The Rosebud Singers from the Sharon Baptist Church stand on stage in their gold gospel robes and belt out "Amazing Grace." Twenty feet away a D.C. Fire Department truck hums steadily while firefighters demonstrate how to rescue a victim from a smoke-filled house.
Under a tent, Ai Thi Tong cooks up sweet-smelling pork while Hang Phan Hoang boils Vietnamese spinach from her Bowie garden and prepares soybean sauce for steak. Within sight of the tent is Kiowa Indian Ernest Doyebi, who brought willow and oak from Anadarko, Okla., to thatch together a summer shade arbor.
Another tent holds the Vietnamese group called Huong Xua ("Fragrances of the Past"), who sing in plaintive voices just a stone's throw from the stage for the Ozark Medicine Show.
It is the Smithsonian's 13th annual open-air cultural mishmash on the Mall, the Festival of American Folklife, and as usual it is an amusement park for the senses.
Michael Collins, a former astronaut and now the undersecretary of the Smithsonian, looked around yesterday after the opening ceremony and groped for words to describe what he saw. "It's like Frisbee," he said of the mood. "There's no bad aspect to this. People just come and enjoy themselves."
At the festival, which runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day through Monday (except Sunday when the pope comes to the Mall), there will be music, a children's area, crafts to make and craftsmen to watch, Vietnamese cooks to observe and Vietnamese food to buy and eat.
Pemperton Cecil, 52, brought boxes of wood to make limberjacks, little jointed figures suspended above wooden paddles. The paddles are jostled in such a way that the limberjacks makes music, and experts like Cecil get almost any tune they want out of them.
Cecil comes from Wileyville, W. Va., where for years no one had TV or radio or electricity, but everyone had dominoes and checkers and some kind of musical instrument.
Cecil appeared yesterday in striped shirt, new jeans and straw hat.
For 12 years, since he became unable to work in the oil fields, he has made folk toys. "I had a bad heart and they said I wouldn't live long," said Cecil, "but I've been fooling them ever since."
He is a veteran of the festival circuit: the Harvest Moon Festival in Charleston (where he broke his Jew's harp -- "I break one about every festival"); the festival in Quaker City, Ohio; the West Virginia Folk Festival in Glenville. After Monday, it will be "on to Dayton, Ohio, I reckon," said Cecil, who gets $35 a day at the Smithsonian's festival plus room, board and travel. "The money's not the reason I do it," he said with a broad grin, "I enjoy it -- and it's free publicity."
Ken Cox, from Ladder Company 8 in Southeast Washington, stroke over to a group of bystanders. "Wanna handle the hose?" he asked cheerfully. He was one of the firefighters from all over the District -- many of whom had worked the previous night -- who came to the festival with a 100-foot hook-and-ladder truck and a hose wagon (all reserve apparatus) to show people who they fight fires and rescue victims. They used a two-story "house" constructed and painted especially for the occasion, filled it with smoke, and rescued a "victim" from the second floor.
There were a variety of "narrative workshops" -- including one with three former players of the Washington Senators -- Walt Masterson, Chuck Hinton and Jim Lemon -- who talked glibly about the days when Washington had a baseball team. They told stories of life on the road, like the time a player nonchalantly knocked on Masterson's hotel room window to ask for a beer. The room was on the 18th floor.
And in another part of the festival, a group of Montgomery County high school students talked about their organization -- the Inter-Dimensionary Council.
"We each have our own fantasy planets," said 14-year-old Arshavir Blackwell, who has concocted his oun planetary civilization, complete with maps, measuring system and alphabet. "I'm working on a language," he explained.
At the council meetings, they discuss what's going on on their planets, new technologies, new processes.
"We hope we might find other people here," said Blackwell of his eight-member group, "Who have other worlds and might want to participate in the council."
Blackwell and some of the other students have had their fantasy worlds for 10 years. The worlds often began with superheroes from science-fiction and evolved into more sophisticated ideas.
"I guess I got the idea from watching TV and reading books," said Denise Sayer. "First I had a character ruling a continent on earth. Then I thought, 'what am I doing on Earth?' So I moved her to another area. Now she rules 36 systems."
Sayer's counterpart in her fantasy world is also the star dancers of a 600-member ballet troupe whose muscular structure allows them to kick their legs together over their heads.
"Everybody has fantasies," said Karen Tucker. "But we just didn't get rid of ours."