The Smithsonian's annual Festival of American Folklife, which over the years has celebrated moonshiners, totem pole carvers, net weavers, hog callers, lye soap ladlers, sausage stuffers and illusionists, among others, opens its 20th annual editiond today, spotlighting the folkways of the nation's trial lawyers.
So deeply and wackily ingrained is the festival in the consciousness of Washington that throngs will doubtless show up anyway, to picnic on barbecue and beer beneath the elms and tents on the Mall, listen to tall tales, string bands and blues shouters and wonder anew at the richness and diversity of America.
Will the festival move on next year to the quaint customs of insurance actuaries, morticians or, Lord help us, journalists?
"There's folklore in every area," says Smithsonian Assistant Secretary Ralph Rinzler, 51, one of the festival's founders and a man of definite mental mischief. "Lawyers may seem furthest from the festival tradition but nobody gets to be a lawyer without studying dramatic performance and artful creativity."
*Actually, the lawyer-as-folk-artist may be a sign of the times for the festival, which, despite its secure niche as a Washington folkway itself, ends its second decade staring into the toothy maw of Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget cutbacks.
*"When you deal with marginal cultures, you yourself become marginal," says Peter Seitel, 43, director of the Smithsonian's Office of Folklife Programs. While not exactly apologizing for the lawyers, he says it didn't hurt that the American Trial Lawyers Association "initiated two years of funding," including a year of fieldwork and study to see if the program of mock trials and oratory could be made to work.
The trial lawyers wanted the showcase and provided the money, Seitel said, but "they kept hands off the program all the way. We wouldn't be doing it if we didn't think it would fit in with the festival and contribute to it."
Yet at the same time, he says with an expression of genuine wonder, since much of folk life is a wedding of tradition and spontaneity,"nobody really knows exactly what's going to happen. That's the great wager of the festival every year."
If the trial lawyers are the biggest wager of this year's festival, they are far from the only one. The same minds that in years past have planted fields of cotton and tobacco on the Mall, built a race track there and even drilled for oil will this year create a working rice paddy as part of a program on the culture of Japan. Rice will be planted, harvested, sung about, cooked, eaten and made into sake. Rice straw will be woven into dolls, boots, raincoats, tatami mats and textiles.
The State of Tennessee will also be featured in demonstration programs ranging from a working sawmill and a moonshine still to coopery, turtle trapping, storytelling and corn-husk chair-bottoming. There'll be music from such Tennessee standouts as the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers string band, the Duck Creek Quartet gospel singers and guitarist Reece Shipley, creator of "Milkbucket Boogie."
On the culinary front, where the festival over the years deserves the Calvin Trillin Award for its tireless research into Ultimate Barbecue and other Real Food, we are promised a cornucopia of Japanese and Choctaw dishes, plus pork barbecue from one Bill Howard of Chester County, Tenn., a man with a sauce recipe so treasured he keeps it secret from his own wife.
Can even lawyers make all this dull? Not a chance.
bat16 precede For wonder and delight, it is hard to find something to compare with the sight of a skinny old man, his brightly-printed shorts showing above his jeans, making corn liquor on federal property.
-- Judith Martin (now Miss Manners), 1969
It is difficult, even for those of us privileged to have sampled most of the past 19 folk life festivals, to remember what Washington was like without them. It is less difficult to remember that in those pre-Wolf Trap, pre-Kennedy Center, pre-clean Potomac days, there was precious little to celebrate about a Washington summer at all.
In the spring of 1967, with the nation increasingly polarized by race, class, region and the Vietnam War, and by a Baby Boom generation increasingly vocal about the "irrelevance" of American values, S. Dillon Ripley -- the patrician ornithologist who then headed the Smithsonian -- did a marvelous thing. He put a carrousel on the Mall.
The Mall had been an austere place, scenic and symbolic, but somewhat authoritarian. The carrousel changed all that. Graceful and archaic, it whirled and tinkled, reminding the warring social and political factions that beauty was still there to be seen, wonder and delight to be experienced, flowers to be smelled. Longhaired hippies rode it, and elderly country tourists; servicemen and kids with peace medals and blacks and whites. In the seriously politicized Washington of 1967, the carrousel made it okay to smile.
But not everyone was amused. And when plans were announced for the first folk life festival, over that Fourth of July weekend, voices in Congress suggested that a "circus atmosphere" was beneath the dignity of both the Mall and the Smithsonian.
