The Future of the Lowell Folk Festival

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been attending Lowell Folk Festivals for more than a quarter of a century. That makes me feel old. I vividly recall George Price, the jovial assistant superintendent of the Lowell National Park, leading the opening parade up Central Street to the South Common where, in the early days, the evening concerts were held. My primary emotion at the time was “how can something like this be happening in Lowell?”

Twenty-some years later, the Festival is still going strong with many improvements. That’s not to say that the Festival is not in need of change for it probably is: we’re not in “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” territory. But even its harshest critics would have to concede that the Festival as now constituted is a substantial success, even a great success, and so change should come carefully and thoughtfully. I’m thinking evolution rather than revolution.

Before tossing out some possible changes, here’s a little background: I don’t plan my summers around the Lowell Folk Festival. I’ve attended most but in some years the last weekend in July has been spent on trips far from Lowell. When I am here in the city, I always try to get down to the Festival, usually on both days but rarely at night. What draws me to the Festival? The strongest pull is one I alluded to above: I’m still proud (and a bit stunned) that so many people from so many places choose to come to Lowell, Massachusetts on a summer weekend to have a good time. Next is something my co-blogger Paul mentioned in his post from a few days ago: the downtown looks terrific. The Lowell National Park concept was to have a few spaces run by the Federal government, but to use incentives and regulations to renovate and maintain privately owned buildings in a way that’s reflective of (or at least not in conflict with) the appearance of a nineteenth century city in the American northeast. The appearance of the downtown provides compelling evidence that this approach has worked very well.

Besides the people and building watching, there is no single thing that compels me to attend. Instead, it’s the expectation of a serendipitous discovery; a musical genre I’ve never heard of much less listened too suddenly sounding wonderful and familiar. The same can be said for the food. For me, there’s never a “must have” item. I strive to try something new each year and in so doing have been exposed to a lot of food I could have but wouldn’t have tried but for the Festival. Lately, my favorite “stage” has been the intersection of Merrimack and John Streets. First it was some amazing break dancers; next it was a man and a woman juggling and riding unicycles, and this year it was the gravity-defying acrobats called the Red Trousers. I’ve seen street performers around the world and nothing comes close to matching what I saw in front of Cherry and Webb this past weekend.

So what should change? I suspect the concurrent and competing festival in Boston has siphoned off some previous Lowell attendees and the absence of WGBH radio has probably suppressed the same demographic a bit. Since the easiest person to get to the Lowell Folk Festival is someone who lives in Lowell (or one of the nearby towns), perhaps expanding the Lowell-centric aspects of the Festival might draw neighbors who’ve just never felt motivated to head downtown on Festival weekend. Others have suggested it, but I’ll lend my support to the idea of a Lowell stage which features local performers of all genres, not just folk. What about a major national performer kicking off the festival with a concert at the Tsongas Arena with the festival performers in supporting or opening roles? What use can be made of the Lowell Memorial Auditorium during the festival? That seems too valuable an asset to keep on the sidelines given its close proximity to other festival events. What about a concurrent and locally sourced photo or video or art exhibit – the city has put a lot of chips in the “creative economy” pot but my sense is that much of that effort is shuttered or pushed into the shadows during the last weekend in July. I suppose the guiding principal should be to find stuff that a lot of people like but that doesn’t cost a lot to execute which describes a “go with what you’ve got” approach. Oh, and I like beer as much as the next guy, but to me it seems out of place at the Festival as it’s now constituted. The facility at Boarding House Park resembled an outdoor holding cell more than an enjoyable beer garden. There are plenty of businesses downtown willing and able to provide adult beverages to the thirsty masses; why not leave it to them.

Please don’t get me wrong. I had a great time this weekend and I look forward to next year’s version. My concern is that without some evolutionary change the Festival risks fading over time. What’s important now is to begin a continuous, inclusive, civil conversation about the future of the Lowell Folk Festival.

8 Responses to The Future of the Lowell Folk Festival

  1. DickH says:

    I cross-posted this article on my Facebook page and received a number of comments there. I’ve reproduced them below although because FB is semi-private, I’ve removed the identity of those making the comments. If you want to know who said what, check out my FB page.

    • “Cherry and Webb”

    • I cannot tell you how much I love and agree and endorse every word. I’ve been making these suggestions for years. I have been to every single Folk Fest and I met my wife there and I perform at night every year. It means the world to me. Thanks for writing this.

    • Well said and great ideas.

    • I agree. It needs to evolve

    • With the Boston Festival, we need to give people a reason to travel the extra distance. So it would seem we need to offer things that the other Festivals don’t have. I agree with your idea about expanding beyond the folk genre (would that require a name change?). And I recall, in the past, art and craft exhibits. The Festival should also entice people to come BACK to Lowell for other reasons – not just at the end of July.

    • I agree with everything you said….!!!!!

    • You are exactly right about evolving. I must say that I was disappointed that Boston started a competing event. Did that have to happen? The Boston organizers had to have been aware of the nationally known Lowell event. I wish the Mayor and the Governor had asked them to find another date for the good of the Commonwealth.

