tim Timberlake
(Artist Host Coordinator, Programming Committee board member and stage emcee)

I don’t think there’s one thing that has made Richmond so successful. But Julia Olin, [Programming Manager] Blaine Waide are the curators of many artists they bring and submit to our panel. We’re free to suggest people as well. But they know of people we don’t and how to negotiate and deal with visas and travel issues. Our partnership with NCTA, which we’ve kept, has been really strong.

And now Soundworks of Virginia, Steve Payne and Grant Howard, do outdoor sound for the big stuff on Brown’s Island, and are terrific. They took over that part of it that normally the NCTA handles, so it was nice that it became more of a Richmond festival maybe three or four years ago — which is a huge thing to manage.

click to enlarge Jeffrey Broussard and the Creole Cowboys get the crowd moving its feet in 2009. - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File
  • Jeffrey Broussard and the Creole Cowboys get the crowd moving its feet in 2009.

Michael Gourrier (Presenter)

I have been with the Festival for twelve years. It has definitely grown and matured. The crows are bigger, and the appreciation for the music has increased. The selection committee definitely has a finger on the pulse; they get top-flight musicians in all genres. And usually you pay an arm and a leg to go to a festival, maybe pay for every act. There are very few that are free.

The most memorable time? Last year we had the storm that blew the tent down. We cleared away the debris and had an open-air concert. It was superb. Especially Ras Michael. I was not familiar with them, and it was so much more of a spiritual presentation than regular commercial reggae, not the usual repetitive groove.

A couple of years ago we had Deacon John, who encompasses the broad spectrum of New Orleans music. He transcends the potpourri of styles, rock, Cajon, Zydeco, and traditional. He’d been on the list for several years, and finally, the stars aligned.

Jim Bland (Programming Committee and manager of Festival Merchandising)

When it became the Richmond Folk Festival, the organizers asked our help with the Festival merch. Initially we used the logo, but then we started tying in the poster art. The artist completely designs the shirts. Over the years, the economy has gotten better and worse, and some shirts are more popular than others, but sales have been strong. We try to bring out something new every year, coffee mugs, hats, and we still sell the artist CDs and every once in a while someone has an LP.

My most memorable time was the deluge the first year. It rained and rained. Sometimes we would be at a performance where we outnumbered the band. Fortunately we haven't had that since. And there as memorable groups that I have seen over the years. And people we didn’t promote as headliners like Roseanne Cash who attracted a vast sea of people. It’s great to see people from all walks of life, from all ethnicities, experience the music. They are just walking up an hearing something they have never heard before, whether it is throat singers from Tuva or Algerian players doing a weird dance.

There have been some fun afterparties, where the bands interact, admiring each other and playing together. They aren’t tied to their own traditions. A Cajun band might start playing a tune and then the African drummers join in and soon everyone is going crazy, dancing or playing along.

What has changed? Beer offerings and consumption increased. And the crowds are more massive than ever. With the tightening of our footprint from the museum expansion, [Brown’s] island and the travel lanes are jam-packed. And there is really strong support, and people donate every day they come. The caliber of the music has always been high. We seldom repeat an artist. We’re always trying to do something new.

Lisa Sims

We have just a few areas where we can earn revenue: beverages, vendor fees and merchandise. … Another crucial moment came in 2007 when we said goodbye to the national [event]. We always planned this to be a legacy event, a community building apparatus and cultural event. But 2008, as you remember, was when the financial situation fell out. So we were concerned.

We got all our sponsors in a room and asked: “Do you think we can do this?”

We didn’t want it to be less than, it needed to be as good as the national. To a person, everybody in that room said they were in. And it was harder at that time for the banks, but we were able to cobble together enough.

But there was a time where we weren’t sure it would happen.

Julia Olin

Now I’ve been involved with a lot of cities starting this [since 1990] but in Richmond, the group likes to do things right. Put the resources in that need to be devoted.

The [festival] to me, has always had a cool style to it and a real devotion to it. I personally adore everybody in Richmond that is involved. Everybody is always thinking and has good ideas, the leadership involved with the festival is always trying to think of something special to do. …

But with Richmond, as far as weather goes, it’s either beautiful and perfect or frogs and locusts [laughs].

