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Fair St. Louis: Cultural Stage hosts wide range of folk music

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 2, 2013 - A major share of the publicity for the music at this year’s Fair St. Louis celebration on the grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial has focused on the Budweiser Main Stage lineup under the Arch: country singer Trace Adkins (July 4) and rockers Brett Michaels (July 5) and Counting Crows (July 6).

But for music fans with a taste for roots and folk music, the place to be on July 4th will be the Cultural Stage, just north of the Arch. From 1:15 p.m. until around 8:30 that evening, you’ll be able to see and hear everything from top Missouri fiddlers, a southern Indian dance troupe and western swing and blues bands from Texas to Native American dancers, a Mexican mariachi band and a concluding performance by one of Louisiana’s most acclaimed Cajun bands, BeauSoleil.

The National Council for the Traditional Arts has put together this lineup, which is fitting as NCTA produces the National Folk Festival, a three-day annual event that brings together a myriad of traditional folk arts performances, workshops, crafts exhibits and other events under one umbrella.

The St. Louis event is being billed as a “National Folk Festival Showcase,” according to NCTA Director Julia Olin. And it’s also something of a homecoming for NCTA and the festival, which both trace their beginnings to St. Louis 80 years ago.

“The organization began as the National Folk Festival Association in St. Louis in 1933,” Olin said during a recent telephone conversation from the NCTA offices in Silver Springs, Md. “And the very first festival took place there in 1934. From 1947 through 1955, the festival had its home in St. Louis as well.”

St. Louisan Sarah Knott organized the initial 1934 festival at Kiel Auditorium. Knott continued to lead the National Folk Festival Association until her retirement in 1970. Over the years, the annual festival has been held on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in New York City, and in such communities as Lowell, Mass.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; to Dayton, Ohio; and Bangor, Me.

The festival has a three-year run at each location before moving on, and all events are free to the public. In recent years, the festival has worked to leave  local folk festivals behind at host cities.

But the most recent city to host the National Folk Festival – Nashville, Tenn. – ran into financial difficulties in 2011, the first year of its three-year commitment to the event. The combination of devastating flooding of the Cumberland River and inclement weather throughout the festival resulted in a financial loss, and the festival was called off in 2012.

That cancellation put the organization on the hunt for a place to celebrate the 80th anniversary of its founding. Olin, a native of St. Louis who became NCTA director in 1990, immediately thought of her hometown.

“I worked with the Missouri Friends of the Folk Arts,” Olin said, “and did a lot of field work in the Ozark region of Missouri as well as northern Arkansas. So, I knew that St. Louis and the region had a great musical heritage. We decided to see if there might be interest in having a one-day festival showcase tied in with Fair St. Louis.”

Olin contacted Julie Donnelly, event marketing manager for the Fair St. Louis Foundation, and the showcase fell into place within the Fair St. Louis schedule very quickly.

“That was in April,” Olin explained. “We started working to bring together the best lineup we could of folk performers from around the country.”

Opening the festival will be musicians from right here in Missouri – champion fiddle players Charlie Walden and John Williams, both from central Missouri and both winners of many fiddle contests in the state as well as the Midwest. The duo will be accompanied by pianist Patt Plunkett and guitarist John Stewart.

At 2:15, the Mythili Prakash Dance Ensemble will present a performance of the classic Indian dance style, Bharata Natyam. Accompanied in the dance by her mother, Guru Viji Prakash, Mythili will be backed by her brother, singer/musician/composer Aditya Prakash, as well as Shiva Ramamurthi (violin), Rajna Swaminathan (mridangam) and Pallavi Mynampati (flute).

The Austin, Texas-based group, Hot Club of Cowtown, follows at 3:15. The trio – fiddler/singer Elana James, guitarist Whit Smith and bassist Jake Erwin -- was inducted into the Western swing hall of Fame in 2004 and creatively combines influences ranging from Bob Wills to Django Reinhardt.

At 4:15 p.m., Houston Texas blues singer Diunna Greenleaf and her trio, Blue Mercy – guitarist John Richardson, bassist Larry Evans and drummer Gerald Warren – showcase the talent that earned the group first place in the 2005 International Blues challenge and a nomination as Traditional Blues Female Artist of the year in the 2013 Blues Music Awards.

Native American flute player Fernando Cellicon leads the Traditional Zuni Singers and Dancers in a 5:15 p.m. set that will feature performances of Zuni tribal music and dance with roots that go back 12,00 years.

At 6:15 p.m., Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, one of the most acclaimed Mexican mariachi bands in the world, takes the stage. The group won a Grammy in 2009 for its recording, “Amor, Dolor y Lágrimas,” and backed Linda Ronstadt on two recordings.

The festival concludes with a 7:15 p.m. performance by BeauSoleil, featuring fiddler Michael Doucet, guitarist/singer David Doucet, bassist/fiddler Mitch Reed, percussionist Billy Ware and drummer Tommy Alesi. With more than 30 recordings to its credit, BeauSoleil has established itself as one the finest Cajun bands working today.

“We didn’t have a lot of time to bring these great performers together for a one-day festival,” Olin said. “But over the years, NCTA has built very deep relationships with many of these artists. For example, one of BeauSoleil’s first national appearances in 1976 was at our festival.”

NCTA is seeking applications for a host city for the National Folk Festival from 2015-17, according to Olin:

“The festival is usually a three-day event that takes place in early September. And since it is free, it does take a major commitment from the host city in terms of sponsorship funds. It’s an investment of about $1.2 million to present the festival, but it does bring many visitors. And the National Folk Festival has also created independent festivals in host cities that continue on an annual basis.”

Will this one day Fair St. Louis “Showcase” translates into enough interest for St. Louis movers and shakers to consider applying to bring the full three-day festival – with workshops and exhibits as well as concerts – here for three years?

It’s certainly an interesting possibility to consider.


74th National Folk Festival Showcase

1:15 p.m.       Missouri Fiddle Masters

2:15 p.m.       Mythili Prakash Dance Ensemble

3:15 p.m.       Hot Club of Cowtown

4:15 p.m.       Diunna Greenleaf and Blue Mercy

5:15 p.m.       Cellicion Traditional Zuni Dancers

6:15 p.m.       Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano

7:15 p.m.       BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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