Get a group of longtime American Folk Festival volunteers together, and it’ll be only a matter of minutes before the stories start flying. The true diehards — those who have volunteered every year since the National Folk Festival in 2002 — can tell you some pretty amazing tales about what goes on backstage during the yearly event on the Bangor Waterfront.
“We see a different perspective from everyone, whether it’s backstage, at the hotel, getting people from point A to point B,” said Judy Weatherbee, a Bangor resident who will volunteer for her ninth year in a row at this year’s festival, which kicks off tonight with a parade starting at 6:30 p.m. in West Market Square. “We see the stuff other people don’t get to see.”
Robin Merchant of Bangor has been an artist buddy, catering to the needs of performers with everyone from the Frank London Klezmer Brass All-Stars in 2007 to the Holmes Brothers, who appeared in 2002 and will take the stage again this year. The artist buddy position is reserved for longtime, highly capable volunteers, and duties include getting performers to their shows on time, acquainting them with Bangor, and being there to help them with any issues that might pop up.
Merchant tends to get paired with the bigger, slightly more raucous bands. Her stories about working with the Skatalites back in 2005 are laugh-out-loud funny.“They asked me to go on tour with them,” said Merchant. “Oh, I thought about it.”
J. Martin, an Old Town resident who coordinates the Bucket Brigade, keeps a running mental tally of the ridiculous outfits many brigadiers sport during the course of the weekend. Hats, tights, fringe, beads, boas, puppets, crazy glasses and crazy shoes are par for the course. You can see some of the most fabulous alterations to AFF T-shirts, created by longtime festival volunteer Deb Neuman, on display at Epic Sports in downtown Bangor at the corner of Central and Hammond streets. “We take it to another level,” said Martin. “We bring in way more money than any of the other folk festivals in the country, and we have a third of the people. We brought in $107,000 last year. Others brought in maybe a quarter of that. Nobody else does it like we do. We treat it like a performance.”
Michael and Jennifer Murphy and their daughter Rose, all of Bangor, have volunteered as a family each year. Two years ago, Michael brought his artist buddy, blues queen Diunna Greenleaf, onto his radio show, “The Blues Bus,” now on Thursdays from 6 to 9 p.m. on the University of Maine’s WMEB 91.9 FM. Greenleaf chatted and performed on-air, and then, as the two drove back to Bangor, Greenleaf sang along to Murphy’s CD of old gospel tunes.
“That was very, very cool,” said Murphy. “That’s part of why I love to volunteer — to make those connections with people. When you get to see bluegrass and blues and Eastern European musicians along with all kinds of others all jamming together, that’s what I really love. I love seeing those crossovers.”
Once the festival is over, a lot of those volunteers remain friends throughout the year. They go to concerts. They grab dinner and drinks after work. They pop in to visit each other. The folk festival volunteer community is more akin to a big family than simply a group of people with the same interests.
“There’s a reason 70 percent of volunteers each year are return volunteers,” said Merchant. “You meet some amazing people who become amazing friends.”
Besides interacting with artists and making new friends, though, there’s a lot more to being a volunteer. First and foremost: Without the more than 800 people who offer up their time and effort each year, there wouldn’t be a festival.
“This festival could not happen without volunteers, pretty much. I can call any of them, and they’ll come help with any situation that might pop up,” said Debbi Melnikas, the AFF volunteer coordinator. “It’s definitely an essential part of it. And I think the reason artists want to come back every year and hold dates for us and talk about us at other venues is partly because our volunteers make this a great fest for everyone. They make everyone feel welcome.”
That sense of welcome and community is the hallmark of the American Folk Festival. A number of the artists appearing at the AFF will also appear at festivals in Lowell, Mass., Richmond, Va., the Great Lakes Folk Festival in East Lansing, Mich., and the National Folk Festival, held this year in Butte, Mon. According to those volunteers who interact with them directly, many artists remark that while Bangor is by far the smallest of those cities, what it lacks in population it makes up for in friendliness and community pride.
“The day it rained last year, all those volunteers showed up with a great attitude. They get it done,” said Melnikas. “There was one man who would not leave his post at one of the stages. I brought him hot chocolate. He stood all day in that rain. That’s devotion.”
It was tough for many of those longtime volunteers to hear about the financial troubles the AFF has had over this past year. Just who or what was it that created that frighteningly large budget deficit, which is still over $200,000? Festival staff? Lack of sponsorship? Waning community interest? The debt that made headlines late last year left a sour taste in the mouths of many festival-goers, and it left some of those volunteers worried.
Having had time to take stock of the situation, however, folks such as Bucket Brigadier J. Martin, who sees from the ground level the community response and support, knows that there are bumps in the road for any large event a city holds.
“Did somebody screw something up? Probably. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fixable,” said Martin. “This is a huge event with a lot of elements to it, and as with anything, it’s going to take some time for it to sort itself out. It takes years for things to become sustainable. I think they made a good decision in asking the community for their ideas, and of course, they got nine tons of ideas. Some of them have already been implemented.”
Those ideas include the downsizing of the festival this year from five stages to four and the corresponding smaller number of performers. More corporate sponsors were another idea, though those sponsors have yet to materialize. Two recent anonymous donations in the amounts of $40,000 and $10,000 have helped offset the debt a bit more, but the AFF is still approximately $226,000 short of its goal of $1 million.
A call for a $10 per person, per day Bucket Brigade donation may result in even more donation money than the $107,000 raised last year. But that number won’t be had until after the festival ends on Aug. 29. There are still lots of unanswered questions.
When asked about the future of the AFF, volunteers are adamant that it absolutely must stay in Bangor. The AFF has benefits that reach beyond numbers.
“All of the great things that have happened on the waterfront, the concerts and KahBang and all the other events, would just not have happened without the folk fest,” said Merchant. “There’s something to be said for investing in something that brings culture to the community. It makes people feel proud about where they live. It’s good to have artists from all those different cultures here, because the rest of the year, they aren’t here. For some people, it’s their first exposure to different cultures.”
“We’re on the cusp of turning it around right now,” Martin said, “because if we make the money we need to make this year, we can finally start paying down that debt. And even if we don’t, we can try again next year. As for a return on your investment, however, the return is in the intangibles. It’s just something good for Bangor. I think that’s in and of itself a worthwhile investment.”
BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY GABOR DEGRE
American Folk Festival volunteers listen to Lynda Ryder, the festival desk volunteer coordinator, during a meeting at the Holiday Inn in Bangor. About 800 people volunteered this year to work in 20 different areas of the festival including escorting the artists, selling merchandise and picking up garbage.