Updated as of 2:52 p.m. on Nov. 23 to include more photos.
For North Carolina Folk Festival’s director of operations, Lynn Witherspoon, this festival is “no Coachella.” Rather, she refers to it as the “festival of discovery.” People don’t attend the three-day festival in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina because they know all the words to every song. The festival’s goal is to expand its audiences’ music palette.
“There are going to be things that you may have heard before and you love, but it's also going to be things that you've never heard,” she said. “Then all of a sudden you have something new that you can explore in your Pandora or your Spotify.”
The National Folk Festival was founded and started in Greensboro in 2015. In 2018, the National Folk Festival disbanded into different faceted festivals around the country. The “North Carolina Folk Festival” is still hosted in Greensboro and is in its 6th year.
The North Carolina Folk festival is a member organization within Folk Alliance International, a non-profit founded in 1989. According to its website, its mission is to keep the tradition of folk music alive through preservation, presentation and promotion.
In the last 7 years, the organization has seen an increase in its donations. FAI seeks to use these donations to provide resources to keep the folk industry alive.
Alex Mallett, development and partnership director of Folk Alliance International, said the spike in donations came in a time of need. Mallet said he felt this helped FAI build a stronger relationship with its donors and folk community alike.
"Our focus on donations was mission-specific and also really crisis-driven," Mallett said. "Our donors saved the ship. It was a really beautiful thing."
In 2019, FAI conducted a survey of 2,099 participants from all over the world to better understand the folk community and how to continue its expansion. It found various values of diversity, equity and inclusion to be important to its survey takers, but not reflected enough in the folk landscape.
While Mallett said he feels there is still always more work to be done, he said since 2019, FAI has added "summits" or conferences for folk communities around the world to come together and discuss their perspectives.
"They've created a culture where I think Folk Alliance is feeling like a zone for folk from all different groups, who maybe didn't necessarily see themselves in the community before," he said. "There's work to be done in outreach, events and festivals to make them more accessible to everyone. There's not a 'magic bullet'. There's a lot to endure as a community."
Since this survey, Folk Alliance International and the North Carolina Folk Festival partnered with Ethno USA in 2021. This international music exchange program brings young artists from over 40 countries for a twelve-day residency in Greensboro for the North Carolina Folk Festival. The program allows musicians from each country to perform a song to introduce their culture in the performance.
Mohit Dobhal is an Indian musician who has been traveling to perform in the US for nine years. This was his third year performing with Ethno USA. Dobhal performed a musical piece, “Ana In Rag Sri", that was composed by his Guru’s guru, or his religious teacher’s guide.
Dobhal connected this year’s Ethno USA performance at the Folk Festival to messages and concepts from his home country.
“I'm from India, and India is holding the G-20 summit this year. The main phrase of the summit is 'Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam,' it's a Sanskrit phrase, which means, ‘The world is one,’"Dobhal said. “Through my music, I think I'm resonating the same way that the world is one, and we are the part of a single family. It's obvious that we should enjoy each and every moment and not fight.”
For “Queen Bees” vocalist Molly McGinn, folk music, old or new, is going to tell a story, form a connection, and try to gain an understanding.
“I think that's kind of what the Folk festival really aims to do: go out, find those musicians, bring 'em together, give 'em a voice and give 'em a space to play," McGinn said. “I think the importance of festivals like this is to make sure that we are going out and finding the voices that aren't usually heard, but that are making the music that we will hear a hundred years from now."
McGinn and her bandmates, Kate Tobey and Anna Luisa Daigneault, known as Quilla, performed at the NC Folk Festival for the first time this year. They said their experience was nothing short of magical.
“I had to stop myself from bursting into tears a couple of times,” Tobey said. “That's why you do music, right? You do it to connect with other people and watch them have fun and watch them feel moved. I saw people crying and I saw people dancing at the end. It was perfect.”
The Queen Bees are grooving to a new era of folk music as an electronic folk trio.
“A lot of times you think of folk music as dulcimers and fiddles and banjos,” McGinn said. “We have now reached a point in history where electronic music is now starting to come under that archive. It's such a cool experience for us to be able to bring these old songs and retell them with new arrangements, and then call it folk music.”
