Tag Archives: Lowell Folk Festival

Lowell Folk Festival Rates Five Stars

I have seen them all, and the 2013 Lowell Folk Festival was a five-star event, if that’s the highest ranking possible.

Now, can I saw something about the setting? The downtown looked fabulous. From Market Street to the Boott Cotton Mills, and in between, the historic district offered stunning views block by block. A glance down Lee Street from John Street: what a gem of a scene, without cars. The mid-section of Merrimack Street as a backdrop for the Red Trousers acrobats: every building facade restored and looking classy. Cutting through the Enterprise Bank parking lot to get to Middle Street: could be a movie-set with the vintage buildings preserved. Walking the center line of Kirk Street from St. Anne’s church yard towards the National Park HQ at French Street: a slice-of-nineteenth century life in architecture.

And what made the setting so special today? No cars other than vehicles needed for Festival operations. Without the distraction of traffic and parked cars, anyone can fully appreciate the decades of restoration work and enormous investment that has made a treasure of the historic district downtown.

Add people to the zone, and the city exudes humanity in a very appealing way. When the Festival nudges aside the vehicular clutter for two days, anybody can see how much better it feels to be in the middle of the city. The notion that the City is the Park, and the Park is the City changes from an idea to reality.

web photo courtesy of wbur.org

The Lowell Folk Festival (a chapter excerpt)

With the Lowell Folk Festival coming this weekend, here is some background on the event. As some of our readers are aware, for the past two years I’ve been writing a book about the origin and impact of Lowell National Historical Park. What follows is an excerpt from a chapter about the Festival. The book is titled “Mill Power: Reclaiming Lowell’s Place and Story.”—PM

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from “Lowell Folk Festival”

Pauline Golec received a Lifetime Volunteer Award from Lowell National Historical Park in 2010. With a chuckle, Golec explained, “When I was told about it, I wondered if someone knew something about my future that I didn’t know—did it mean that my life of volunteering would soon be over or that I had to volunteer forever? Oh, well.” She was recognized not only for her work as a museum teacher at the Tsongas Industrial History Center, but also for service as “Ethnic Chair” of the Lowell Festival Foundation. As Ethnic Chair she coordinates the small army of community volunteers who staff the food booths.

Pauline Golec

Golec has been part of festival activities since the first Regatta Festival in May 1974. Asked what got her to the proverbial volunteer table, she answered: “Ethnic pride, and I had friends who were involved, plus I love this city—and I’m a teacher.” For most of that time she held a dual role as co-chair of the Lowell Polish Cultural Committee. She remembers walking Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis around the Polish Festival one year in the mid-1980s. Golec also chairs the Festival Foundation Scholarship Committee, which makes awards to deserving high school seniors or college students. In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Lowell Folk Festival, scholarships were presented to three young people who themselves have volunteered at the Polish, Filipino, and Burmese food booths.

Janet Leggat’s involvement with the Regatta Festival Committee and later the Lowell Festival Foundation dates from 1988. She has been a volunteer, a part-time manager, a full-time executive director, and is now a member of the board of directors. Her sister, the late Susan Leggat, was involved in Regatta activities from the start, eventually joining the National Park staff as an administrative assistant and then events specialist. A Lowell person through-and-through, Susan did leave town in the early 1980s, joining former Lowell Park Superintendent Lew Albert at Cuyahoga National Recreation Area in Ohio. She was back in Lowell a year later.

     “Susan and Joe Wilson had such a clear idea of what the Folk Festival should be,” said Janet Leggat. “Lowell is the most successful spin-off of the National Folk Festival. Some things like the logistics are better handled by the local partners, but the National Council for the Traditional Arts is highly knowledgeable about the talent—they ensure the integrity of the artists. The local ethnic food component, organized for years by Pauline Golec, has given the Lowell festival a distinctive character. A lot of people look forward to eating on that weekend.”

