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History

A Brief History of the National Folk Festival

“We in the United States are amazingly rich in the  elements from which to weave a culture. We have the best of man’s past upon which to draw brought to us by our native folk and the folk from all parts of the world. In binding these elements into a national fabric of beauty and strength, let us see to it that the fineness of each shows in the completed handiwork.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a letter to Paul Green, President of the National Folk Festival Association, 1938 (Reprinted in the 7th National Folk Festival Program, 1940)

The Early Years

Eleanor Roosevelt and Agnes Meyer at a National held in Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. Mrs. Meyer was Chair of the festival and Mrs. Roosevelt was Honorary Chair.
photo by Harry Goodwin of the Washington Post.

First held in 1934, the National Folk Festival is the premier multicultural celebration of traditional arts in the country and the event that defined this form of presentation. It employed the first fieldworker (Vance Randolph), invented the talk/demonstration workshop, put the first craft demonstrations at festivals, mixed religious and secular presentations, and used scholars as presenters. But its most radical and enduring innovation was that of putting the artistic traditions of many cultures and communities from across America into the same event on an equal footing. The term “folk festival” had been used before the National Folk Festival was created, but it was used for monocultural events. With the National, this term acquired a new and inclusive definition.

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Sarah Gertrude Knott and Zora Neale Hurston

The founder was Sarah Gertrude Knott, who created the National Folk Festival Association in 1933. Those who joined her as fieldworkers and presenters in the first festivals were also major figures in the creation of academic and applied folklore: Ben Botkin, Zora Neale Hurston, Constance Roarke, George Pullen Jackson, Arthur Campa, George Korson, Richard Dorson, J. Frank Dobie, Lauren Post, and Bascom Lunsford, among others.

Some of the artists presented at the first festival are now legendary, and the recordings and other documentation made possible by the National is precious. Among those artists were: Horton Barker, Captain Richard Maitland, Texas Gladden, Hobart Smith, the Red Headed Fiddlers, Captain Pearl Nye, Bill Henseley, and Lawrence Walker. Zora Neale Hurston brought blues and Black shape note singers to the National from Eatonville, Florida, marking the first time these art forms were performed at a folk festival. It was the first event of national stature to present the blues, Cajun music, a polka band, a Tex-Mex conjunto, a Sacred Harp ensemble, Peking opera—the list goes on.

“A comparison of accordions and accordion technique by German, Polish, and Louisiana French players was actually quite stimulating,” wrote the Chicago Tribune in a 1937 festival review.

Leota Ware was a child when she came to the 1936 National in Dallas with the Kiowa Indian Dancers. “All these people of different colors and different talk were sitting in the dining hall having supper when we got there,” she recalls. “Texas and Oklahoma were segregated then and I’d not seen Black people and White people and Indians eating together. It made a big impression on me and I talked about it when I got home. I told my grandmother and she said, ‘Heaven will be like that.’”

Eleanor Roosevelt was involved in the National’s move to Washington, D.C., in 1938 when the festival began a four-year stay (1938-41). She served as the National’s Honorary Chair in 1938 and attended several festivals. In 1976 Miss Knott recalled: “[W]e were associated with the New Deal, an interest of the First Lady, one of many causes she supported. The times were difficult, but exciting. We knew this new work was changing the way the nation saw itself, that some of the smaller pieces of the national puzzle were being viewed with appreciation for the first time. I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning.”

National Folk Festival at Constitution Hall, 1942

The festival was presented in Constitution Hall, which was owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and at that time rigidly segregated. In 1939, celebrated opera singer Marian Anderson was famously denied the stage, an incident that prompted Eleanor Roosevelt to relinquish her membership in the DAR.

Yet it was here just the year before at the 1938 National that W. C. Handy, known as the “Father of the Blues,” made his first appearance on a desegregated stage. The festival presented Black and White performers every year—and got away with it. How the festival managed this remains unclear to this day, but its organizers seem to have simply ignored the prohibition and the DAR never challenged them on it.

The 1942 National was held in New York City, and an emphasis was placed on Jewish folk arts. Performers who had recently escaped the Holocaust were presented.

