Northwest Folklife Festival (Seattle)

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 11/17/2017
  • Essay 20470

The annual Northwest Folklife Festival, held each Memorial Day weekend at Seattle Center, launched in 1972 as a free celebration of folk and ethnic music, dance, and arts. The first event, staged on a shoestring, attracted a remarkable 123,000 people. Fiddles, banjos, and guitars predominated, yet it also included music from the Middle East and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and folk arts such as wood carving. The next year was even bigger, drawing an estimated 225,000. The festival expanded and evolved over the decades, highlighting folk traditions from all over the world. During most years, the festival deliberately avoided name headliners and was intended mainly as a showcase for homemade "living room" music and arts, as well as underexposed ethnic arts. However, in 1997 folk legend Pete Seeger (1919-2014) performed all four days to big crowds. The festival has endured several financial crises over the years, yet has never imposed a mandatory admission fee. Instead donations are requested from the more than 200,000 people who typically attend over the four-day weekend.

A Fortuitous Folk Meeting

In the late 1950s, folk music had become a potent force in American popular music, with songs such as "Tom Dooley" and "Banana Boat (Day-O)" rocketing into the Top 10. As the 1960s progressed, folk music gradually faded as a commercial pop genre, yet it retained a strong cultural influence, inspiring rock musicians, singer-songwriters, and country artists. Folk music also continued to be a popular "homemade" pastime for thousands of Americans on front porches and in living rooms and backyards -- and it continued to draw hundreds of thousands of fans at popular folk festivals. Among the most influential of these were the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, beginning in 1959; the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C., beginning in 1967; and the National Folk Festival, which had been held at various venues since the 1930s but which found a permanent home at Wolf Trap in Virginia in 1971.

The Wolf Trap festival would, in significant ways, be the catalyst for the creation of the Northwest Folklife Festival. The two organizations responsible for the Wolf Trap festival -- the National Park Service and the National Folk Festival Association -- were the same organizations that first approached the Seattle Folklore Society and Seattle Center with the idea of creating a regional folk festival in the Northwest.

The first glimmer arose during a party in Washington, D.C., where two members of the National Folk Festival Association were talking to Mike Holmes, a member of the Seattle Folklore Society. They brought up the possibility of staging a festival in Seattle. Holmes expressed interest and, soon after, Andy Wallace of the national organization flew to Seattle and pitched the idea to Charlie Gebler of the local National Park Service office. The park service was "looking to develop a presence in cities through folk festivals," and had recently turned Wolf Trap into the first national park for the performing arts (White).

"Traditional Arts" for Modern Participants

Wallace and Gebler came up with a proposal to hold an event at Seattle Center, with a token budget of $6,000, and presented the idea to the Seattle Folklore Society. The society's December 1971 journal reported receiving a proposal to stage "a regional festival of traditional music, dance, and folk arts to be held in Seattle near the end of May 1972, providing sufficient local interest is shown in organizing and financing the endeavor," and went on to note that "The consensus at this time is that such a festival is feasible, but that it will take a fair amount of voluntary manpower and some funding to become a reality" (Hendrickson).

The society was clearly intrigued, yet it also recognized two major obstacles: a shortage of funding and a lack of staff to organize such an ambitious endeavor. The society said that the National Park Service and the National Folk Festival Association "have limited funds for festival use," which meant that the society and other local entities would have to raise money on their own (Hendrickson). Yet the Seattle Folklore Society was optimistic that it could surmount these obstacles, members saying that so far they had encountered general enthusiasm about the idea. If the funding problem could be solved, that would also solve the staffing problem, since a coordinator could be hired.

That enthusiasm continued to grow. A coalition of local groups, including the Seattle Folklore Society, Seattle Center, the Scandia Folk Dance Society, alternative radio station KRAB-FM, the Washington Old-Time Fiddlers, and REACH (Recreation, Entertainment and Creative Help, a nonprofit group that provided entertainment to retirement homes), threw themselves into fundraising and organizing. Much of the organization was done in a mad rush in the weeks before the Memorial Day weekend target date.

