It's 9 in the morning, and the tent city is waking up. Slowly. Folks are shaking the sleep out of their heads and focusing on a strange town. The Washington Monument has yet to cast a significant shadow, but an auctioneer is testing the patience of a microphone with more words per minute than seem possible.
The Thai stone carver and the Finnish and Georgian builders unpack their tools, letting the early rays of the sun warm the iron and steel and wood. And Marcus Johnson, known to thousands of Washingtonians as The Balloon Man, is already filling the air with his singsong "Make the children happy." The monument grounds are normally off limits to street vendors, but for the next six days he has been certified a genuine folk tradition.
Yesterday was the opening day of the 14th Annual Festival of American Folklife, in which music, crafts, dance, lifestyles and working traditions are brought together from all over the country. This year, the accented traditions are drawn from Finnish-Americans, Caribbean-Americans, and the country's newest minority, Southeast-Asian Americans. But all regions are represented by the more than 200 festival participants.
Eugene Lane, 66, is building a "dog-trot" house from scratch. It's a style indigenous to the South, with a distinctive open hallway (the "dog trot" or "turkey run") flanked by two rooms to allow for maximum breeze. By Monday night, the house will have been completed by a 10-man crew, but for now Lane is shooting the breeze. That's one of his major jobs for the next six days. His strong, coal-black face is graced with the merest wisp of a white mustache and hint of beard. He's from Ocilla, Ga. Where's that? "100 miles from Macon, 75 from Albana, 25 miles from Douglas, 18 miles from Tifton." For Lane, everything has its place.
The monument grounds are covered with people at their work. There are chunks and planks of wood, knots of rope for the various building projects, slabs of pork rib cooking in a concrete-block pit for the hordes of hungry visitors. The sound of a roll of coins being cracked open in a food tent overlaps with the punchy percussion of a steel drum . . . with the clanking of wood beams being hewn and joined as a sauna is pieced together . . . with the cadence of a pitch for the rejuvenating powers of a "medicinal brew" . . . with the clapping of children at new games.
At 11 a.m., one hour after the festival has lurched to life, S. Dillion Ripley, Secretary of the sponsoring Smithsonian Institution, makes his welcoming remarks. "We want to make our greeting short and snappy," he says and the seven honored guests on the platform -- including former senator William Fulbright -- nod their heads in agreement. Twenty minutes later, almost all of the kids who had once crowded the tent have cleared out, smoke and scents from a nearby barbecue have drifted in, and signer-for-the-deaf Kathy Caplicki looks tired from having to interpret such oratory as: "The festival is a way in which the past can point to the future." Calypsonian Winston Green sings a 90-second improvsation on what the festival is all about. His applause is enthusiastic.
A mass of students from Arlington sit wonder-eyed as one-armed harmonica player Neal Pattaman sings and whoops and wails through "Mama's Whooping Blues." They grin at 85-year-old W. Guy Bruce's flailing banjo and old-time hollers. And gape at Gordon Tanner as he coaxes the shriek of a mockingbird from his hand-built fiddle. They dance to irresistible Calypso rhythms, stand in awe of the fire-eaters, cheer the stickfighters.
Dul Phok is a stone carver from Thailand. He's only been in this country for six months. (By contrast, some of the Finnish-American families who are here to hue logs, make fish nets and build whip sleds are six generations along.) Dul Phok speaks very little English, but smiles as people stop to admire his intricate carvings on soap stone. From a nearby tent, one can hear the Laotian xylophone called the ranat, played by 61-year-old So Khamvongsa. He's followed by the sounds of the kaen, a free reed instrument looking like a long-legged Pan pipe but sounding like a cross between a pump organ and a hrmonica. Sounds abound.
There is a tent where one can learn dozens of ways to preserve food, including drying beans in the back window of your car. In the distance, one can see long lines at the food tents. Tradition again.
The festival itself is returning to tradition next year, when it will be held once again around the Fourth of July weekend. But the message will be the same: Traditions must be preserved, recycled, respected; things of value must be passed down and passed around.