The Post-war Period

The National continued to move among American cities during the post-World War II period, but it was held most often in St. Louis, where it had begun. Miss Knott held to the formulas that

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W. C. Handy was billed as “Father of the Blues” when he appeared at the fifth National, held in Washington, D.C. in 1938. He was also at the Cleveland festival in 1946.

had made the National successful in the 1930s, but it was no longer the sole folk event held on a national scale. The folk revival was in its ascendancy, and its leaders had not been involved with the National. The National was on a slow decline that continued during the 1960s heyday of the folk revival.

In 1969, two employees of the Department of the Interior became involved with the financially troubled National. They engineered an agreement with the National Park Service, whereby the National Folk Festival Association would assist the National Park system with cultural programming in exchange for an annual stipend. As part of the agreement, the 33rd National Folk Festival was presented in the then new Wolf Trap Farm Park. Located in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., it was the first national park devoted to the performing arts. This marked the beginning of the National’s 12-year run at Wolf Trap.

Slides from 33rd and 34th National Folk Festival, 1971-1972. Wolf Trap, Vienna VA.

In the 1970s, the combination of folklorists, collectors, and folk revival musicians that came to the board of the National Folk Festival Association gradually transformed the organization and broadened the scope of its activities. In 1976, the organization officially changed its name to the National Council for the Traditional Arts to reflect this larger mission.

In these years the National became known for the ability of its board and other volunteers to find and present the folk virtuoso. Many board members were folklorists, cultural anthropologists, and

and ethnomusicologists highly skilled in fieldwork and in touch with others working in communities in many areas of the nation. A totally new program was presented every year.

The National’s example was influential, and served as an inspiration and model for traditional arts festivals across the nation.

The surge of interest in the 1960s that had propelled all things “folk” into the realm of popular culture began to wane in the late 1970s and early ’80s. In a two-year period, the audiences for folk festivals dropped by 40 to 60 percent. The NCTA kept a national listing of folk festivals from 1974 until 1982. More than half disappeared between 1978 and 1982. In the 12 years that followed, all but a handful of the nation’s folk festivals disappeared. Local festivals were hit as hard as regional and national ones.

Folk organizations that sponsored concerts and engaged in local fieldwork seemed to have gone out of business at roughly the same percentage rate. Graduate schools of folklore felt the same pressures and at least half of them disappeared. The nation had changed its priorities abruptly, so the NCTA changed as well—by reinventing the National Folk Festival. After 12 years at Wolf Trap Farm Park, the National went back on the road, sparking the current model: a three-year residency in urban centers conceived as a close collaboration between the NCTA and a local host community to present a large-scale festival in its downtown streets and parks, with the goal of leaving a successor (or legacy) festival behind after the National moves on. These partnerships have been largely successful and are a testament to the transformative experience of hosting the festival. Today, the National Folk Festival is attracting the largest audiences in its history.

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The National Folk Festival Today

In response to the changing times, the NCTA reinvented the National Folk Festival in the mid-1980s as a collaboration between local communities and the NCTA. This transformation began at Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area but came to full fruition during the National’s tenure in Lowell, Massachusetts, four years later, from 1987-89. It grew from the realization that the festival had great potential to be a catalyst for cultural, social, and economic transformation in American communities. This work has five major objectives:

  1. to raise awareness of cultural heritage by bringing to the public an array of excellent artists representing the artistic traditions of all Americans; 

  2. to keep the festivals free to the public, thus maximizing audiences and reaching broad segments of the public, including underserved communities with limited opportunities to experience the arts;

  3. to work at the grass-roots level in different parts of the country, fostering cultural participation and community engagement; 

  4. to develop and nurture new, sustainable traditional arts events and new audiences in communities across the nation; and 

  5. to build upon the evident connection between the arts, urban renewal, and economic revitalization, with the festival providing the impetus for creative sector growth, and for the enhancement, re-imagining, re-purposing, and renewal of public spaces and public institutions.

The National is a broad-based community partnership, bringing together partnering organizations and community representatives from across the host city. The participation of local and regional cultural communities in the performance, folklife, and foodways components of the festival encourages deeper public understanding of traditions practiced close to home. Each festival city has its own unique local culture, outlook, and issues, with different strengths and different resources, a new universe of personalities and politics, and a new physical site.