On May 14, 1972, an article appeared in The Seattle Times announcing the first-ever Northwest Folk-Life Festival (the hyphen was included in those early years) to be held on May 26-29 at Seattle Center. The organizers had decided early on that the festival would include more than just folk music and folk dancing. It would be a festival of all "ethnic folk arts found in the Northwest," both foreign and domestic, and "would give people from the area an opportunity to see the rich heritage of traditional arts present in the area which generally are not given exposure through the mass media" (Hendrickson). "Ethnic dances, music and heritage crafts such as quilting bees, glass blowing and wood carving will be included," said the paper ("Folk-Life Festival to Open").

Success Without Stars

Two days before the opening, the Times reported that more than 150 groups had signed up for the festival -- a number that would soon be updated to 300. The performers were almost all from the Northwest, but they were practicing ethnic arts that originated from as far away as Rhodesia, the Middle East, and Latvia. Northwest Indian arts were also part of the program, as were other local art forms such as sea chanteys and lumberjack folk songs.

Folk music and folk dancing filled most of the schedule on the main stage at the Mural Amphitheater, but throughout the Seattle Center grounds there would also be demonstrations of leathercraft, silversmithing, weaving, and spinning. The paper reported that "The festival will be juried to ensure authenticity, and no electronic music or mass-produced products will be allowed," and noted that Seattle Center officials said it "may become an annual event here" (Aweeka).

At 6 p.m. on Friday, May 26, 1972, the first Northwest Folk-Life Festival opened to the high lonesome sound of the opening act, the Tall Timber String Band, at Seattle Center's Food Circus Stage. Large crowds arrived the next day and continued to build on Sunday and Monday (Memorial Day). Leo Bernash of the National Folk Festival Association walked the grounds with one of the festival's founders, Phil Williams (1937-2017), a member of the Seattle Folklore Society and the mandolin player for the Tall Timber String Band, and asked him, "How did you ever audition all of these people?" (White). Williams replied:

"We didn't audition a single one ... The theory was, if you give a person an opportunity, they'll do a good job, and that's what it's all about ... We tried to stay away from the idea that we had these 'stars ' ... No one was featured" (White).

That first festival had only one name that many people might have recognized -- bluegrass-roots virtuoso David Bromberg. But no performers were paid and the bulk of the budget went strictly to logistics and travel expenses for some of the artists. There were a few scheduling mix-ups, attributed to the rushed nature of the planning, yet overall the first Northwest Folk-Life Festival was a hit. The final crowd tally was an eye-opening 123,000 people.

The Seattle Folklore Society Journal published an exuberant post-mortem by Andy Wallace, who noted that even the weather cooperated with four days of clear skies. Yet it was the scope of the festival that he found truly remarkable.

"Most all of the rich ethnic heritages of the Northwest were represented -- Scandinavian, Scottish, Irish, Japanese, German, Polish, French, Balkan, Basque, and more. The old-time fiddlers turned out en masse and did much to set the carefree, traditional flavor of the event, filling in all over the grounds. There was also plenty of fine singing in the Northwest Festival Court, and despite several powwows that weekend, the native peoples were well represented by the Cape Fox Tribe, Chief Antelope and the King Island Eskimos, one of the real treats of the festival ... Other personal favorites were the Oinkari Basque Dancers, the fiddling of Benny Thomason and Joe Pancerzewski, the Rhodesian Dancers, the inimitable Old Hat Band, and a remarkable string band called Granny Lamb & the Old Timers, whose median age was fifteen!" (Hendrickson).

Big Growth on a Small Budget

Phil Williams told The Seattle Times that "we felt it was a good festival -- not in spite of the [planning] handicaps -- but a good festival, period" ("Folk-Life Festival Will Become ..."). The most important affirmation came a few days later when the National Folk Festival Association announced that it would become an annual event at Seattle Center.

With an entire year to plan, the second annual Northwest Folk-Life Festival was far bigger and more ambitious. It opened on May 25, 1973, and featured "1,000 performers and craftsmen," according to the Times ("Folk Festival Has ..."). Organizers estimated attendance at a whopping 225,000. Attendance figures for a non-ticketed festival are largely guesswork, yet even accounting for some inflation by optimistic organizers, it already seemed clear that it had become the largest folk festival in the country, surpassing even the Wolf Trap event.

