Throughout the ‘30s and ’40s, Lowell, Massachusetts, native Bette Davis brought the city enormous international respect in the film world. Throughout the ‘50s and ’60, native son Jack Kerouac brought the city enormous international respect in the literary world. And throughout the ‘90s and 2000s, the Lowell Folk Festival has brought the city enormous international respect in the folk-music world.
The longest-running free folk festival in the United States – and second largest in the number of performers and attendees next to Northwest Folklife in Seattle – the Lowell Folk Festival is three days of traditional and world music from all corners of the globe ranging from bluegrass, blues and brass to gospel, rockabilly, zydeco and virtually everything in between, plus dance performances, craft demonstrations, parades and a mouth-watering assortment of international cuisine.
The event began in 1987, when Lowell was chosen as host city for the National Folk Festival, which has been run by the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA) since 1934 and has been held in 26 communities across the US. Lowell continued to host that event in 1988 and 1989, then local organizers took control in 1990, renaming it the Lowell Folk Festival with the NCTA responsible for booking talent and providing production and logistical support. Since then, the festival has been held annually on the last full weekend of July – Friday evening then all day Saturday and Sunday– except for 2020, when organizers held a virtual event due to Covid-19 restrictions, and 2021, when the festival was canceled for the same reason.
Staged in the painstakingly restored mill district along the Merrimack River – right in the heart of America’s oldest industrial city – the festival has grown dramatically over the decades, with hundreds of performers, thousands of volunteers and millions of attendees having participated, and it’s become an indispensable part of Lowell’s famously multicultural community, rich heritage, fascinating history and uniquely American legacy. Attendance peaked at slightly over 200,000 in the early ‘90s and has hovered between 160,000 and 180,000 since then.
One way in which the festival has distinguished itself from others is its thoroughly international vibe. In addition to New England-based musicians – including the Kingfish Singers & Dancers, a traditional Wampanoag group – and those from other parts of North America, the festival has featured traditional music and artists from Cuba, Ukraine, Tibet, Russia, Morocco, Venezuela, Ireland, India, Syria, Mali, Armenia, Brazil, Poland, China, Greece, Crimea and Zimbabwe.
In 2020, when in-person events weren’t possible due to Covid-19 restrictions, organizers held a “Virtual Celebration” online, with thousands watching remote performances by blues and boogie-woogie pianist Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne, rockabilly’s Albert Lee, gospel brass “shout band” Magnum & Company, Nepalese quartet the Himalayan Heritage Band, Cuban jazz ensemble Geraldo Cantino y Los Habaneros, bluegrass sextet Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, traditional Greek band the Vasilis Kostas Trio, Iroquois dance group Chris Thomas & His Smoke Dancers and traditional Ukrainian septet Susan Watts & The Wonder Women of Klezmer.
In 2022, to celebrate the festival’s 35th anniversary, there were several special events. First, a 13-part radio series about the festival’s history, produced in the 1990s by WDUQ public radio in partnership with the NCTA, was aired on Lowell-based AM station WCAP. The series was curated from the NCTA’s archives and narrated by Joe Wilson, a regional folk-music legend who spearheaded the first locally organized event in 1990. Second, highlights from previous festivals were posted on the Lowell Folk Festival website. Third, on the Saturday night of the festival, there was a showing of a new documentary on its history. Lastly, the weekend included a video presentation of celebrated past performances along with three new ones recorded exclusively for the anniversary by Irish trio The Alt, Afro-Colombian band Grupo Rebolú and Québécois quintet Le Vent Du Nord.
Admission to the festival has been free since its inception, made possible through grass-roots support from local businesses and individuals and assistance from the NCTA, the Lowell Festival Foundation, the Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Merrimack Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau and Lowell National Historic Park.
(by D.S. Monahan)