What People Do: The Beginnings of the Northwest Folklife Festival

By Jennifer White

Phil Williams tells a story about the 1972 Northwest Folklife Festival.

This was, of course, the first year the festival went up. Though the festival hadn’t yet reached its current proportions, a sizeable crowd turned out at Seattle Center that Memorial Day weekend, and among them was Leo Bernash of the National Folk Festival Association. In from Washington, D.C., Bernash walked the grounds for a day, and then approached Phil Williams with a question.

“How did you ever audition all these people?” (“All these people” referred to the 300 performers, groups and craftspeople participating in the festival. In addition to his work with the National Folk Festival Association, Bernash managed large foreign dance troupes with Columbia Artists Management. He had also had a hand in other folk festivals put on around the country.) Phil Williams chuckles as he gives the answer he gave 29 years ago: “We didn’t audition a single one.” Indeed, Phil says, “The theory was, if you give a person an opportunity, they’ll do a good job, and that’s what it’s all about. They always do, and that’s the way it is today. We tried to stay away from the idea that we had these ‘stars’….No one was featured.” Although more recent festivals have had no choice but to turn away some performers for simple lack of space, the principle remains essentially the same. The festival is about folklife; folklife is what people do.

It followed that the performance guidelines for that first festival were simple: anything “people did themselves.” Phil and Vivian Williams were two of the founders of the Seattle Folklore Society, and though only Phil was actively involved in the beginnings of the Folklife Festival, both speak of their introduction to traditional music as an inspiration. Both were classically trained musicians when they began exploring traditional music, much of which they were exposed to in the Darrington community. Phil says the music “rang a real responsive chord immediately,” and says his thoughts at the beginnings of the Folklife were that “there must be a lot of people wandering around out there that would like to be doing something they don’t even know exists. If you can present it to them, it may ring a responsive chord, and they’ll find something that may change their lives.” The Northwest Folklife Festival, then, was “a chance to present a broad spectrum of things people could actually do themselves.”

The idea that became Northwest Folklife began on a somewhat larger scale, with the National Park Service and the National Folk Festival Association. The Park Service, looking to develop a presence in cities through folk festivals, first teamed up with the Folk Festival Association in 1970. It was at a party in Washington, D.C., that Leo Bernash and Andy Wallace (both of the National Folk Festival Association) and Mike Holmes (an early SFS member) first discussed the possibility of staging one in the Northwest. Soon after, Wallace flew out to Seattle to speak to Charlie Gebler at the Park Services offices. Gebler, himself a pianist in a 3-piece jazz band, was enthusiastic about the idea, and a proposal was drafted to use the 74-acre Seattle Center left over from the 1962 World’s Fair. A $6,000 budget was allotted. When the first board of directors was formed, it included representatives from the City of Seattle, the Park Service, several local arts groups (KRAB, Scandia Folk Dance, the Washington Oldtime Fiddlers), and, of course, the Seattle Folklore Society. It was, in fact, the tax-exempt Folklore Society that held the production contract when the Northwest Folklife Festival became a nonprofit corporation, thus enabling the festival to stick to its original principles while still making use of the money given by the city. (The Folklore Society is no longer responsible for the festival; years later, Northwest Folklife became its own entity and is now responsible for the festival’s production, along with other community events.) The first festival set a precedent: the $6,000 budget went almost entirely to reimbursing performers for some travel expenses, and as today, those performers were volunteers. Over the years, it has grown immensely, and is a considerable presence every Memorial Day weekend. Today the festival draws 200,000 visitors, with 5,000 participants and 1,500 volunteers. “More and more people got inspired to play music, and make lace, and do folk dancing, and do all these different things that happen down there,” Vivian says. “A lot of them had never seen anything like that before, and they’d go down to this free festival and see this fantastic thing, and get all excited about it, and then learn how to do it. And so over the years that happened to such an extent that the festival became enormous.”

This kind of growth-not simply in size, but in influence-may be one of the most remarkable aspects of the Northwest Folklife Festival. Another, of course, is that it was created as a non-commercial event, driven by a huge volunteer base, with performers who were mostly not celebrities, but local people doing what they love. Of the event’s creation, Phil says, “It was time to have a festival that featured amateur performers, featured people that played for fun, played in their living rooms, people that did dancing out in their community centers, featured some of the groups around the ethnic communities-just a very broad- based thing.” Interestingly enough, this kind of open-ended showcase for people who may or may not have been steeped in a tradition since childhood drew criticism from parts of the folklorist community. In that particular school of thought, Phil and Vivian say, practitioners of traditional arts are seen as authentic only if they are part of the “original ethnics,” with a direct heritage to the particular thing they do-people who learned from their grandparents, who learned from their grandparents, and so on. However, the Northwest Folklife Festival has no such restrictions, and both Phil and Vivian see this as one of its strong points, giving anyone who is involved in the traditional arts a chance to present what they do.

“Folklife is anything that people do,” Vivian says. “Any kind of people-even if they’re recent immigrants, even if they’re urban, even if they ran away from home when they were fourteen and didn’t learn a damn thing from their grandfather.”

Thanks to Phil and Vivian Williams for speaking with me about the beginnings of the Northwest Folklife Festival. More information about the festival is available at www.nwfolklife.org.