The mix of performers was similar to that of the first event: "The performers ranged from semi-rank amateurs to polished stage veterans -- 25 string bands, a dozen ethnic dance groups, puppeteers, Indian artisans and more than 100 fiddlers" ("Folk Festival Has ..."). Williams, the festival committee chair, again stressed that there were no big names because we want to "keep professionalism out of this -- the idea is to get people to come out into the public and show what they do to amuse themselves in their own living rooms" ("Folk Festival Has ...").

However, there were some names that were familiar in the region's folk scene, including autoharpist Bryan Bowers (b. 1940), along with another performer who would become legendary in ensuing years: Mark O'Connor (b. 1961), an 11-year-old Seattle-born fiddler and student of the teenage Barbara "Granny" Lamb. O'Connor would go on to become a star and win multiple Grammy Awards. Once again, the performers were not paid and most had to pay for their own transportation. The entire 1973 event was staged on a budget of less than $5,000. Seattle Center donated its facilities and its staff time. The volunteers of REACH, organized by Stan Cole, did much of the work.

In 1974, Seattle's KRAB-FM boosted the festival's reach by broadcasting the entire event live for three days. The 1974 festival was hampered by cold and rainy weather and attendance dropped to 150,000. Yet it rebounded to 175,000 in 1975. The round numbers are a further hint that these were rough estimates, yet there was no doubt that the Northwest Folk-Life Festival had become firmly established as one of the region's favorite Memorial Day weekend activities.

Expanding Size and Scope

Rain was always a concern in the Seattle climate, and in 1976 festival coordinator Lesley Petty was quoted as saying, "Oh, why did it have to rain? I'm afraid it's going to keep up this way all weekend. But the magic is still here. The participants are having a good time" (Lowman). To mitigate the effects of weather, more events were scheduled indoors and by 1977, the Seattle Center Playhouse stage was being used for acts including gospel choirs, mimes, and shadow-play performers. All of the outdoor events had indoor alternative sites in case of rain.

By this time, the hyphen in "Folk-Life" had been dropped and the event was known as the Northwest Folklife Festival. It was one of four regional festivals spawned in that era by the National Folk Festival Association. The others were in Lexington, Kentucky; San Francisco; and El Paso. Yet the Seattle festival would prove to become the most successful of the four, a perennial Memorial Day institution drawing more than 100,000 people even in down years, and sometimes as many as a quarter-million.

The festival continued to cleave largely to the original vision of founders Phil Williams and his wife Vivian Williams -- a celebration of living-room music and enthusiastic amateurs. Every year, the fiddles and banjos rang out on what came to be called Bluegrass Hill next to the Center House. Yet some changes were inevitable, not least because of the sheer magnitude of the festival. By 1984, the annual budget had grown to $160,000, raised through donations, vendor fees, and an annual fundraiser. The festival now had "one full-time employee, festival director Scott Nagel [b. 1953, who was hired in 1982], and four other paid part-time employees" (MacDonald). Its place in Seattle's cultural scene can be inferred from the fact that, in 1984, The Seattle Times published an entire "Special Pullout Guide" to the festival. The schedule now included far more than fiddles and clog-dancers -- although those remained much in evidence. A Festival of Ethnic Foods filled one corner of Seattle Center. Craftspeople led workshops on making log cabins and wooden boats.

The musical styles had also broadened by 1984. Nagel told a reporter that year, "When I was in Santa Fe two weeks ago ... I saw a lot electric Tex-Mex bands. I thought, 'Who am I to say this is not traditional?' Some people would like to freeze American folk music at 1885" ("The Seattle Folk Lure"). Nagel began allowing groups who used electric instruments into the festival. By 1986, one other change was evident: So many performers applied that not everyone could be accepted. About 100 applicants were turned away, but with the understanding that they would all get in eventually.

In the 1980s, a broad musical genre called "world music" was popular, and Nagel began giving the Northwest Folklife Festival a more global reach. The festival introduced a cultural focus each year, emphasizing a particular region or theme. Some of the early themes focused on Sephardic Jewish traditions, Scandinavian culture, and Native American powwow traditions.

