NC Folk Festival Mission & History
Origins of the North Carolina Folk Festival
The North Carolina Folk Festival (est. 2018) succeeded the National Folk Festival that was in residency for three years in Greensboro, N.C. from 2015 – 2017. Our organization is rooted in the ethos of inclusivity that created the National Folk Festival in 1934 as one of our nation’s first multicultural celebrations to present the arts of many nations, races, and languages on the same stage on an equal footing.
We proudly carry forward this legacy to amplify the diverse voices of people and communities from all walks of life whose creative expressions are inextricably woven into the cultural fabric of our nation.
The North Carolina Folk Festival honors, celebrates, and shares the meaningful ways in which communities express their creativity and cultural traditions through music, dance, food, crafts and other folk arts to enhance appreciation of diverse traditions and contribute to community vibrancy and inclusivity.
What is Folk?
The term “folk” has come to mean different things over time. The most basic definition and origins of the word refer to “the people.” In the context of our work, the folk arts are the creative expressions of communities of people, and the ways in which their traditions are communicated and shared within (or about) their community.
In the folk arts field, a community is as a grouping of people who are connected by a common ethnic heritage, cultural mores, language, religion, occupation, or geographic region. (as defined by the National Endowment for the Arts).
We assign genres to the diverse cultural traditions we include in our Festival program each year as a way to begin to define and categorize them. We recognize that folk traditions and the public presentation of “folklore” are constantly changing and evolving. These genres are intended to serve as a reference point – a place around which we provide context and structure – that begins to share a story of connectivity between an artist’s work and his/her community of origin or practice.
Our Festival Family
The North Carolina Folk Festival is just one of many festivals that have sprung up in the wake of the National Folk Festival’s hugely successful rotating 3-year residencies across the U.S. Love the NC Folk Festival? Get to know our sister festivals and all the good work they are doing to help us continue the legacy of the National, spreading the celebration of the roots, richness and diversity of American culture through music, dance, traditional crafts and food at a local level!
The Richmond Folk Festival
The Montana Folk Festival
The Lowell Folk Festival
The National Folk Festival
A free, large-scale three-day outdoor event, the National Folk Festival celebrates the roots, richness and variety of American culture. It features over 350 of the nation’s finest traditional musicians, dancers, craftspeople and other keepers of culture in performances, workshops, and demonstrations, plus children’s activities, savory regional and ethnic cuisines and craft brews, non-stop participatory dancing, storytelling, parades, and more.
National Folk Festival sites since the start of the three year residency program:
1983, 1984, 1985
New York, NY
1987, 1988, 1989
1990, 1991, 1992
1993, 1994, 1995
1996, 1997, 1998
East Lansing, MI
1999, 2000, 2001
2002, 2003, 2004
2005, 2006, 2007
2008, 2009, 2010
2015, 2016, 2017
2018, 2019, 2021
The National Council for the Traditional Arts
First held in 1934, the National Folk Festival is the oldest multicultural festival of traditional arts in the nation, and has been produced from its inception by the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA). The organization was founded in 1933 as the National Folk Festival Association. The name not with standing, the organization’s work has always included more than a single event- for over eight decades, through festivals, tours, symposia, exhibits, and media productions, the NCTA has showcased the very best of the myriad grassroots folk, tribal and ethnic cultures that comprise our diverse nation.
A Brief History of The National Folk Festival
First held in 1934, the National Folk Festival is the oldest multi-cultural celebration of traditional arts in the country and the event that defined this form of presentation. It employed the first fieldworker (Vance Randolph), invented the talk/demonstration workshop, put the first craft demonstrations at festivals, mixed religious and secular presentations, and used scholars as presenters. But its most radical and enduring innovation was that of putting the arts of many nations, races and languages into the same event on an equal footing. The term “folk festival” had been used before the National Folk Festival was created, but it was used for mono-cultural events. With the National, this term acquired a new and inclusive definition.
The founder was Sarah Knott, who created the National Folk Festival Association in 1933. Those who joined her as fieldworkers and presenters in the first festivals were also major figures in the creation of academic and applied folklore: Ben Botkin, Zora Neale Hurston, Constance Roarke, George Pullen Jackson, Arthur Campa, George Korson, Richard Dorson, J. Frank Dobie, Lauren Post and Bascom Lunsford, among others.