Jamie Thomas
(Volunteer Coordinator):

I’m always impressed by those who come out in the rainstorms. I feel like the performers give that much more when they see a crowd standing in the rain.

[The festival] is really a tradition now, after 15 years, that people look forward to bringing their families to. We’ve gone from 60,000 people attending in the early days to 225,000. So with [1,300] volunteers, sheer numbers make it happen …

We have close to 40 people who this is their 15th consecutive year volunteering with the festival. A lot of them volunteer multiple days, starting a week before and running a week after the festival.

There’s everything from sociable jobs to hard construction jobs, from bucket collections to logging music. Now we’ve got second generations of volunteers. People find their niche if they come more than one year.

But as we go into the last weeks, we always need more people for the bucket brigade. [This year] we still need them for Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, as well as safety escorts for vehicles that come onto the site, incredibly important.

click to enlarge Known for its global sounds, the festival featured Sounds of Korea in 2009. - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/FIle
  • Known for its global sounds, the festival featured Sounds of Korea in 2009.

Jim Wark
(Member of Programming Committee)

In the early days there was some criticism about all these ethnically diverse artists playing for a white, funnel-cake eating audience. Now all the other aspects have caught up to the diversity of the music. There are more folklife traditions in the shops, more international foods, more dance. The music selection was always very diverse.

We’ve subtly tried to address some of the divisiveness of modern America. We’ve booked the Tuvan throat singers from Russia, and the Aleppo Ensemble, a Sufi dance and music group from Syria. We are trying to present the human side of the places we hear more about in the news. …

My most memorable time: I was pressed into service as a musician for Jason D. Williams. At the last minute, his guitar player got sick. He asked the festival organizers if there was anyone in town who could play a rockabilly show without rehearsal. It was two 45-minute sets of stream-of-consciousness rockabilly, riding the roller coaster without a safety bar. After all these years putting the festival together, I finally played it.

Jamie Thomas

Remember, we had a group called the Voladores from the Yucatan Peninsula that climbed those [30 meter] poles while a priest plays a flute? The first performance they did at nighttime, there was a complete hush over the entire festival, because everybody at every stage stared, they could see it from where they were. It was a unifying moment. The electricity in the air was incredible. The cheer that erupted from the stage was such a shared moment for some 20,000 people or so watching.

click to enlarge A bucket brigade volunteer holds up one of the orange containers in 2017.  This year there will be a texting option to donate as well. - DAVE PARISH PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Dave Parish Photography
  • A bucket brigade volunteer holds up one of the orange containers in 2017. This year there will be a texting option to donate as well.

Stephen Lecky
(Director of Events for Venture Richmond)

I started as festival manager and sort of still do the same thing, though my title is different. … It’s a rarity to go to a festival around the country with a million-dollar budget, offering world-class musicians and it’s free.

For me the most challenging thing is making sure we have enough room for everybody which each year involves rearranging the site and traffic flow. That and keeping the volunteer level high, which has gotten more challenging in recent years.

But it’s changed so much from just a three-day festival. We have an official artist, a reveal party at Glave Kocen, our own beer, our own fundraising dinner that gets 500 people and has been called one of the best food events in the city, almost nine school shows, shows at jails for inmates, our own CD and vinyl. It’s just amazing how much the scope has changed. And you can tune in on [Virginia’s Home for Public Media] VPM [93.1 FM], who used to be WCVE, and listen to the Altria stage all weekend long.

Tim Timberlake

I don’t think there’s much argument that it’s the most culturally important weekend in the city. It took a long time for people to recognize what folk music is, indigenous music. … Now after 15 years, it’s a joy to see that the vision has been realized now that people understand what it is. Folk music is the music of the people. Now the audiences in Richmond finally reflect the artists onstage.

Lisa Sims

I can assure you there was no one in that original [NCTA meeting] room that thought it would resonate with the community this much. People had high hopes, but we could never have anticipated how much the community would love it.

It’s a really good model that has worked well to this point. … No, we don’t have a strategy for the 20th anniversary yet. But our first programming meeting for next year will be in November or December. It’s definitely a year-round job.

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