These were similar to festivals-within-the-festival. Folklife still had a strong bluegrass-scented flavor -- fiddle and string-band music was everywhere -- but now there was a more invigorating variety. Describing the festival in 2001, Paul de Barros, one of the festival program directors from 1991 to 1996, and a writer for The Seattle Times, wrote:

"Walking through the grounds is a feast for the ears, eyes, and even the nose, as the aromas of curry, gumbo and Thai satay criss-cross in the breeze, and musicians, often in costumes from all over the world, filter through the crowd. At one stage, you might see a gaggle of Peruvian musicians in red and black gazing curiously at an English Morris dance. At another, an aspiring singer-songwriter with an approximate sense of pitch might be found serenading a troupe of Samoan fire dancers, tattooed from ankle to hip" ("Folklife at 30").

Independence and Identity Crisis

By the 1990s, the Seattle Folklore Society had left the picture and the festival had its own organization, called Northwest Folklife, its own board, and its own staff. An identity crisis faced the Northwest Folklife Festival in 1992, when Seattle Center asked that the festival start charging admission. The center eventually backed down after "irate Makah dancers, Scandinavian folk singers and Zimbabwean marimba players packed hearings at the City Council, insisting that the volunteer and community nature of Folklife would die unless it remained free" ("Folklife at 30").

Then, in 1997, the festival attracted one of the biggest names in folk-music history, Pete Seeger. This certainly seemed like a break with the no-headliner tradition, yet Seeger did not exactly play the role of a big star. He agreed to appear only after learning that he would be part of a labor-music program. He performed with the Seattle Labor Chorus, formed expressly for this event. Seeger enjoyed the festival so much that he also made appearances at many other stages throughout the weekend. At the end, Seeger told Nagel that this festival was the kind of event he had always hoped to see -- "my ultimate goal in life" -- adding "you are the only ones who have ever done it" (Nagel interview).

These big events and cultural-focus themes sometimes came at a price. It often meant bringing in performers from outside the Northwest, which meant paying for transportation and sometimes a stipend. Rain, the festival's persistent nemesis, seriously hampered attendance and revenues in 1998. That summer, the festival announced it owed $40,000 to artists and was unable to pay them for at least 60 days. Although most performers still played for free, they were owed money for sales of tapes and CDs at the festival.

Dealing with Debt

A month later, Nagel resigned after the festival had "racked up at least $300,000 in debt in the past two years" (Stripling). He had been the festival director for 17 years and had been instrumental, in the words of one board member, "in increasing the size and scope of Folklife" (Stripling). It now had an annual budget of $1.6 million and featured 4,000 performers. Nagel said he was proud of giving the festival an international flair, and even more pleased that the festival "never lost its roots" (Stripling).

Michael Herschensohn (b. 1941) took over in 1998 as the festival director and began what was termed a rescue operation. The festival now requested a $5 donation at the gate. These donations helped stabilize revenues, though most attendees failed to pitch in. By 2001, the future had brightened, yet the organization was still in debt. By this time, the Northwest Folklife organization had expanded beyond the annual festival. It helped create and stage Festál, an annual series of ethnic festivals, beginning in 1997. It would later launch the annual Seattle Children's Festival, which like Festál was held at Seattle Center.

Artistically, the Northwest Folklife organization continued to inject new life into the festival with wide-ranging cultural-focus themes including "Carnival Arts of the Caribbean" (2000), "Traditions from the Horn of Africa" (2004), "Arab Communities of the Pacific Northwest" (2006), and "India and Its People" (2014). In 2015, it delved into an art form that had not even been named when the festival was founded in 1972: hip-hop. The 2015 Cultural Focus theme was titled "Beats, Rhymes and Rhythms."

However, revenues continued to be dependent on a few factors out of the organization's control, mainly weather. Food sales and beer gardens were two of the festival's major income sources, and both were vulnerable to bad weather. In 2017, the Northwest Folklife Festival was once again reaching a tipping point. The Seattle Times reported that "if folks don't start shelling out more and bigger donations when they come, there will be no 2018 Folklife Festival" ("2018 Northwest Folklife ..."). The festival had a healthy core of support from annual donors, about 1,000 of whom made contributions totaling up to $300,000 every year. However, the festival-goers themselves were not chipping in adequately. Only 17 percent of festival patrons typically gave anything at all when they walked in -- and that was not nearly enough.