"There were some remarks made," remembers Ripley from retirement in Litchfield, Conn., "to the effect that I was going to turn the Mall into a midway. And I said I would rather have the Mall a conservative midway than a desert. I used to call it 'Forest Lawn on the Potomac.' "
The true origin of the folk life festival, he says, "came from my philosophy of bringing the museum out of its glass cages and into real life. Urban people nowadays have no idea where milk comes from. They think it comes from a carton. So in the beginning we had cows being milked and sheep being sheared and musical instruments being made. So many children see musical instruments only as something made out of plastic stamped out by a machine. But seeing people actually living and doing these things makes them more vital and alive."
But in 1967 it also did something else. With its wonderful mix of Navaho sand painters, North Carolina dulcimer makers, Alabama quilters, Blue Ridge cloggers, Chinese-American lion dancers and even a Czech-American polka band from Texas, the festival reminded America that the differences within our society were not a weakness, but a strength.
bat16 precede This is the surest antidote for what ails America down deep. People here are trying to be creative. Too bad there isn't more of it. Too bad there isn't much consciousness of it. When you live in a city, you forget so easily.
-- Sen. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), 1970
To organize the festival, Ripley tapped a folk impresario named James Morris, then 39, who must have been to the oft-stuffy Smithsonian what the carrousel was to the Mall. A voice student at Juilliard, Morris had sung as a cockney in the original cast of "My Fair Lady," then gone to Germany as an opera singer. He was taking a course in cultural history at Goethe University when he became a captive of folk culture. Returning to the United States as a public relations man, he put on the first American Folklife Festival in Ashville, N.C., in 1963. It was a critical success and a financial disaster; Morris spent two years working his way out of debt.
Along the way he met Rinzler, who had gone to Europe after Swarthmore to become an opera conductor but ended up in France as a translator for Pan American Airlines. Rinzler made his reentry to the United States in the late 1950s, bought a sitar and settled down in Greenwich Village just in time for the folk music revival, for which he became something of a midwife. He served as a spokesman for Joan Baez and the Greenbriar Boys, discovered legendary guitarist Doc Watson at the Union Grove, N.C., Fiddlers' Convention, and in 1963 brought Watson and bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe to the first Newport Folk Festival.
"The first two years of the Smithsonian festival fieldwork really came off discoveries I'd made for Newport," Rinzler remembers. But Morris, who is no longer with the Smithsonian, "deserves much of the credit for what the festival has become."
Rinzler combed the country's rural areas, searching out singers, instrumentalists, storytellers and artisans. The people he turned up -- Cajun bands, Delta blues shouters, Hispanic folk harpists, Ukrainian dancers -- have mesmerized festival-goers ever since.
How did he find them?
"I suppose it's something like a reporter researching a story," he says. "If you're looking for musicians, you start with a fiddlers' convention or a regional music festival or a local fair. You ask a lot of questions and one guy gives you a name and that guy gives you another name and you just follow the trail.
"Or, if you're looking for one type of blues man or folk artist you might go to the community where another one you've heard of lived, and often you find somebody else doing the same sort of blues. Or a variation. Or you get another lead."
A big part of the search, he says, is serendipity.
"I remember one year driving down a steep, winding mountain road in eastern Kentucky pulling a 14-foot U-Haul trailer full of quilts and rag rugs I'd picked up at various craft fairs. And I began to realize the trailer hitch was loose and the trailer was trying to take me over the edge of the mountain. And that was worrisome. And then just to add to things I began to get a flat tire. And I was really in the middle of nowhere.
"And suddenly I came upon this little filling station, with kind of 1920s pumps outside and no signs of life. I was just grateful for a place to pull off the road, but when I went inside I found these people with the most extraordinary collection of buckeye dough trays and corncob dolls and the like they had been making to sell at the local fair. There was no sign outside that anything like this was inside. And of course they were incredulous that anyone from the Smithsonian would be interested." sk,2
bat16 precede Look at all those college kids out there. They're looking for the roots of our society. And where can you find them more than in our folk traditions and our folk music? You could learn more here in an afternoon than in a semester in college.
-- Fiddler Jimmy Driftwood of Timbo, Ark., 1970
In its 19-year march toward today's opening, the Festival of American Folklife has survived tear gas, monsoon rains, seas of mud, runaway cattle, Yippie smoke-ins, dust, crowds, sweltering heat, endless beer lines and moves both temporal (from summer to fall for two years) and geographical (to the fields near the Lincoln Memorial during Metro construction on the Mall).