Some of the artists presented at the first festival are now legendary, and the recordings and other documentation made possible by the National isprecious. Among those artists were: Horton Barker, Captain Richard Maitland, Texas Gladden, Hobart Smith, The Red Headed Fiddlers, Captain Pearl Nye, Bill Henseley and Lawrence Walker. Zora Neale Hurston brought blues and black shape note singers to the National from Eatonville, Florida, marking the first time these art forms were performed at a folk festival. It was the first event of national stature to present the blues, Cajun music, a polka band, a Tex-Mex conjunto, a Sacred Harp ensemble, Peking opera – the list goes on and on.
“A comparison of accordions and accordion technique by German, Polish, and Louisiana French players was actually quite stimulating,” intoned the Chicago Tribuneine a 1937 festival review.
Leota Ware was a child when she came to the 1936 National in Dallas with the Kiowa Indian Dancers. “All these people of different colors and different talk were sitting in the dining hall having supper when we got there,” she recalls. “Texas and Oklahoma were segregated then and I’d not seen black people and white people and Indians eating together. It made a big impression on me and I talked about it when I got home. I told my grandmother and she said ‘Heaven will be like that.’”
Eleanor Roosevelt was involved in the National’s move to Washington, D.C. in 1938 when the festival for a four-year stay (1938-41). She served as the National’s Honorary Chair in 1938, and attended several festivals. In 1976 Miss Knott recalled: “. . .we were associated with the New Deal, an interest of the First Lady, one of many causes she supported. The times were difficult, but exciting. We knew this new work was changing the way the nation saw itself, that some of the smaller pieces of the national puzzle were being viewed with appreciation for the first time. I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning.”
The festival was presented in Constitution Hall, which was owned and operated by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) and at that time rigidly segregated. It was here in 1939 that celebrated opera singer Marian Anderson was famously denied the stage, an incident that prompted Eleanor Roosevelt to relinquish her membership in the DAR.
Yet it was here just the year before at the 1938 National that W. C. Handy, known as the “Father of the Blues,” made his first appearance on a desegregated stage. The festival presented black and white performers every year – and got away with it. How the festival managed this remains unclear to this day, but its organizers seem to have simply ignored the prohibition and the DAR never challenged them on it.
The 1942 National was held in New York City and an emphasis was placed on Jewish folk arts. Performers who had recently escaped the Holocaust in Europe were presented.
The National continued to move among Americancities during the post-World War II period, but it was held most often in St. Louis, where it had begun. It also began a slow decline. Miss Knott held to the formulas that had made the National successful in the 1930s, but it was no longer the sole folk event held on a national scale. The folk song revival was in its ascendancy, and its leaders had not been involved with the National. The National’s decline continued during the 1960s heyday of the revival.
In 1969, two employees of the Department of the Interior became involved with the financially troubled National. They engineered an agreement with the National Park Service, whereby the National Folk Festival Association would assist the National Park system with cultural programming in exchange for an annual stipend. As part of the agreement, the 33rd National Folk Festival was presented in the then new Wolf Trap Farm Park. Located in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., it was the first national park devoted to the performing arts. This marked the beginning of the National’s 11-year run at Wolf Trap.
In the 1970s, the combination of folklorists, collectors and folk song revival musicians that came to the Board of the National Folk Festival Association gradually transformed the organization and broadened the scope of its activities. In 1976, the organization officially changed its name to the National Council for the Traditional Arts to reflect this larger mission.
In these years the National became known for the ability of its Board and other volunteers to find and present the folk virtuoso. Many board members were folklorists, cultural anthropologists and ethnomusicologists highly skilled in fieldwork and in touch with others working in communities in many areas of the nation. A totally new program was presented every year.
The National’s example was influential, and served as an inspiration and model for traditional arts festivals across the nation.
The surge of interest in the 1960s that had propelled all things “folk” into the realm of popular culture began to wane in the late 1970s and early ’80s.Of course the folk kept on doing what they do, but national interests changed. In a two-year period, the audiences for folk festivals dropped by 40 to 60 percent. The NCTA kept a national listing of folk festivals from 1974 until 1982. More than half disappeared between 1978 and 1982. In the 12 years that followed, all but a handful of the nation’s folk festivals disappeared. Local festivals were hit as hard as regional and national ones.
Folk organizations that sponsored concerts and engaged in local fieldwork seemed to have gone out of business at roughly the same percentage rate. Graduate schools of folklore felt the same pressures and at least half of them disappeared. The nation had changed its priorities abruptly.
That the NCTA developed the multi-ethnic festival in the 1930s is well known in our field. Its reinvention of the folk festival in the late 1980s as a joint effort by local communities and the NCTA is not as well known, but far more germane to our time. Today, National Folk Festival is attracting the largest audiences in its history.