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Seattle's Northwest Folklife Festival

Updated on December 28, 2013

Folklife: Grand Opening to Seattle's Summer Festivals

Seattle's Northwest Folklife Festival has now been around for 40 years; and I have attended, performed, busked, volunteered and won Band Scramble contests at this festival every year since 1991. Folklife is one of the biggest festivals dedicated to the musical and cultural traditions of the Pacific Northwest--Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana and British Columbia--and the many immigrant communities and First Nations tribes who have lived in this region. I haven't performed officially at this festival every year since I've lived in Seattle; but I am almost always street performing at one spot or another as the festival; so I get to play music there whether I'm on the program or not.

There's something for practically everyone on the program each year, whether your preference is music, dance, artisan exhibitions or music-related workshops. However, some of the best music is produced by the buskers, jammers and impromptu drum circles that spring up everywhere at Folklife--the music and dance of ordinary folks. The producers and organizers of the festival, fortunately, recognize this phenomenon as an integral element of "northwest folklife" in its own right.

The Northwest Folklife Festival is held on Memorial Day weekend every year, usually around the end of May. The observance of this holiday has been incorporated into the festivities right along with the concerts, jams, dances, and overall giddy celebration of life.

A Bit of Northwest Ear Candy - New Feature: some video vignettes of the Northwest Folklife Festival of 2013.

Some footage of the most recent Northwest Folklife Festival (2013).

This Too Is Reality, These Four Days a Year

The Northwest Folklife Festival from one participant's perspective.

In 1996, five years into my extended residence in Seattle, I took part in a songwriters' tribute to the 25th anniversary of the Northwest Folklife Festival. The tune came to me gradually, during waits at bus stops and a few moments in the shower, and was inspired by the octave-leaping 11th-century melodies of Hildegard of Bingen's chants and hymns. The lyrics, however, were meant as a challenge to those who considered the festival a mere "break from reality", who say at its close, "Okay, now, back to the real world." For me, this first festival of each summer festival season is part and parcel of reality:

This is my life as I'd like to make it run:

To sing all through the rainy nights,

Play fiddles in the sun.

Some people say this falls outside the "real world" as defined;

But reality grows well beyond the things they have in mind.

And the time to put my first love first

Will once again appear--

For this too is reality, these four days a year;

I'll make this very clear,

That this too is reality, these four days a year.

This song is one of the more radical ones I've penned.

The Northwest Folklife Festival attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year. However, it takes a few thousand, at least, to make it happen. There are organizers, performers, technicians, food and crafts vendors, artisans, publicists, and hundreds of volunteers who work long hours before, during and after the festival occurs each year, all of them hoping that it doesn't rain too much on Memorial Day weekend.

I have been a performer, volunteer, stage emcee and busker at the festival. I've won free teeshirts and really awful-looking trophies at the Band Scramble contests. I've participated in volunteer workdays weeks and even months ahead of the festival on some occasions. I've often grumbled at the size of the crowds, and how difficult it is to get from point A to point B when there are two hundred "browsers" blocking your path. I've sometimes lamented not being selected as a performer some years, though I do street performing every year regardless of my performer status or lack thereof. In any case, I'm always there, usually for all four days; after all, I can see the Space Needle from my apartment windows.

There's no doubt that much of Folklife's best music is what you don't see on the program. All you need to do is wander the grounds, and find spontaneous bluegrass jams, drum circles with bellydancers, buskers in every genre imaginable, and impromptu rehearsals of programmed performances. In all such cases, tipping is optional, but always appreciated. And that doesn't include the hijinks one can find if one is allowed into the performers' hospitality room--where else would you get to play the William Tell Overture with a slipdash ensemble of two accordions and three bodhrans? Or hear a separate Irish music session in each of four corners? You never can tell. This is how a community creates "folklife."

At any rate, the 40th Annual Northwest Folklife Festival is coming up on May 27-30 this year, with particular attention paid to Bulgarian immigrant culture, and to the first-ever Northwest Folklife Festival in 1972. Come check out one of the biggest and longest-lasting folklife festivals in North America, and come see me busking (weather permitting) at my favorite spot near the Center House!

To put the music first in life,

Most call pure fantasy:

But it's come to life this time each year

For a quarter-century.

So welcome to the real world,

Is it not a wondrous site--

And our nine-to-five illusions

Just went out the door tonight.

And the time to put our first love first

Will once again appear--

For this too is reality, these four days a year;

Let's make this very clear:

That the time to put our first love first

Will once again appear--

For this too is reality, these four days a year,

I'll make this very clear,

That this too is reality, these four days a year.

*The above-quoted song lyrics are from one of my original songs, "4 Days a Year"; words and music © 1996 by Karen I. Olsen. This song (and a few other originals) can be heard, and downloaded, at my Myspace profile.

Some Footage of Folklife... - ...and there's plenty to go around!

Some recently-uploaded videos of the Northwest Folklife Festival, especially from the past several years.

You'll connect with your readers. If you type a sentence here about why you love this video.

You'll connect with your readers. If you type a sentence here about why you love this video.

