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.