Richmond Folk Festival performers over the festival’s 11 year history that meet this description. Peter Rowan maybe. No, when this festival says "folk" they mean something more like indigenous traditional world music. It could be multi-generational bluegrass musicians from up in the mountains or music of the Middle East or Eastern Europe. The kind of stuff a songcatching ethnomusicologist might bring back as field recordings after journeying to far off regions.
So many festivals are about headliners and featuring hot new acts. The Richmond Folk Festival is not another Lockn’ or Bonnaroo or even a Newport. You won’t find Phil Lesh, My Morning Jacket, Dawes, Grace Potter or Dr. Dog on the bill. Not yet anyway. There's always hope! The biggest name or mainstream performer that the Richmond Folk Festival has ever had, best as I can remember, might be Rosanne Cash, and yet the festival regularly draws between 150,000 to 200,000 curious people over its 3 days.
So why do so many people come to a downtown festival featuring a bunch of obscure artists playing weird traditional music that most of us have never even heard or heard of? Because that’s a very Richmond thing to do, it turns out. Eleven years ago when the festival started, Richmond was just on the cusp of embracing the arts, food and other things enlightened, but a sense of ennui and procrastination still lingered. It was a complete surprise that so many people showed up and embraced this event from the very first year and it has stayed that way ever since, although it is no longer a surprise. It's an annual ritual now. Yay Richmond!
Myself, like a lot of others it seems, have learned to treat the Richmond Folk Festival with a great deal of respect and gratitude; a mature approach that tries to put the music first, and maybe partying second. Where else can you stumble upon a tent where thousands of people are silently watching an Indian tabla player with rapt attention? Or have your choice between seeing Native American Smoke Dancers or DJ Grandmaster Flash? The cool thing is you can find yourself in any of these situations with a cup of craft beer because it is sold throughout the fest and you can take it to any stage and all over the grounds. That helps.
It's not so easy to pigeon-hole the Richmond Folk Festival crowd. It's not just progressive white folks. The festival also attracts many African-Americans as well as people from all sorts of different backgrounds and ethnicities, as it should. If you want diversity – gender, age, race, families, culture – The Richmond Folk Festival brings it. Being walking distance from the thriving campus of VCU, the festival also pulls in a strong college contingent.
Yep, I’m pretty psyched that we continue to have this festival and that all kinds of people go and support it. Where would I like to see it evolve? If possible, I'd love to see it continue to expand the definition of folk music by featuring more artists on the cutting edge or fringes of "traditions" and/or people who are pushing things farther instead of just those who represent retrogrades. For example, how come they never got Ornette Coleman before he passed away, or Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin, or the Sahara Desert rock band Tinariwen, or Bela Fleck, or Kind Sunny Ade, or modern acts with folk roots like The Decemberists or Gillian Welch? In other words, there is room for both Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis, but more Miles please. We shall see.