The press kit for the National Folk Festival contains a ringing endorsement of its mission from the president of the United States. Yes, when the event arrives this weekend in Nashville, which beat out 43 other cities to host it, it will carry the approval of the commander-in-chief in office during its earliest years — President Franklin D. Roosevelt. (The first National, as it's called for short, was held in St. Louis in 1934.)
As public relations go, that's a sizable score. Add to that the fact that first lady Eleanor Roosevelt served on one of the festival's committees — as did a pre-White House Harry Truman, novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston and the venerable poet James Weldon Johnson, to name just a few — and you've only scratched the surface of why the National, now approaching its eighth decade, may be the most the most historically significant, culturally rich music festival most people have never heard of.
Not to mention one of the most inclusive. It's not particularly groundbreaking for a festival to take a melting-pot approach now: That's status quo at Bonnaroo. But folklorist Sarah Gertrude Knott founded her traveling folk festival in a very different world. In the 1930s, mono-cultural folk fests were the norm — some established by purists who saw it as their duty to keep Anglo-American folk culture unsullied by anything as funky or exotic as African or Native American influence.
So it's no small thing that the National cultivated diversity from the start. In 1936, Knott and her team dared integrate their stage in segregated Dallas. Two years later, the festival welcomed uptown African-American bluesman W.C. Handy to a Washington, D.C., venue owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution — one that explicitly prohibited black performers.
Now the National is coming to Nashville for a three-year stay in Bicentennial Park, culminating in the celebration of the festival's 75th edition. At first glance, it may seem an odd pairing of event and host city: a multiethnic showcase that was once ill at ease with commercial music, in a city that's recognized more for its music industry than for its embrace of ethnic diversity.
"Because Nashville's already known for its music focus and many musical events, it did surprise people," says Julia Olin, executive director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts.
But now it's Nashville's turn to be surprised — by an event that offers dozens of diverse, dynamic, anything-but-dry cultural performances. A great deal of thought goes into the festival, but it's no academic exercise. When these bands play hot dance music, audiences actually dance.
Better still, the spirit of cultural ambassadorship runs both ways. According to published estimates, previous fests in cities such as Chattanooga have drawn as many as 90,000 people. As hometown folks and visitors to Music City work up a sweat to a top-notch band from another part of the country, playing a style of music from another part of the world, the hope is that they will come away with a new appreciation for Nashville's own cultural riches.
This will not be the first Nashville visit for the National, though memories of it are understandably scarce. The only other time was in 1959, back when founder Knott and her collaborators still populated the bill with nonprofessional, unpaid performers. Anyone who attended the five-day event at the Fairgrounds Coliseum would have seen war-dancing Kiowa Indians, shape note singers, a band of Wisconsin lumberjacks, a Scottish-style high school drum corps, square-dancing 4-H kids, African-American singers of spirituals from Agricultural and Industrial State University (Tennessee State University to us), Mexican folk dancers, fiddlers and myriad other offerings.
Conspicuously absent, though, were the pickers and singers who cut commercial records and entertained on the Opry. (An exception that proved the rule was guitar-playing folk balladeer Jimmy Driftwood.) In Staging Tradition, Michael Ann Williams noted, "Although located at ground zero of the country music industry, Knott found few native singers in Nashville."
A lack of native singing didn't mean a lack of rootsy talent. Back then, folklorists tended to draw an artificial line between hillbilly and folk music. Anybody who made a living as a hillbilly entertainer, the reasoning went, couldn't possibly qualify as an "authentic" folk singer.
But in the 52 years since the National was last here, a lot has changed about how we think and talk about folk music — the way its sounds travel, its coziness with pop culture, and what constitutes folk tradition in an age when households are infinitely more plugged in than they were even in the days of family radio.
By the time the urban folk revival reached its zenith in the early '60s, hordes of college-age idealists had adopted folk music as their own. They gathered around their own youthful revivalist stars, like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and then-new folk festivals like Newport. At the time of the first National, neither Dylan nor Baez had even been born.
The National — which invited precious few big-name revivalists — had a hard time bridging the generation gap. For a few short years in the early '70s, following Knott's retirement, the National Park Service ran the festival in a similar manner to Newport. After it changed hands again, things circled back around to an updated version of Knott's tradition-centric model — only this one allowed paid performers.
As the festival embraced professional folk artists, new-breed folk was changing Music Row. A singer-songwriter scene sprouted in Nashville, first with guys like Tom T. Hall and Kris Kristofferson, then Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, with others to follow. Emboldened by the freewheelin' Bob Dylan and his folk-revivalist counterparts, they placed emphasis on having something smart to say and an original way to say it, expanding the language of country music in the process.
A barn-shaped Nashville landmark embodied an even more profound paradigm shift in folk-versus-country thinking. When the original Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum opened its doors in 1967, it expressly laid out the folk roots underpinning country music's commercial success. No longer could country be dismissed as cultureless. As Diane Pecknold put it in The Selling Sound, "cultural power and cultural authority were fused in a single voice."
It's only fitting, then, that the Hall of Fame and Museum is curating part of the Tennessee Folklife section of the festival, and in that context, taking a folkloric approach to the history of Nashville's music business. Says vice president of museum programming Jay Orr, "We really see country music as a commercial art form that has deep, deep connections to tradition."
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