Susan’s friend Marie Sweeney remembered Sue’s “happy warrior” qualities:

    ” The pride she took in her job and in the many organizations she joined and supported was classic. Who could say ‘No’ to her when she asked for help or to buy a ticket or asked you to join a board or committee or to be a Folk Festival volunteer? It wasn’t for her, but for her cause, she’d say. But we did it for her, too. She was a pioneer and a role model for all of us, but especially for young women . . . . She had a strong will to do what was right—and to do it in the right way. She had a touch of kindness about her even when she had to say, ‘Not appropriate for this festival’ or ‘No, they can’t sell t-shirts’ . . . She helped make Lowell not just a place, but a ‘community’ of people working together for the good of all.”

Peter Aucella, assistant superintendent of the park, called Susan “the conscience of the Festival,” saying, “She made sure it retained its integrity and didn’t become a circus. You couldn’t believe the cockamamie ideas she had to listen to. It is what it is because of her.”

The legendary Joe Wilson of the National Council for the Traditional Arts was essential to the founding of the Lowell Folk Festival.  Speaking to local documentary-video producers Ruth Page and Scott Glidden, Wilson had this to say about culture and the preservation of traditional arts in America:

     “It’s possible to think of the structure of culture in the United States today as an ice cream sandwich. Up at the top you have received culture that is transmitted through conservatories and great institutions. You have ballet here and symphony music and all the great works of the Western World. There was a time, a few centuries ago, when you only had this level of culture, elite culture, and all the rest of culture was folk culture, the thing that working folks did for their own enjoyment, the thing that they played for themselves and handed down through their families and communities. But a century or so ago, we started manufacturing culture. We started making records and books and other things that were sold en masse, and so we have popular culture now or mass culture, the middle part of our ice cream sandwich.

“Folk culture is made by institutions, too, but small institutions. The family is the main institution of folk culture, and it’s not created to make money. Sometimes people become professionals who do these things, but they do these things because they’re good, and because they’re beautiful, and because they should be passed on.”

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—Paul Marion (c) 2013, Lowell National Historical Park

Musicianship

In the past few years at the Lowell Summer Music Series at Boarding House Park, I have been struck by the superlative musicianship of the artists presented by the organizers, Lowell National Historical Park and the Lowell Festival Foundation. Night after night the featured artists and their bands demonstrate the highest level of instrument-playing and singing that is out there in the marketplace. I think the venue enhances the quality of the production, especially the way we hear the music. The performance park is bounded on three sides by a section of the Boott Mills, the 1840s boarding house called the Mogan Cultural Center, and in the rear the Lowell High School Freshman Academy (former Lowell Trade School). The east edge is a line of trees. So you feel as if you are in an outdoor listening room, particularly when the park is filled margin-to-margin and front to back, as it was last night for Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, and their Glory Band, along with opening act Amy Black and her group (Amy lived in Lowell for a few years not long ago). Whether it has been Ziggy Marley, Lyle Lovett, or the B-52′s, these masterful artists are a joy to hear and watch—and they are “right there,” so to speak, in the intimate setting. I recently enjoyed Paul McCartney at Fenway Park, and there is no comparison for scale. Boarding House Park feels like a club, with the sky overhead. Last night, the moon was behind clouds, but on a clear night with stars, the setting is inspiring. Above and to the right of the stage is the iconic composition of Boott Mills smokestack and the signature bell-and-clock tower. The musical hot-spot is an urban oasis on these nights. Someday several decades from now, somebody will write about this period of Lowell’s cultural history the way authors have written about the 1830s and  ’40s, when Lowell was a required stop for figures like Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Harriet Martineau, Abraham Lincoln, and Davy Crockett. With Lowell Memorial Auditorium, the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell, the Lowell Folk Festival, and the Lowell Summer Music Series, we are fortunate to be experiencing the best in music, live in Lowell.