    • the festival is free but is not free to put together if we use the venues you suggested it will cost you money to get into the venue is that what you want to happen

  2. PaulM says:

    Dick, Thanks for kicking off this discussion. When I saw Alison Krauss scheduled to perform in Boston last weekend, my competitive juices flowed, knowing that we think of her as part of the Lowell Folk Festival narrative from the day when Joe Wilson of the National Council for the Traditional Arts introduced a phenomenal 16-year-old musician and singer to everyone in Lowell. On your thought about tapping the venues at the Tsongas Center and Lowell Memorial Auditorium to expand the Festival, would it be worth considering bringing in a few popular artists like Alison Krauss or Emmylou Harris (featured at Lowell Summer Music Series) as a lead in to the big weekend street festival. Some high-profile festivals in the US and Europe run for almost a week. That would increase overnight visitation also, which the Convention and Visitor Bureau would be glad to see. Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tenn., is four days. SXSW in Austin, Texas, has morphed into a music-film-interactive media expo of high profile. The Manchester, England, International Festival has been called “the most radical and important musical and arts festival today” by the New Yorker (7-2-13). Would it be possible to blend commercial and non-commercial musical acts, particularly those with roots-music roots, like Mumford and Sons or Ray LaMontagne? And then take the multi-ethnic element global? UMass Lowell has more than 90 partnership agreements with colleges and universities around the world. That’s a source of talent. Some thoughts to chew on in the food booths.

  3. Maxine says:

    I just looked at the Boston Summer Arts Weekend online . . . one venue, Copley Square, three major organizers . . . Boston Globe, Citizens Bank and WGBH. Their target audience is Boston. We learned a long time ago that pulling people up from Boston is difficult . . . just getting press in Boston for an event in Lowell is wicked hard. We also learned that there is a huge audience outside of 128 for what Lowell has to offer . . . we pull from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont as well as ‘not Boston’ in Massachusetts . . . that is our audience. More emphasis on the visual arts would be great . . . Art in the Courtyard is good, but it can only feature 20 artists.

    I worked Destination Lowell on Merrimack Street both days but I did get out a bit . . . as always Middle Street was virtually empty except at the Palmer and Shattuck intersections . . . why not turn Middle into Buskers Alley? Or just hand off Middle Street to the artists of Lowell and let us figure out what to do with it? (I know it was tried a while ago . . . but we have a boatload more artists here now)

    Extending the festival would be cool but hard on downtown residents and businesses, but what if the weekend was bracketed by workshops, master classes and sessions at the University . . .

  4. Gary Francis says:

    I was at most of the Folk Festivals either as a merchant with stores in downtown Lowell and/or as the host of the festival on both WLLH and WCAP. The latter gave me the opportunity to get the guided tour of the entire festival each year and I must say that some of the “shine” has faded over the past few years. I agree with Dick Howe that adult beverages belong inside the establishments that serve them year round and not outside or on the streets (I’ve been saying that since the first year)….and I have noticed that the local arts and craft community has been noticeably absent the past few years (perhaps the departure of Jerry Beck has something to do with that). This year the presence of way too many “carny vendors” was a negative point especially since no one seemed to be doing anything about it. And while I understand how important it is I heard many people voice concerns about the visibility of security as being a bit off-putting (especially to parents with their children). The M16’s behind the Boarding House Park Stage did seem a little extreme.

  5. Gary Francis says:

    And…..I noticed that there seemed to be a lack of promotion outside of Lowell this year. I noticed that there was nothing listed in the Yankee Magazine Calendar of Events that mentioned the Folk Festival (although the August Quilt Festival was listed)…that made me search out other event calendars….and I found that few, if any, of the online calendars had the Folk Festival listed. It was missing from most of the Boston TV stations online calendars, etc. Now I know that there have been a lot of changes in the Special Events office in Lowell….but isn’t the National Park in charge of Press Releases and promotion? If so then it seems that someone either dropped the ball or everyone thought that it was someone else’s job. If people aren’t reminded about it – they won’t come.

  6. Janet says:

    A Lowell stage would be a fantastic addition.

    A poetry slam along the lines of Louder Than A Bomb would be great — slam poetry definitely fits in with “folk” and “traditional arts”. Maybe the slam stage could be at Kerouac Park.

    More buskers.

    Angelique Kidjo (is that how you spell it?) or some other major African star would be good, though I think she was in Boston either for last weekend’s festival or the one before it.

    Honk bands — anarchist brass bands are another traditional art.

    Forget Boston. Think national. The Lowell Folk Festival draws from a much wider area that is well outside Boston.

    Other things: skateboard competition, box hockey tournament , street hockey tournament, traditional games like jump rope.

    Maybe a “grand marshall” or a “festival queen” or some other honor for some prominent national person.

    Too many thought….

  7. Renee Aste says:

    I would go if I personally know someone who is doing something. If I had a neighbor invite me to the festival, because her cousin-in-law was performing I would make the effort to go. It’s been about eight years since we went. We use to go often when I was younger. In high school and college, if anyone was visiting we went for a night out for cheap entertainment.

  8. ellen donohoe says:

    I agree with both Dick and Paul and the others that we need to tweek things at the Festval – I sold CD’s there this weekend for virtually the whole festival – I had about 2 hours off Saturday, but other than that I was spending most of my time at Boarding House Park and I did Dutton Street from 5:00 on Saturday until they closed. I loved every minute of it, but a number of the volunteers did not show up and this has been happening more – it is hard when you have merchandise to sell – most venues need at least 3 people and when you don’t have that number it can get crazy.

    I love selling CD’s because we do signings and get to talk to the musicians which is interesting. i also agree that there needs to be more signage to make sure that everyone knows about the Festival. Some years they had banners at the train station so that folks coming from Boston or other destinations between Boston and Lowell were made aware of the festival. I spoke with a number of people who were less than thrilled about the Boston Festival – one gentleman asked me and another volunteer about it, and we both told him that we knew it was going on, but we did not pay any attention to it because we were focused on the Festival here.