Ten is an auspicious number. It’s nice and round and carries with it a sense of permanence. Your 10th birthday means you’re officially a big kid. Scoring a 10 at the Olympics means you’re the best. And for the city of Bangor, organizing an event such as the American Folk Festival 10 times in a row means the Queen City has answered the question of “Can we do it?” with a “Yes.”
After all, the Bangor of 2002, the first year of the National Folk Festival, is a different place from the Bangor of 2011, where the American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront will kick off at 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 26. Just ask some of the folks who have been there every year, such as Roger Michaud, who runs Orr’s Island Chowder.
Michaud recalled that first festival in 2002, when no one knew if it would work at all, let alone attract tens of thousands of people. He had two big questions back then: Did he bring too much clam chowder to sell? And could Bangor really follow through on such an event?
“The first one was a long shot. We did it because we wanted to support the city of Bangor, and honestly, we had absolutely no idea what to expect,” said Michaud. “The reaction I think overwhelmed everyone. I don’t think anyone expected it to be such a success. The reality is that this is now far and away one of the best festivals in the state, if not the best. And we sold out of chowder by Saturday afternoon that first year.”
The momentum and vibrancy that has built up in downtown Bangor over the ensuing years can be traced in no small part to the delightful shock back in 2002 of seeing an estimated 80,000 people flood the city, all heading for the National Folk Festival. Nothing like that had happened in Bangor before. In 2003, attendance was believed to have exceeded 100,000.
The effects of the festival can’t always be measured in numbers, but the self-esteem boost it has given the city is priceless.
In 2005, the city took over the festival from the National Council for the Traditional Arts as the National Folk Festival moved on to another city; it’s in Nashville, Tenn., this year The American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront has been going strong ever since, headed up by executive director Heather McCarthy.
McCarthy knows there will be familiar faces there each year and that the community has stepped up to welcome them.
“From where I sit, I see an incredible amount of loyalty from volunteers, from sponsors and from festival-goers alike,” said McCarthy. “When we got the data back from the UMaine Center for Tourism Research, it told us the percentage of people who return each year, and it was something like 93 percent. I think it’s because of a number of things — different artists each year, high production standards, a welcoming community. The community has really taken ownership of it.”
The festival took a city searching for something to be proud of — something to build on — and gave it a starting point for revitalization. The Waterfront Concert Series, KahBang, the boom in new downtown businesses and the building of the new arena weren’t even in the picture before 2002.
“It showcased Bangor in a way the city itself could never have done on its own,” said Michaud, of Orr’s Island Chowder. “It was the best possible thing that could have happened. It’s positioned Bangor really well, into being the city that it is now. And it’s still growing. I think you have the festival to thank for a lot of that.”
Jeff Kirlin of Bangor hasn’t been at every single festival — he didn’t come onto the scene until 2003 — but he has taken photographs of festival-goers every year since then. Through his lens, he has been able to get a unique, up-close view of just who’s coming to Bangor during the last weekend in August.
“I think the National Folk Festival brought out the curious, the skeptical, as well as music fans, but the folk festival of 2011 draws fans who truly appreciate music and now have formed great memories of past shows,” said Kirlin. “It’s already been around long enough to allow a sense of nostalgia as well as a sense of being able to see something new. I was an early skeptic. I never expected Bangor to be able to host such a great event let alone keep it going, and it really deserves even more support then it gets.”
Some things have changed. There are now four stages instead of five, the Dance Pavilion has moved from Washington Street to the far end of the waterfront, and there are fewer performers now. The budget worries of 2009 meant organizers had to scramble to find new sponsors and rally festival-goers to throw a few more dollars into the donation buckets.
It’s hard to find an event of this size that hasn’t run into a few financial troubles, but the American Folk Festival has gamely soldiered on, thanks to plenty of community support.
“The community definitely came through for us last year,” said McCarthy, referring to last year’s record Bucket Brigade haul of $170,500. “There’s always a challenge, especially looking at the economy right now, in figuring out the formula for sustainability. This year we’ve had to re-create some of our tech crew locally and from some old friends. There are plenty of resources right around here that we can draw from.”
Mainers from all over the state benefit from the American Folk Festival. Jeff Peterson of Peterson Woodworking, a Harrison-based family business that makes simple, elegant kitchen implements in a traditional Swedish style, has come to the festival every year to sell his wares in the Folk Arts Marketplace.
“It’s become one of our top five shows from the whole year. I think it has for all the craft vendors,” said Peterson. “I remember the second year we did it [former BDN columnist] ShopGirl wrote about our coffee scoops, and we sold out of all 40 of them in the first hour. We have lots of little thing that people can buy.”
When he’s not manning his booth, Peterson is enjoying the music and visiting downtown Bangor businesses.
“We’ve seen some amazing music. There were some Texan fiddlers one year that were incredible,” said Peterson, referring to the Quebe Sisters, who performed in 2007. “We also love going to the Friars’ bakeshop every year for lunch. The Friars have a few of our rolling pins. They’ve always been very supportive.”
The vibe is almost without fail cheerful, even during those few times over the years where it has rained, such as the Saturday of the 2009 festival, and possibly the Sunday of this year’s festival if Hurricane Irene has its way. The upbeat atmosphere was not premeditated; McCarthy says the good vibes just come naturally.
“I think that was naturally an outgrowth from the festival. When you identify all these arts that are so core to so many people’s cultures and traditions, and present it to the largest audience possible, that kind of spirit is just a natural thing that occurs,” said McCarthy. “It was bound to be a happy, positive kind of vibe.”
And what’s not to love? Three days of music, food, dancing and people watching on the Bangor Waterfront. It’s your festival: Enjoy it the way you want.
“The nice thing about the Folk Festival is that it’s not a static event,” said Kirlin. “You can bring a chair or a blanket and spend the whole day sitting in it, but I’ve caught people hula hooping to the music, standing on their heads, curled up together in a nap, swinging their children in circles, tossing them in the air, dancing with dogs. It’s [hard to] not get caught up in the excitement, and really, the sheer joy of it.”
Follow the BDN’s American Folk Festival coverage on Twitter @BDNLive and post your festival pictures with the hashtag #AFF11.