When the National Folk Festival began its three-year run in Bangor in 2002, there was skepticism that the small Maine community would succeed as the annual event’s host city. Bangor was one of the smallest communities to host the then-68-year-old festival, which began in St. Louis and is typically held in a different U.S. city for three-years.
But Joe Wilson, then the executive director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, the organization that runs the folk festival, wasn’t among them.
“I saw the interest and passion not only for the festival but for the city,” Wilson told the Bangor Daily News weeks before the first National Folk Festival opened on the banks of the Penobscot River in August 2002. “I think things like this work for believers.”
At the end of Bangor’s three-year stint, many locals and visitors had become believers, too. This became a commitment to continue what the festival had started. And, for 15 years, the tradition continued as the American Folk Festival — bringing people, music, food and fun to the city’s waterfront for three days each August. This was made possible by thousands of hours of volunteer work and donations large and small. The Bangor Daily News was a festival sponsor for all 18 years.
The folk festival proved that Bangor could be a destination that drew tens of thousands of visitors. It proved that the community could pull together to support an undertaking as big and complex as the National Folk Festival.
Most important, the festival made the Bangor-area look at itself differently, with a bit more confidence, creativity and daring. That attitude change came at the right time, as the city continued to remake the waterfront along the Penobscot River and replaced its aged auditorium.
The festival helped spark Waterfront Concerts, now a fixture on the waterfront and at the Cross Insurance Center. It also contributed to a revival of downtown Bangor, where new restaurants, breweries and shops have opened.
Now, the festival, which became the American Folk Festival in 2005, has come to an end. While we chose to focus on its positive legacy in Bangor, there are things to lament.
The end of the festival here in Bangor may have been inevitable — only a few cities that have hosted the National Folk Festival continue to host similar events. But its end was hastened by an unwillingness to consider changes. Board members didn’t have much appetite for new ideas to keep the festival fresh and relevant. As a result, the festival shrank in recent years and so did its attendance and financial support.
The end of the folk festival, however, opens the doors to new possibilities in Bangor. It doesn’t need to be replicated. Instead, the energy and enthusiasm it fostered in Bangor should be channeled to other arts events and venues.
The Bangor area is rich with artistic endeavors, including the 123-year-old Bangor Symphony Orchestra and musical and theatrical performances at Penobscot Theatre, the University of Maine and Husson University. Smaller venues, such as Bangor Arts Exchange, Queen City Cinema Club, Nocturnem Draft Haus and Black Bear Brewing, host local bands and other arts programming. Bangor Celtic Crossroads continues to grow with events throughout the year in Bangor and Brewer.
That continued spirit, which the folk festival first brought to Bangor in 2002, is the best legacy of the 18 years of music on the Bangor waterfront.