Changing locations on a three-year cycle, the National Folk Festival has been held at 13 sites since the NCTA adopted this model: Peninsula, Ohio; New York, New York (one year for the Bicentennial); Lowell, Massachusetts; Johnstown, Pennsylvania; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Dayton, Ohio; East Lansing, Michigan; Bangor, Maine; Richmond, Virginia; Butte, Montana; Nashville, Tennessee; Greensboro, North Carolina; and Salisbury, Maryland.

JFK Plaza Stage, 50th National Folk Festival, Lowell, Massachusetes 1988

The National’s thriving offspring include such popular annual events as the Lowell Folk Festival in Massachusetts, the Flood City Music Festival (formerly the Johnstown Folk Festival) in Pennsylvania, the Richmond Folk Festival in Virginia, the Montana Folk Festival in Butte, the North Carolina Folk Festival in Greensboro, and the Maryland Folk Festival in Salisbury. Festivals have typically experienced a doubling or even tripling of annual attendance within a few years, and have an annual economic impact in the range of $15-30 million.

The city of Lowell, Massachusetts, where the National was held from 1987-89, expected a significant drop in audience after the last year of the National and was surprised by a 20% increase that put it on the front page of The Boston Globe and improved fundraising despite a recession.

The Lowell Folk Festival, now in its fourth decade, remains one of the best-attended folk events in New England, attracting 150,000+ annually.

Host cities both large and small have achieved notable successes:

  • In its first year, the Dayton, Ohio festival (1996) attracted more people to its downtown than had ever gathered there before, over 100,000 attendees. 

  • National Folk Festival attendance in East Lansing, Michigan (1999–2001) grew from 75,000 in the first year to 125,000 in year three, and laid the groundwork for the Great Lakes Folk Festival. 

  • In Bangor, Maine, one of the smallest cities ever to host the National, attendance increased 70% between 2002-2004, from 80,000 to 145,000; its successor, the American Folk Festival, continued to draw crowds in this range. 

  • The 69th National Folk Festival in Richmond attracted a record 175,000 in 2007, a figure consistently surpassed by its successor, the Richmond Folk Festival, which drew 230,000 in 2022.

  • In Butte, Montana, 165,000 attended the 72nd National Folk Festival in 2010, a number equal to 13% of the state’s entire population; surveys calculated its economic impact in southwestern Montana to be $31 million. The new Montana Folk Festival continues this success.

  • In Greensboro, North Carolina, host city for 2015-2017, attendance increased from 103,000 to 162,000 over the festival’s three-year stay. 

  • During the National’s tenure in Salisbury, Maryland (2018-2022), which was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival drew over 400,000 people to the city's downtown, with over $65M in long-term economic impact.

Attendance and economic impact alone do not comprehensively measure success; the quality of the experience is central. Public feedback consistently affirms that attendees find the National Folk Festival both an exciting and a deeply meaningful experience.

“This year, the weather was perfect, the music was spectacular, [and] Salisbury doubled its festival attendance. The joint success was due, in part, to the wonderful vibe, but also to the presentation of one extremely high quality performance followed by another and another and far too many for any reasonable person to absorb in three days.”

      - Howard Blumenthal, national media producer

The National Folk Festival has provided the impetus for creative-sector growth, for the enhancement, re-imagining, and re-purposing of public spaces in host communities and for building community. It is credited as a prime mover in the transformation of Lowell, Massachusetts, from an economically depressed mill town into a desirable and culturally vibrant community. The American Folk Festival was the catalyst for turning Bangor, Maine’s once rubble-strewn riverfront into an activity-filled space that is now a major attraction. In Butte, Montana, the festival effort sparked the transformation of an abandoned historic mine yard into a spectacular outdoor concert venue, and has helped to build this historic city’s reputation as a heritage tourism destination. The Richmond Folk Festival fostered a new, inclusive spirit of community that annually brings Richmonders, along with many thousands of visitors, together along Richmond’s historic downtown riverfront. 

The NCTA is still involved in the presentation of successor festivals in three former National Folk Festival host communities: Lowell, Massachusetts; Richmond, Virginia; and Butte, Montana. But local partners have taken over much of the work of producing these events—as planned.

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