Facebook photo courtesy of Celeste Bernardo

 

‘The Danger of a Single Story’ (book excerpt)

Following is another excerpt from my book about the origin and influence of the national park in Lowell, which was written for the National Park Service in 2011-12. If the publishing process goes as planned, the book should be available in spring 2014. ‘Duey’ Kol, who speaks in this section, has since moved on from the Park in Lowell. She made an important contribution while she was here.—PM

Doeun “Duey” Kol

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“The Danger of a Single Story”

“History is story. It means nothing else as a noun. Herodotus was the first to use the word . . . and he used it as a verb: to find out for oneself. Then you tell.”

—Charles Olson, The Special View of History (1970)

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Doeun ‘Duey’ Kol came to Lowell for the first time in 1999 to see the Southeast Asian Water Festival on the north bank of the Merrimack River above Pawtucket Falls. This wide, relatively straight section of the river has been called one of the best stretches for rowing in the country. For years, the community has hosted competitions like the Textile Regatta. Every August, the Southeast Asian Water Festival draws tens of thousands of people to the riverside for music, dancing, food, people watching, and the Khmer long-boat races similar to those held on the Mekong River. Kol was born in a refugee camp in Thailand while her parents waited for an opportunity to move to a safe new home. Their next stop was another camp in the Philippines, and then in 1984 on to Chelsea, Mass., which, like Lowell, had become a place where Cambodian families were resettling in increasing numbers. Her family was sponsored for resettlement in the United States by Boston Catholic Charities. She was three-and-a-half years old when she arrived in America with her parents and younger brother and sister. For the first six months the family lived on welfare payments and shared a three-bedroom apartment with two other Cambodian families.

As a youth she learned traditional Khmer dance and performed with the Reaching Out for Chelsea Adolescents Dance Troupe. Her mother had been a dancer before the Khmer Rouge overran Cambodia. Along the way, Kol met members of the acclaimed Angkor Dance Troupe of Lowell. She remembers her high-school teacher Sylvia Schernbaum urging her and fellow students to “Think big, dream big.” She did just that, winning acceptance to Simmons College in Boston. After graduation she worked for a time as an insurance agent in Waltham, Mass., concentrating on the immigrant and refugee communities in Lowell and Lynn, Mass.

In 2004, she was recruited by George Chigas of the Angkor Dance Troupe to help manage the organization. With a Theodore Edson Parker Foundation grant, Chigas and Samkhann Khoeun of the Cambodian Expressions project of Middlesex Community College brought her on board as a shared program manager. The dance group was based on the top floor of the National Park’s Mogan Cultural Center. Observing the cultural activities being organized by the Park staff, she told Mogan Center director Mehmed Ali: “I want your job. Teach me how to do it.”

When the Park advertised a special events position in 2006, Kol applied and was selected, the first Cambodian-American to be hired for a permanent position. She worked on the Lowell Folk Festival, Lowell Summer Music Series, and other events. She earned a master’s degree in community social psychology at UMass Lowell, and was promoted to Assistant Director of Cultural Programs. A rising star, Koll was recruited in 2012 to work in the office of the Assistant Director of the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., which oversees interpretive and education policies. She already had been helping with the agency’s nationwide Diversity and Inclusion Project. The topic could not be more personal:

     “Those of us who are bi-cultural have to create a separate idea that is not one or the other—we have to manage a blended identity. It’s important to develop year-round relationships with the people whose cultural traditions we promote on special days. We have to get beyond celebration. We of the Park staff must be able to exist in a condition like the state of ‘therapeutic irritation’ that comes with holding a new and different pose in yoga. We should be able to hold ourselves in that place that is uncomfortable and to be okay with that. At the same time, visitors should be comfortable asking difficult, complicated questions on tours, in museums, and at public activities.”

Kol is a strong advocate of multi-track story-telling.

     “We have to ask ourselves, How do you decide what to present? Which stories do you choose to tell? We need the best story-tellers, more people who have lived the stories. With a topic like Immigration, we can be relevant in what we talk about. And what happens to people not interested in displaying their culture in a public demonstration?

