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Richmond's Folk Roots

Celebrate the culture of America in Virginia’s capital this weekend. 
by Rebecca Lynn Aulph

Located on the fall line of the historic James River, Richmond, Virginia, is 98 miles south of Washington, D.C. and a perfect place to celebrate the roots and richness of American culture. After winning a bid for the National Folk Festival for 2005-2007, the city set its sights on hosting a community event of its own each year.

Richmond used the national festival as a model and based its interpretation of “folk” on a definition from the National Endowment for the Arts that says a community’s artistic traditions are shaped by values and standards of excellence that are passed from generation to generation and are constantly reinvigorated through demonstration, conversation and practice.

From October 12 -14, you can see this definition in action at the Richmond Folk Festival. The largest traditional arts festival of its kind in the country, Richmond Folk drew more than 200,000 people to downtown Richmond’s riverfront last year to celebrate American culture with music, dance, storytelling, crafts and food.

In the words of Lisa Sims, director of the festival, “We use a very literal definition of  ‘folk’ as the music of the people …We therefore feature artists who have learned at the knee of an elder, or who have had a tradition passed down to them through family or community. We like to say that most of our artists are ‘the best artists you’ve never heard of.’”

This year’s artists may be unheard of, but Sims promises you’ll love what you hear. Voted the best musical festival in Virginia for two years running, Richmond Folk hosts a variety of performers, ranging from traditional bluegrass and the jazz of New Orleans to Irish, Novia Scotia and Swedish American fiddlers, as well as a player of the Chinese jaw harp and calabash flute.

“We do not have headlines,” Sims explains. “All of our artists are as noteworthy as the next.” A few, like Rosanne Cash and Ralph Stanley, need no introduction, but to see a full roster and hear music from the performers, visit the festival’s website. Thirty artists will perform on seven live stages this year, but the festival never stops playing music. Other musical and dance performances continue throughout the three-day event.

While the Richmond Folk Festival showcases traditional arts as a whole, an entire area of the festival is dedicated to the state of Virginia. The Virginia Folklife Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities curates the Richmond Times-Dispatch Folklife Area and Stage, which feature a new theme every year. This year, demonstrators will honor traditional food pathways of Virginia and performances will honor National Heritage Fellows who have come from Virginia. Additionally, the festival will host a film series, family area produced by the Children’s Museum of Richmond, two museums dedicated to Civil War history, a traditional crafts marketplace and over 300 food vendors.

A $1.5 million event produced the same organization that produces the National Folk Festival, the Richmond Folk Festival is free to attend. Food, drink and merchandise are available for purchase, but you can watch performances and visit the folklife or family area at no cost. Festival hours are Friday, October 12, from 6-9:30 p.m., Saturday, October 13, from noon-9:30 p.m., and Sunday, October 14, from noon-6 p.m. For more details, visit the festival’s www.richmondfolkfestival.org.

Photos by Skip Rowland.

Brioche French Toast
Euphoric in Greenvil
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