In the process it has proven itself as polymorphous and resilient as the cultural heritage it celebrates. From a four-day, $40,000 effort in 1967, it grew quickly to nine days, then in 1969 began a gradual evolution toward the 12-week, $16-million spectacular that frolicked on the Mall all Bicentennial summer. Having spawned numerous offspring, public and private, it was headed for phase-out the following year, but thousands petitioned for its renewal and it re-emerged as a two-week effort in the fall. Two years later it reoccupied the Fourth of July weekend in the two-week form it has had ever since (this year's budget: $1.5 million). Seitel and other festival thinkers are now mapping festivals ahead to the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage, in 1992.
"I'd like to do something on the confrontation between European culture and Native American cultures that year," Seitel says.
Cultural confrontation -- as well as conservation -- is what the folk life festival is all about, but it hasn't always been part of the official schedule. In 1968, for example, a Texas tall-tale teller walked out of the festival protesting the presence of the cultural affairs director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and two Mexican mariachi bands refused to join a sing-along of "This Little Light of Mine," saying they objected to singing any song in English.
In 1970, Ripley remembers "concerns about protests and Weathermen and what have you, and this strange group of people announced they were going to have a smoke-in on the steps of the Capitol. And they started moving down the Mall in their leather jackets looking sinister. They were quite dirty people, actually. And just as people began to fold up their lawn chairs and hurry away from these leather-clad, dirty people, a group of Jesus freaks appeared and confronted them and raised their arms in prayer or supplication or something. And the problem just melted away. It was really quite remarkable."
Another confrontation, between the Yippies and the Park Police, once sent tear gas drifting down the Mall into the festival. Rinzler remembers it sweeping down on an elderly baker who refused to abandon an ovenful of bagels. Ripley remembers it enveloping several cows and spoiling their milk.
sk,3 There was also the mule that left a molasses-making demonstration one year and climbed the steps of the National Gallery of Art. And in 1976, a 400-pound bull calf escaped from a corral and fled down Constitution Ave., disrupting morning traffic. It ended up in the Kennedy Center parking lot where, after trying to butt a Fiat, it was captured by an Ethiopian student who caught it by the tail. "I know about livestock," he explained.
sk,2 For Seitel, a bespectacled scholar who has headed the Smithsonian's folklore effort for years, such moments comprise much of the wonder and mystery of the festival. Many festival-goers, he says, as well as some in the museum, tend to look on the festival programs as "performances -- it's all rock 'n' roll to them." Officials of participating states, he adds, tend to think of the festival as a trade show, and those of participating countries see it as some kind of international exposition.
But to true scholars of folklore, Seitel says, the festival itself is not only a "celebratory event" but also part of a "negotiated reality" between the traditions it presents and the contemporary setting that affects them. It's a happening, in other words, that attempts to discover what it takes for a tradition to survive.
For example, Seitel said, last year when the festival presented scores of performers, artifacts and foods from rural India, "we took great care, as always, with the way we presented it. We want to make everything authentic and not patronize or trivialize anything, but we also didn't want to misrepresent anything.
"One aspect we wanted to present was a Hindu temple. We had two Indian advisers negotiating on the phone for about two hours about how to do it. They decided the best way was to build a miniature replica of a temple in the program area, but make it clear it was a replica and not the real thing. So we built the little temple, and when the Indian folk artists arrived, very simple people, we told them this was a replica just to show Americans what a temple looked like.
"But as the festival went on, a wonderful thing happened. They got used to it, and began quite naturally to leave flowers and other offerings in it, and it became a real temple!"
The Festival of American Folklife started as a similar demonstration model -- but like the temple, it has become a force in its own right. Seitel says it has affected the way the Smithsonian looks at traditions, the sort of things it collects and even the sort of people it hires. Rinzler calls it a "cultural Good Housekeeping seal," legitimizing and encouraging crafts, music and traditions that without it might have faded away.
"These people and traditions," Seitel says, "are as important to our collective identity as Americans as the Wright brothers' plane, the first space capsule or any object in Washington."
Trial lawyers and all.
The Smithsonian's annual Festival of American Folklife, which over the years has celebrated moonshiners, totem pole carvers, net weavers, hog callers, lye soap ladlers, sausage stuffers, and illusionists, among others, opens it's 20th annual edition today, spotlighting the folkways of the nations trial lawyers.