“It’s our responsibility to explore and probe, to record more stories in Lowell because this is where we have been asked to preserve part of America’s history and relate it to people,” says Kol. “There’s a TED talk (Technology, Entertainment, Design) online by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie in which she cautions listeners about ‘the danger of a single story’ and how this can lead to a fundamental lack of understanding of another person or place. The writer says, ‘The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’”

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from Mill Power: Reclaiming Lowell’s Place and Story by Paul Marion

Copyright (c) 2012 by Lowell National Historical Park

Folk Festival Notes

We were lucky about the weather, given the unsettled skies all weekend. Twenty-six years later, the event feels more like a street festival than a music and dance festival, which is fine. The audience is determining what the experience will be. Food from around the world, sidewalk entertainers, storefront buzz, pop-up cafes, people as cast-members, and ambient music pumping out of the various stages—that’s a lively combination for a street festival.

The dance pavilion at the National Park parking lot continues to be one of the best recent innovations. I was there with Rosemary and friends for klezmer, polka, and cajun sets, all of which sparkled in sound and stampity-stamped in rhythm. Turning the parking lot into a party space has added a magnetic point on the festival compass—matching JFK Plaza and Boarding House Park in scale and energy. The venue also draws people to another section of the city for different views of the architectural game-board. Shattuck Street was jumping at 4 p.m. on Sunday; a wide circle of folks had formed around a magician or acrobat, some kind of street circus showman. Radio Disney was on Mack Plaza leading dance-offs of eager kids. Hoop games and box hockey had no trouble getting players. The Quilt Museum’s booth with make-your-own-paper-quilts kept busy. When the downtown core is closed to most traffic, you can really appreciate the “slice of nineteenth century life” concept of the urban design for the National Park as you take in the variety of preserved buildings from Market Street to French Street: mill, bank, storefront, canal gatehouse, church, town/city hall, more businesses, residences, school, mill agent house, cotton storehouse, boarding house, more mills.

What did I try on the food front? Brazilian skewered beef with rice-bean combo and later Jamaican curry (vegetable and chicken combo) on rice.  The Greek baklava sundae was popular on French Street, opposite Boarding House Park, as was the fan-favorite Filipino booth offering small piles of noodles, rice, and more. Rosemary had top-of-the-line Thai food at the dance stage—bright yellow rice and large fresh spring rolls.

Lowell rolled out its best again for the world to enjoy. There’s an item going around Facebook about urban revival strategies involving the use of streets as public spaces. We’ve got that one down pretty well. Next.

Debo Band and Fendika

I second the emotion of the Globe’s Stuart Munro when he writes in today’s review of the Lowell Folk Festival that he was “bowled over” by the surprising performances of the Boston-based Debo Band with guest singers and dancers from Fendika of Ethiopia. Yesterday afternoon at the Dance Pavilion off Dutton Street, Debo and friends must have softened the asphalt in the parking lot under the wooden dance floor with their super-hot funked-up jazz inflected with Afro-pop sounds. They had many hundreds of people moving every which-a-way and clapping on-and-off rhythm under the could-have-been revival tent. Big blasts of golden horns, peppery runs on harmonica keys, drumbeats that bounced in all the chest cavities, driving guitar licks, and jet-powered singing—all this from about 15 artists making one huge sound.

You want to see something new when you are walking around the Festival, whether it’s your first close-up view of a man carving wooden ducks or a different brand of music and-or dancing. When Fendika’s lead man started ecstatically shaking in place at the climax of one of the group’s towering numbers, my wife and I saw something new. He was like strawberries in a musical blender revving at top speed. When he peaked out he just stopped and threw his arms wide. Everybody was spent.

The group had CD’s for sale, but I don’t think a plastic disk can transmit anything close to what we experienced. The “live” aspect of the Lowell Folk Festival is the game-changer. The Quebe Sisters might be pleasant listening on Prairie Home Companion radio waves, but you have to lean on the black iron fence at St. Anne’s churchyard to soak up their harmonies for full effect. The same goes for The Rhythm of Rajasthan performers with their music from northern India and the Birmingham Sunlights and their Alabama gospel songs, both of whom enchanted audiences at Boarding House Park and on other stages this weekend. Where else is one person going to bounce from one cultural tradition to another so easily as at the Lowell festival?

