I had a lovely, if a little moist morning emceeing the Fountain Lawn stage Sunday, reconnecting with old Folklife friends, being reminded of what a truly community event Folklife is, and hearing some terrific new players. Thanks to the legacy of the late Dumi Maraire, Seattle’s one of America’s hotspots for Zimbabwean marimba music, but I had never seen the Chiroto Marimba Ensemble. That’s probably because they’re based in Idaho, and their leader, Tendai Muparutsa, lives in Massachusetts, where he teaches African music at Williams College.
You could see your breath in the air at 11 a.m. when the band started, entertaining a faithful crowd that gathered for their thundering vibrations and soon everyone in the vicinity was feeling the warmth.
Volunteers tend to come back to Folklife year after year after year. I was lucky enough to be working with Tom DiStefano, who has volunteer stage managed at Folklife for 27 years. It was great catching up with Tom — he said business is finally picking up at his West Seattle wine shop now that the Great Recession moves closer to the center of the rear view mirror — and it was good to have someone in charge who really knows what he’s doing. Tom kept me hopping.
Most folks who come to the festival have no idea what really goes into making it happen, but there are hundreds of volunteers like Tom, as well as staff production people who are hired and Seattle Center stage hands and sound engineers. It’s quite an array and a great crew.
Performers play for free at Folklife, but if you’re a country fan you may have already paid a cover charge to hear Jessica Lynne at the Little Red Hen or the Tractor. I had never seen Lynne before, but I was glad I did. What a great voice and terrific stage presence. “You’re not my cowboy,” she informed the man on the receiving end of one of her songs, as she strummed her guitar and belted out the lyrics with honky tonk attitude. Lynne is from Denmark of all places, but you can’t hear a trace of a Danish accent (one of her parents was American). Her family was out in the crowd, cheering her on. She’s been in Seattle two years and has several gigs coming up around town. Check her out. She’s got an album : “Spiritual Cowgirl.”
Steve and Kristi Nebel have been playing Folklife almost as long as DiStefano has been stage managing. This year S & K brought their country swing band, Cowgirl’s Dream, to the festival. When Kristi crooned “How lo-o-o-o-o-ng,” Bob Wills must’ve been happy up in heaven. And, in fact, by this time, the heavens were clearing. It wasn’t long before people were wrapping their flannel shirts around their waists and, in typical Seattle fashion, complaining about the heat.
Out in front of the Fountain Lawn stage there was a little redhead girl dancing her heart out. I asked her mom if I could post this photo of Lucy, who wasn’t in the sky with diamonds, but her expression made her look like she might have been thinking she was:
Folklife takes good care of its volunteers. After my shift, I dropped by the hospitality center for a cup of coffee. There was a long line for free cookies. The festival used to give its volunteers free beer, but those days are long gone — and probably a good thing! But the musicians are still jamming at the hospitality center.
And speaking of intoxicants, quite a few people — mostly teenagers — were taking advantage of Washington’s new pot laws, though they didn’t seem to know that while weed is legal now, it’s not legal in public places. The festival posted rather tartly worded signs all over the grounds to remind them:
Walking past the Fisher Green stage, I heard the dulcet tones of David Maloney (oldtimers will remember Seattle’s favorite folk duo of yore, Reilly and Maloney) and stopped by to listen to David sing “Save the Last Dance For Me” and “A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation).” Sweet stuff.
Over in Warren’s Roadhouse — named for the late Warren Argo, whose hoarse voice and banjo I could still hear echoing in the high ceiling of that barn of a room — the GorTexans (great name!) were laying down a sweet Western Swing ballad to a dance floor that was fair-to-middlin’ full.
The festival cultural focus this year is Washington Works, which takes in labor history. Folklife presented a cool panel featuring four women who had done factory jobs during World War II — “Rosie the Riveters.” The Rosies told some great stories about learning to actually put in rivets, drilling holes in the wing panels of B-17 bombers, sewing nets that prevented Japanese submarines from entering western harbors and building gigantic sheet metal ventilation pipes for ships.
“We didn’t think we were trailblazers,” said Georgie Kunkel, “but we were happy to get a man’s wage.” That wage was about 67 cents an hour, by the way! Georgie said she met her husband at the Trianon Ballroom — “after I found him, I didn’t bother going back again” — and he sent her a ring from overseas, shortly thereafter. “Consider yourself engaged,” he wrote. She held up the ring for everyone to see. I guess that’s one proposal that stuck.
Down in the bowels of the Armory (formerly known as Center House), some folks showcased a charming Scottish tradition called a Gaelic Crankie in the Center Theater. The way this works is that a scroll of felt with colorful, childlike drawings on it is “cranked” across a puppet theater-like screen, as one person narrates and another sings. This particular story was about a small island off the coast of Scotland where a shipwreck yielded 250,000 bottles of whisky. When the tax authorities come looking for it, the local folks hide it in everything from baby cribs to water bottles and it is never discovered. Needless to say, everyone “lived happily ever after.” And a couple sheets to the wind, to boot. A little shadow dancer appeared in the backlit box behind the felt, celebrating.
My Folklife afternoon ended on the still-damp grass of the Mural Amphitheatre, where Grand Hallway was crooning blissed-out vocals over suspended chords and “ooh-ooh-ooh” harmonies. I lay back and closed my eyes and when I looked up, I saw this:
See you at Folklife tomorrow!