The 16th annual Festival of American Folklife, back in its original location on the Mall, is sense-sational. One can stand in the middle of the sudden hubbub and treat each sense to the diverse joys of life in the melting pot.
For the ear, there is the rollicking western swing of Bob Wills' brother, Johnny Lee; the pulsing blues of the Charlie Sayles band; the lilting ballads of Joe Heany; the stark, ethereal wail of a Korean ajaeng; the earthy spirituality of shaped-note singing. It's like turning on your radio and picking up the whole wide world.
For the eyes, there are colorful costumes and wondrous crafts, masked dancers from Korea, ornate buckskins, Cherokee and Korean pottery, dolls, hats, work tools.
For the nose and the tongue, there is Oklahoma and Indian style barbecue (the latter is cooked without sauce on an open fire), kalguksu (handmade noodles cooked in chicken broth) and oisobegi (pickled vegetables) from Korea, the smell of machines in motion and the sweat of sun-baked men and women.
For the throat, old fashioned lemonade and new fashioned beer and cola.
And there are sounds and rhythms of work--Oklahoma quarter horses neighing and kids yeaing as they rope dummy calves and ride bucking barrels; hammers coming down, oil rigs drilling, leather being scraped into saddles, pots being foot turned and hand shaped, silver being tapped into jewelry, proud wood being bent into instruments, age-old techiques meeting on a common ground with modern-day technology.
For the mind, there is enough activity to satisfy a year's worth of curiosity. This year's festival, which focuses on the traditions, occupational folklore, music and crafts of Oklahoma and Korea, demands only two commitments: time, because there's so much to see, do and enjoy, and a willingness to ask questions, because these exhibits talk back.
Scenes from the festival:
Two Korean-American youngsters are flying through the air with the greatest of ease, but there's no sign of any trapeze. In the middle of the crowd, though, a long board sits over a block of wood, a seemingly primitive seesaw. Up and down, up and down, each landing translating to a launch, each new shaky landing suggesting the encounter of Robin Hood and Littlejohn over the Sherwood stream. But Korean-born and Michigan-bred Wook Lee, now a Harvard senior, describes its real purpose. "In ancient Korea, walls ran around the entire house and, by Confucian tradition, women were not allowed out of the house. So they devised a way of peeking over the wall to take a look at the outside world: The idea is to send each other up high enough so you can see over the wall and keep it going as long as possible. We have it in the children's area because it's a lot of fun. It's a lot harder than it looks," he adds.
Under the cooling shade of the Mall's trees, there's a scale model of an Oklahoma oil field; it's surrounded by the real thing--rotary drills and seismic vibrators, pipelines and pumps. Veteran Doodlebuggers (oil explorers) explain the language and traditions of the old-time pipeliners, rolling out wonderful words like "collarpecking" and "buck tonging" and "growler boards." Peter Seitel addresses the challenge: "The basic thing about oil drilling is you put a hole in the ground." In fact, his crew will be drilling 66 feet down into the Washington earth; no one expects any oil in this here Mall. "We had maps out and made sure there was no Metro there and no electricity and no steam," Seitel says. "I don't think anything is going to come up." But just in case they strike oil, it's already been decided who gets it: "The Park Service."
A 500-yard-long racing lane runs halfway down the middle of the Mall. Every few hours, there's a matched (one-against-one) race between powerful quarter horses, which the announcer claims can beat any other breed of horse from a standing start, up to 440 yards. The Mall becomes a little Laurel, crowds lining the rails; since there's no tout sheet, there's no betting. In the first race, Barb-B-Bob McQ wins "by a nose," according to the announcer. He must be thinking of Pinocchio's nose at income tax time.
At other times, the horses look like they're sashaying to the insistent strains of "Take the A Train" and "Satin Doll" played by the Wills Orchestra. There's a lot of horse-breeding culture here, including the very necessary contribution of saddle and tack maker Glenn Warren. He makes 40 saddles a year, each one made to suit the needs of its owner.
"A working cowboy, what they call a buckaroo in the Northwest, will use his differently than a southwest roper," Warren says as he scarps the leather into its familiar shape. "A cowboy in Oklahoma or Texas wants a saddle he can get out of in a hurry, especially if he's roping. A buckaroo wants a saddle that sits high in the back; if he's going to be settin' in it for 10 or 12 hours at a time, he wants something comfortable, something he can just sit back in and relax in while he's riding. A pleasure rider will be halfway in between." Warren services very few weekend riders. "I'm priced too high for them $1,500 a saddle . That saddle might last a lifetime for a weekend rider, but a working cowboy will wear one out in three to five years, completely wear 'em out. It astounds me how they do it. They'll come in and the leather will be paper thin and I use the heaviest leather I can find."
The festival runs Thursdays through Mondays for the next two weeks from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. There are evening concerts tomorrow and Sunday, and Thursday through Saturday next week. Admission is free. Today's Schedule
11 a.m.-3 p.m.--Mexican-American, black swing, Oklahoma fiddle music, blues and gospel music, Oklahoma Music Stage.
11 a.m.-6 p.m.--Korean musical and dance soloists, Korean Music Stage.
11 a.m.-1 p.m.--National Heritage Fellowships craft exhibitions and demonstrations, Museum of American History.
3 p.m.-4 p.m.--Performance horse events, Horse and Track Arena.
5 p.m.--Children's clog dancing instruction, Children's Stage.
All events on the National Mall are free. Craft demonstrations and workshops continue all day.