My final words for this post are about the food. Is Lowell a food-fest or what? From delectable bbq ribs at the Thai tent behind Market Mills and lamb shish at the Athenian back lot to brain-freezing Richie’s Italian Ice scooped out by a cart-man on John Street to the vegetable-stuffed eggrolls at the Filipino booth, what more can a festival-goer expect? And plenty of cold drinks everywhere.

Final, final words: A job well done by the hundreds and hundreds of people who put together the weekend show, put up the money for the talent and travel and equipment, and put out a thousand-percent effort in support of this community treasure called The Lowell Folk Festival.

Final, final, final words: Is this the one weekend when downtown Lowell really functions like “a park” in answer to the familiar question, Where is the Park anyway? The blocks of preserved downtown buildings on festival weekend become the architectural props around which the story is told, as Pat Mogan way back said they would. People, not cars, owned the streets, and there was still room for needed vehicles and electric carts. The scene is more real than “Main Street” at Disney, and an authentic “adventureland” and a hint of  “tomorrowland” for people who want the good things that small cities can offer.

Friday Folk Fest Opening

My writing colleague Jack McDonough, an occasional contributor to this blog, would say this about last night: “Rain failed to dampen the spirits” of the festival-goers as the 25th annual Lowell Folk Festival rolled through downtown with its cargo of bright music, savory foods, hand-shaped craft objects, bins of joy, and nonstop parade of every kind of person you would want to meet. The opening ceremony featured a big shout-out to the late Chrysandra “Sandy” Walter, the National Park Superintendent whose idea it was in 1986 to produce a big folk festival on the stage set of brick and cobblestone in the historic district. Sandy rounded up the local help and delivered the first folk festival in 1987. Lowell artist Bill Giavis presented a portrait of Sandy and her friend Pat Crane to current Supt. Michael Creasey for the permanent art collection of the Lowell Park. I was charged with introducing the founding leaders of the festival, and will post my full remarks here later for the record.

Sandy Walter

Reports of infectious elation from the Dance Pavilion on Dutton Street flowed in to the booth attendants at Boarding House Park as the Quebe Sisters on stage harmonized in Texa-billy tones and Dervish pumped up the Irish volume. I don’t know if being at the 25th festival influenced my focus of attention, but I saw and met an inordinate number of people who were veteran volunteers or attendees. There was a reunion atmosphere last night. Former National Park staff members returning to the fold, food booth workers whose roots go back to the Zenny Sperounis ethnic shindigs at Lucy Larcom Park, and repeat attendees from the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s. There was a rain-burst just after 9 p.m. that thinned out the crowd, but plenty of people stuck around until closing.

Look for our blogging colleague Nancye Tuttle’s article about opening night in the morning SUN. Her sidebar on the Sandy Walter remembrance includes an image of Bill Giavis’ painting. All weather signs are positive for today’s show. We’ll see you on the streets.

25 Years of the Lowell Folk Festival: Ten Things

1. A success from the beginning, starting with National Folk Festivals as the model in the first three years. The content was high quality, the audiences were large, and the event production was first-rate. It’s always been a work-in-progress with improvements being made as seen and needed. Changes will continue based on feedback and observations.

2. The Lowell partnership ethic.

3. Wayne Toups and Zydecajun.

4. George Price and the flashy umbrella at the head of parades.

5. A long line at the Filipino food booth.

6. Rain, occasionally.

7. The South Common concerts in the early years.

8. The growth of the “fringe festival” in downtown and uptown with local bands on alternative stages.

9. Making Merrimack Street downtown a pedestrian way.

10. People who bring their dogs to the extravaganza. And the guy with the big parrot on his shoulder.