New England Folk Festival
at Natick High School, Natick, MA
(25-27 April 2003)

The 59th annual folk festival presented by the New England Folk Festival Association took place recently. And at this point, one could mention a number of significant groups who played and individuals that were perennially helpful. And we will mention some. But that wouldn't be the point. Because the festival isn't about lists and performers and dancers so much as it is about a feeling. And to quote from the unlikely source of the song, "Hotel California," "We haven't had that spirit here since 1969."

So let me try to explain. If one simply talks about who played, one misses the entire flavor of the festival itself. This is a review of an event, a happening, moreso than multiple performances. Let me try to get across what it is like anecdotally.

Take a zillion people -- all right, take a quarter zillion people. Fill a high school with music groups playing international folk music, traditional music of the British Isles and Ireland, bluegrass, even swing. Add workshops, dances, impromptu jams, singalongs, CD and sheet music booths, luthiers, artists and crafters, and a huge international foods pavilion in the cafeteria, and you've got an idea of the surroundings.

Now take the feeling that fills the air when groups of people get together and celebrate their unabashed love of folk music and you've almost got it -- that feeling of the New England Folk Festival Association's festival (or NEFFA, as it is lovingly called by many). Let's get more specific. This is what happens when kids who listened to field recordings grow up.

In its own words, NEFFA is "dedicated to the preservation of folk traditions, to the developoment of a living folk culture, and to the encouragement of high standards of quality and performance in the folk arts."

All right. Now for the regular stuff. The festival is three days of peace and understanding (Hey! No joke! It starts Friday night and goes through until Sunday end of day. On Friday night I was still in the main hall listening to lively dance music at 11:30 p.m.!)

The bands that play there do so because they want to. One must apply to play there, not be invited and paid. It makes for an eclectic mix. One can literally hear the next folk sensation as well as your neighbors who keep you awake on Saturday night.

In my opinion, bands to keep an eye on include Twin Bear Trio, a mother and her two sons playing contra dance music who wowed everyone; Flapjack, a Canadian group with a CD coming out soon; and Nyckelharpa. If you haven't turned on to the Nordic roots movement, please do. It will surprise you. This is not your father's "Folk Fiddling from Dalarna" record on Nonesuch ... by any means.

I especially favor the Great Bear Trio. It is Andrew, Kim and Noah Van Norstrand playing contemporary and traditional contra dance music and featuring fiddle (correction: fabulous fiddle), piano (correction: paradisiac piano) and percussion (correction: powerful percussion). Watch for their already released CD, which is well worth owning.

Operations officer Dan Pearl, who helps manage the remarkable logistics nightmare of a festival of this size with aplomb, a wing and prayer, was interviewed at one of those long cafeteria tables in the food pavilion. Dan points out that he started out emptying trash barrels and stuff. Now that he is COO, he "wears many hats." Says Dan, "A lot of the contra dance bands are putting out CDs. When I started (in the late 1970s) there were only a few, like Yankee Ingenuity and Wild Asparagus."

As it turns out, I remember interviewing fiddler Donna Hinds and caller/pianist Tony Parkes during that era when contra dances were held regularity (must have been all those vegetarian beans) in the Concord, Mass., Scout House and in Cambridge. As it turns out, Tony was calling at the festival weekend. The two are perennial Massachusetts folk scene proponents, though having long since gone their own directions musically.

Lots of folks from the New England folk scene, other perennial performers such as Tony Saletan and Lorraine Lee Hammond, were around for the festival as was the wry Thomas Knatt, luthier, of Concord.

I remember when my wife and I went to Tom's to purchase my first hurdy-gurdy in the late 1970s. There weren't a whole helluva lot of people building or interested in the hurdy-gurdy back then. It was the box type, not the familiar and expensive viola-shaped type. It was $60 then! I didn't expect him to remember me but I remembered him. I went up to his booth in the arts and crafts area and said with a playful lilt, "Hi, I don't expect you to remember me but I bought a hurdy-gurdy from you 30 years ago. It was the box type. Wanna buy it back?"

Tom looks at me low-perched glasses and says right back at me, "I can't sleep." We chuckle.

I go over to Ralph Sweet's booth, home of the Sweetheart Flute Co. Ralph has made Irish flutes, fifes, wooden pennywhistles and many other items for many years now. I buy two Susato tin whistles, the tunable kind. I'm still waiting for them to be wonderful. I should have bought one of Ralph's handmades, probably. Or maybe the nifty flute cane for long walks in the woods. I leave.

As I made my way to the Cajun dance that evening, I heard drumming in the halls coming from one of the many workshops, demos and join-in events that make the festival such a swell affair. I counted more than 300 names of performers and that includes groups, too, which may have many members, such as the Balkan group I saw in the main hall. This gives you some idea of the scope of the festival. It is virtually impossible to see it all as you must choose between one performing artist or workshop and another all session long. In other words, it's like being a kid in a candy store!

Dances are both of the participatory and performance nature. There are more Morris dancers than is comprehensible. There are English country couple dances, Balkan, Cajun, Polish, Scandinavian, Israeli and others to join in with. There are performances to view and enjoy by all sorts of traditional ethnic and regional dancers: Chinese, Mexican, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Serbian and Indian, to name a few. They don't forget the kids, either, with both family-oriented activities and a hands-on activity room for the kids.

Mention must be made of Ralph Page, whose vision for the festival so many years ago made it what it is today. (The Ralph Page Dance Legacy Weekend is held in New Hampshire every January, incidentally.) Current program chair Linda Leslie has a mighty job coordinating all that this festival has become. Kudos, Linda. And Jessica. And Maureen, Angie and Ann. To leave out so many thank you's seems criminal, but c'est la vie.

The combined power of so many male (I counted nine) voices made Zornitsa, a Bulgarian men's singing group based in Boston, a joy to hear. They played for basic Balkan dances as well as providing concert music.

This is the kind of festival where you will hear such rarities as Norsk tunes and tales and Turkish folk music. Or, for example, the Spanish Civil War songs and letters, with excerpts being read from recently discovered 1936-38 letters owned by festival members and performers. It is here you will hear groups with names like Illegal Contraband, truly a classic pun, and Flying Tomatoes. Or attend events with titles like "Life, Death, Chocolate -- songs about things that really matter."

Yes, it is impossible to cite everyone, quote everyone, promote everyone, review everyone, critique everyone and thank everyone. One thing I can assure you, it is one great take. If you've never been, you gotta go! Things happen there, I can't explain it. It's just a bit of the magic of -- well, 1969.

- Rambles
written by John Cross
published 26 July 2003