Interim executive director Mark W. Crawford said that donations at the door in 2017 needed to rise from the previous years' average of about $190,000 to $350,000. The festival was no longer described as free -- instead it was described as "presented without admission charge" (Northwest Folklife Festival website). Free was now "the f-word," said Crawford, explaining "The people with means need to understand that it's not free. The future of the festival depends on them" ("2018 Northwest Folklife ..."). The festival began asking for a $10 donation per day, or $20 for a family.

Funding Challenge Met

On May 31, 2017, Northwest Folklife announced that it had met its ambitious fundraising goal. A crowd estimated at 250,000 had attended the 2017 event, and more of them than ever had made a donation. Crawford and board president Rafael Maslan said that donors had "made the future possible" and that people had "recognized that 'Access for All' is not the same as 'Free'" ("Thank You ..."). The festival was saved for another year, yet Crawford and Maslan cautioned that "for Folklife to continue for the next 46 years it will take a continued concerted effort" ("Thank You ...").

It was evident that plenty of people believed that such a continued effort was worth it. De Barros once called the festival a "motley child of the '60s -- free, idealistic, communitarian, egalitarian and avidly anti-commercial" ("Folklife at 30"). In 2017, he said that the festival, for all of its changes and expansion, had remained surprisingly true to its original "very utopian and anti-hierarchical vision ... it's important that it has survived" (de Barros interview). Meanwhile, thousands of performers and hundreds of thousands of attendees continued to endorse the festival's appeal by their very presence.

Throughout all of the changes, Bluegrass Hill still rang out with fiddles and banjos, just as it did in 1972. The festival continued to celebrate the Williams' simple formula: Gather together and show how people amuse themselves in their own living rooms.


Northwest Folklife website accessed October 6, 2017 (; Stewart Hendrickson, "The First NW Folklife Festival, 1972, A Modest Beginning," with excerpts reprinted from the Seattle Folklore Society Journal, Pacific Northwest Folklore Society website accessed October 5, 2017 (; Jennifer White, "What People Do: The Beginnings of the Northwest Folklife Festival," October 30, 2014, Seattle Folklore Society website accessed October 6, 2017 (; Geoffrey Himes, "Mark O'Connor -- String Ties," No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music, December 31, 2003 (; "Folk-Life Festival to Open Summer Session at Center," The Seattle Times, May 14, 1972, p. C-6; Charles Aweeka, "150 Groups Entered in Folk-Life Festival," Ibid., May 24, 1972, p. E-14; "Folk-Life Festival Will Become Annual Event Here," Ibid., May 31, 1972, p. E-13; "Folk Festival Has a Sunny Time," Ibid., May 27, 1973, p. A-20; Debby Lowman, "Folk Festival May've Been Wet -- But Not Dampened," Ibid., May 30, 1976, p. B-10; Patrick MacDonald, "At This Festival You Don't Just Watch or Listen; You Experience Folklore," Ibid., May 25, 1984, "Special Pullout Guide" (unpaginated); Paul de Barros, "The Seattle Folk Lure," Ibid., May 20, 1984, pp. G-1, G-5; Sherry Stripling, "New Blood: Folklife Director Steps Down," Ibid., August 25, 1998, p. F-1; Paul de Barros, "Folklife at 30," Ibid., May 20, 2001, p. J-1; Paul de Barros, "2018 Northwest Folklife Festival in Danger of Being Cancelled," The Seattle Times, May 23, 2017 (; Andrew Wallace, "NFFA to NCTA: The Organization Broadens Its Mission," Folklife Center News, Spring 2002, Vol. XXIV, Library of Congress website accessed October 6, 2017 (; "Thank You for Keeping Northwest Folklife Alive," blog post, May 31, 2017, Northwest Folklife website accessed November 3, 2017 (; Jim Kershner interview with Paul de Barros, November 2, 2017, notes in possession of Jim Kershner, Spokane, Washington; Jim Kershner interview with Devon Leger, November 2, 2017, notes in possession of Jim Kershner; Jim Kershner interview with Scott Nagel, November 6, 2017, notes in possession of Jim Kershner.

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