You'll connect with your readers. If you type a sentence here about why you love this video.

The irrepressible Baby Gramps does a Folklife busking set.

Bellingham folk songwriter Dana Lyons performing his best-known song.

You'll connect with your readers. If you type a sentence here about why you love this video.

You'll connect with your readers. If you type a sentence here about why you love this video.

You'll connect with your readers. If you type a sentence here about why you love this video.

You'll connect with your readers. If you type a sentence here about why you love this video.

You'll connect with your readers. If you type a sentence here about why you love this video.

And Now, Some Critical Stuff...

A few things I DON'T like about Folklife, in no particular order (they may or may not be changeable)

I offer these critical points as a person who has attended, performed, busked, emceed and volunteered at the Northwest Folklife Festival for many years; and still loves the festival deeply, in spite of its warts and foibles:

1) CROWDS, CROWDS AND MORE CROWDS: This, I guess, is just a natural drawback of throwing a free festival on Memorial Day weekend. Lucky for me, I've been attending and volunteering at festivals at the Seattle Center for many years, so I know where all the obscure and partially-hidden restrooms are to be found. I just wish there was some way to make it easier to get places through the crowds, without getting stuck in logjams along most of the roadways.

2) FOLKLIFE BUTTONS ARE TEN BUCKS NOW!! It's a free festival all right; but there are still button sellers, stage emcees, and other folks appealing for donations every few minutes. And the famed Folklife buttons that "keep Folklife running" are being sold for TEN DOLLARS this year! Now, I'm sure most people wouldn't mind simply donating ten dollars to the festival, even in today's economy; but bloody-well NOBODY is going to pay ten bucks for a souvenir button. Just sayin'...

3) DOGS AND PARROTS AND FERRETS, OH MY! It rather escapes me why so many people insist on bringing their pets to events like this. It can't be much fun for the animals, sitting around in the sun, getting their sensitive ears bombarded by all this weird noise coming in from every direction. It also makes more work for all the folks hired to clean up after festivalgoers. Although I love meeting friendly pets of various species, there really should be a festival policy asking folks to leave their pets at home, excepting service animals, of course.

4) KID-FRIENDLY? ER...WELL...NO. There really isn't a huge amount of kid-oriented activities available at Folklife, though they are taking steps to remedy this situation. The best things for kids to do, for the most part, involve getting wet under the International Fountain, as well as the fountain pool that many little kids habitually swim in near the Alki Room and the Vera Project. Most of the musical events and workshops, however, are primarily for adult consumption (and I don't mean that in terms of "adult content"). As much as we'd like to think otherwise, sitting quietly in a seat for forty minutes, listening to some weird guy play a hurdy-gurdy and sing long ballads in medieval Ausfrisian, is NOT a four-year-old's idea of fun. Sorry.

5) PEOPLE WHO USE STROLLERS AS WEAPONS: I really hate this practice, and see it in abundance every year. This is not a criticism of the festival so much as a barb at those rude attendees who think they can get through crowds faster if they plow strollers through them, as if they were on official Folklife business. Not only does this infuriate fellow festivalgoers; I can only imagine what the perpetrators' babies and toddlers must think when a 200-pound adult stumbles and falls on top of them...

6) "FOLKLIFE VETERANS" (a/k/a The Same Performers on the Program Year After Bloody Year): The festival program so often includes solo artists and groups who have performed at Folklife practically every year for the past ten, fifteen, twenty years or more. The same dance troupes, the same singer-songwriters, the same stringbands (assuming they're still in existence). One year, the festival programmers deliberately chose acts that had performed at the festival for the most consecutive years! Now, we all have our favorite bands and songwriters that we love seeing at the festival; but I'd really like to see Folklife put more emphasis on first-timers and others who haven't had as much exposure on festival stages. Imagine having a Folklife program of nearly all newbies for a change! All you faux-Celts and pseudo-Scandinavians, move over and give more of the newcomers a chance!

Northwest Folklife Music and Memorabilia - Here's some Folklife treasures available at Amazon.

These are some of the Pacific Northwest artists and groups often featured at the Northwest Folklife Festival. I hope to finish my CD soon, so it also can be featured here!

If Last Year's Folklife Auctions Didn't Have Quite What You Wanted... - ...Maybe eBay Will!!

Our New Feature: Acoustic double basses and accessories! Yeah, they're big and bulky; but bass guitars just don't have that same tonal quality...

Friends of Folklife - Share your favorite Folklife experience, or even if you'd just like to attend!

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    • PNWtravels profile image

      Vicki Green 6 years ago from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA

      Great lens on the Seattle Folklife Festival! Added as a featured lens on my visit Seattle lens.

    • WhiteOak50 profile image

      WhiteOak50 7 years ago

      Very nice job describing the Festival. "Blessed by a SquidAngel"

    • verymary profile image

      Mary 8 years ago from Chicago area

      Sounds very cool. Am a little surprised it's not more kid friendly, given the genre of music. Crowds seem to be a given with these festivals--the price you pay. Overall, must be a lot of fun! 5*****