“Zoe and Cloyd,” a bluegrass and klezmer band, performed all three days of the North Carolina Folk Festival. For Natalya Zoe Weinstein-Miller and John Cloyd Miller, the festival was a chance for them to gain exposure to other types of folk music. The duo said as a bluegrass group, they typically perform at events specific to that genre.
“We don't get to do that very often, to intermix with those folks, to get to collaborate with or just have breakfast with people from New Orleans or from different kinds of musical traditions,” said Weinstein Miller. “To be able to come here and hear all this different kind of world music from different traditions is really incredible and really special.”
“This festival, bringing together so many different traditions and different people and it's free and open to the public, it can be such a powerful tool for change and communication and understanding and conversations,” said Weinstein Miller.
Bringing all the artists together for the three-day festival takes a lot of preparation, according to Witherspoon. She has been part of the NC Folk Festival since it was formerly the National Folk Festival. She joined the operations team in 2016 and stepped up as its director in 2018.
She and her team set up shop in the Elon Law parking garage on South Church Street in downtown Greensboro around a week and a half before the festival began. Witherspoon said the Operations tent serves as the “brains of the festival” during the weekend.
“I love to figure out the puzzle,” she said. “I just love to figure out how all the pieces fit together, what needs to come first and what needs to come second, and how you problem-solve to make things more streamlined and easier for everyone.”
Sandra Funk has been attending the NC Folk Festival since 2015 and has volunteered in years past. When the volunteer coordinator position opened this year, she said she jumped at the opportunity. Her reasoning: she gets to see and hear music she wouldn’t get to otherwise.
“One of the acts that's actually returning who's been here before is a blues harmonica player. Now, I'm not going to walk out on the street on a normal day and get to hear amazingly talented blues anywhere but a harmonica player? I mean, it's super cool,"she said.
Funk worked with over 500 volunteers and filled over 900 volunteer shifts over the course of the 3-day festival this year. Funk said the volunteers are at the heart of the event's success.
“They're selling merchandise, they're helping with our VIPs. They're at our information tents, they're transporting musicians and being artist buddies to take care of folks," she said. "We have a craftsman marketplace, and people who work with them. We have volunteers that touch just about every part of the festival.”
Some volunteers are tasked with the “Bucket Brigade." These volunteers roam the festival grounds with large blue buckets to collect donations throughout the weekend. Funk said the goal of this is to provide funding so the festival can continue to be a free event for the public.
Amy Grossmann, executive director of the NC Folk Festival, said this year’s festival collected over $20,000 in donations. She said this is a 27% increase from last year. This year’s festival hosted 30 performing groups from various states and countries.
These donations are crucial to the success of the festival, according to board member Victoria Milstein. She said the NC Folk Festival takes around $1.2 million to put on.
The folk festival is also largely supported by the city of Greensboro and the Greensboro Cultural Center. The city of Greensboro provides the festival with internal assistance, including transportation, room and space rentals and financial resources, according to Greensboro Cultural Center Finance & Facility Operations Specialist Ethan Lodics.
Attendee Victoria Hussy, a Greensboro-native, has attended the NC Folk Festival and formerly National Folk Festival every year, and traveled to Richmond, Virginia, for its Folk Festival. She said she is always learning something new.
“To me, folk means grounded in your country or your earth,” she said. “Seeing people's roots and the way they express that in music is incredibly important.”
Hussy felt each year she was exposed to completely different types of folk music. The North Carolina Folk Festival serves as a medium for preserving the folk genre as it expands over the years.
“We preserve it by recording every performance that happens on stage, we will, we have archived every, every event that's ever happened,” Funk said.
Funk said the NC Folk Festival has been the most diverse weekend she has ever seen in the city of Greensboro. She feels the event exposes attendees to unique music and cultures.
“There's things people will hear here that they won't hear anywhere else unless they go to look for it,” Funk said. “Instruments that I can't pronounce, whose names I don't remember, but huge, gurdy string instruments or horns that you don't recognize or things that come here from another culture or that people have just learned to use in a different way.”
For festival attendee Jonathan Timber, a Greensboro-native who has attended each year, the artists and the audience go hand-in-hand.
“Folk is people. It doesn't matter what it sounds like, the folk is the people,” he said. “If the band could figure out a way to make the crowd feel the moment, then the folk are together.”