Friday, May 22, 2015

Leaving Folklife

The first time I attended the Northwest Folklife Festival I was fifteen years old. I found out about it when I played my very first harp gig at the opening of an Irish restaurant on Bainbridge Island on St. Patrick's Day in 1981. Two other local harpers also played that gig, the late Ron Konzak and the very much not-late Karen Bruner. They both told me I should go, so I did.

For those of you who don't know, Folklife is a four-day festival that takes place each year on Memorial Day weekend at Seattle Center. Stages are set up all over the grounds and thousands of volunteer performers apply to be a part of it.

Not too long before my first
time performing at Folklife.
It's not an exaggeration to say that Folklife changed the trajectory of my life, though I had already found my direction. I was instantly surrounded with other traditional and folk musicians from whom I could learn. A smörgåsbord of instruments to try, handicrafts, clothes, food, dances, and everywhere fascinating people! There was even a particular tree under which Witches (there weren't any other kinds of Pagans around then) gathered. When I went back home to the farm, I had new eyes to see with. I knew there was another world waiting for me.

The following year I performed at Folklife for the first time. It was at the stage set up next to the Kobe Bell. Some of my high school friends came, and before too many more years, attending Folklife was the official start of Summer.

That was thirty three years ago. Once or twice I missed the festival entirely, but usually I went. After that first performance, I didn't apply again until the formation of my band, Wicked Celts. We performed every year during the band's lifetime. By the time the it was winding down, Slighe nan Gaidheal was starting to fill up my calendar, so our musical group, Seirm, would keep me getting up on stages at Folklife. I never once had an application rejected.

In 2012 I released my first solo CD, and started looking for opportunities to perform so I could promote the recording and make some progress toward resurrecting my solo career. I applied to Folklife and was accepted. I even got a pretty good time slot.

The next year I applied again, and got a mediocre time slot and had the absolute worst sound engineering experience of my life. The stage was awash in feedback the entire show. Folklife 2013 was a nightmare for me.

Then, in 2014, the part of Seattle Center where Folklife programmed most of its British Isles content was going to be under construction and unavailable. This is the year I will always think of as The Blood Bath. My application was rejected, along with many, many of my best musical friends. We were all upset, but tried to give Folklife the benefit of the doubt and soldiered on.

Then, as if by fate, I found myself the recipient of a pair of complimentary tickets to a fabulous concert by Le Vent du Nord. Doug and I went, and we hadn't been in our seats too long before our hosts introduced us to another beneficiary of their generosity. The individual had only just left a position at Folklife that involved making application decisions, so before I could stop myself, I asked "So, what was up this year?" The individual hesitated a moment, then said: "Oh. You're that Seumas." Bingo.

The individual related the official Folklife narrative about how the usual British Isles content stage was unavailable and how only some of the customary acts could be accommodated on other stages... If they had stopped there it might have worked, but they didn't. After all, they continued, the British Isles genre did have a much higher acceptance rate than any other genre so leveling the playing field... [over to my inner voice] ...was an opportunity to cut the second rate acts who were just getting in for the sake of Celtic coolness... [back to the outer world]

I had been cut as a second-rate act. It was a bitter pill to swallow.

Since then, I've had plenty of time to think back over the last three plus decades of supporting Folklife and realized that there has been an evolving pattern of change from my first experience of the festival. Some examples:

  • There used to be one big hall of vendors where artists and craftspeople of all kinds, including instrument vendors were housed. First the instruments were taken out and isolated in a musical instrument emporium, then they were eliminated. That's right: you can't buy a fiddle at Folklife anymore.
  • Sandy Bradley used to run a musical instrument auction, which was a fantastic opportunity for musicians to sell unwanted instruments, and for aspiring folks to buy them; sometimes at excellent prices. Sandy retired. Folklife stopped holding the auction.
  • Folklife used to sell your CDs for you all weekend. Now you can set up a table next to your stage if you have someone to staff it for you while you perform.
  • Electric instruments used to be excluded from Folklife. Now they blare across the Seattle Center and drown out the traditional music.
  • There used to be a performer's appreciation party on the Saturday evening of the weekend held at a nearby venue with many spaces for musicians to mix and meet each other. Now it's held in the same hospitality barn that's open to performers all weekend. There's no additional effort made whatsoever.
  • Performers have long enjoyed having the instrument check-in room, and that continues today, but it's run by the local scouting council for tips, not by Folklife.
  • This year, performers were reminded that they are not allowed to use Seattle Center bathrooms to change in and out of performance attire. I plan on taking off my kilt in the lobby of the theatre.
I'm sure that every single one of these changes was for a Good Reason™, but from my perspective, each of them was a small step away from Folklife being an event at which traditional and folk musicians could find and inspire each other and a step toward what it is today. Last year, when I was still stinging from my first rejection e-mail I complained about the change in direction and an individual who had in years past been in a program management position with the festival stated "Folklife isn't a folk music festival! It's a community festival!" The irony was apparently completely lost on him.

Almost certainly my last performance at Folklife in 2013
In my opinion, Folklife sold its soul to preserve its life, and is well on the way to becoming the kind of villain that that choice typically produces.


Greenmanharper said...

Damn right and spot on! Thanks for your excellent and astute post.
And I remember those early days--much fun and comradeship, but no more.

Sara Walthery said...

Sort of a sad story - as usual, well thought out and well written. But it seems to me that this is a process of most, if not all, festivals. They start out idealistic and energetic with a group of people committed to the idea, they either fizzle or grow, with good and not so good years ... and if they grow, they get too big for their britches. Too often, the soul is sacrificed for survival. What ruins most successful festivals is that they become profitable enough to foster greed, either of money or power, and are used for personal gain of the persons put in charge. Yours lasted longer than most.

Sheilagh Morlan said...

Well said, Seumas. I, too, remember the years that I spent the whole weekend at Folklife, usually helping Rob Folsom break his sound gear down on Monday night. Things really changed the year they said no tarot readers and refused to let Leon run a booth so the readers could pay the city's precious taxes. The number of stages seems to get smaller every year. I'll go for a day this year to see some friends who were lucky (?) enough to make the cut, see a couple of vendor friends I only see there. But then I'll go home for the rest of the weekend.

Theodore Johnson said...

In my mind over the years Folklife become more like bumbershoot, taste of Seattle, etc just like every other SC event filled with food booth and money to be made -but the unique offerings continue to disappear.

Theodore Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Dally said...

Good on you, Seamus. It's a pretty miserable experience with the focus moving from the music lovers to the market killers. It helps to be young and beautiful (like you). We applied and got in this year, but we are not really looking forward to the crappy sound and abusive stage manager. Maybe if we add African drumming and an electric bass while covering Lady Gaga we might get a good spot between the dreadlocks steel drums and ukilele babes on Saturday afternoon.

Traepischke said...

Very well said, Seumas, and very sad as well. Steve and I never get in anymore, and I honestly think that Coventry got in for so long because we happened to be favoured by one of the programmers. If the Maritime Showcase was not bankrolled by someone, it wouldn't be there either. It would be lovely if it could be what it was, but it's a festival that is most definitely NOT for the performer any more. I'm all for finding a paying gig next year.

tomahawkcounty said...

Folklife has become Bumbershoot Jr. The musical instrument auctions and the handmade instruments for sale were a big part of my weekends there. Countless hours were spent at the old "Bluegrass Hill" between the Flag Stage and Center House before it was reduced to small patch of grass. And I am guessing the stage you played with the nightmare sound was in the northwest court, because when I last played there several years ago, I could not hear my instrument among the muddy feedback, and had to play by sight and memory for an entire set. Felt like venting, I'm done bitching.