GREENSBORO — Ask Amy Grossmann about her goal for this year’s N.C. Folk Festival, and she describes an overarching aim.
“I want to create a fun and safe festival where people are showing kindness to one another — not only among the audience but in appreciation of the performers,” said Grossmann, festival president and chief executive officer.
During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, “this is an opportunity for our community to start to heal and to show that we can convene in a fun and safe way,” Grossmann said.
The free, annual, multicultural festival that celebrates roots and heritage will open Friday in downtown Greensboro. It starts at 5:30 p.m. with opening remarks, then continues daily until 6 p.m. Sunday.
It will feature about 35 acts such as Wycliffe Gordon and Molly Tuttle, performing primarily on four main stages.
In addition to enjoying music, dance and even yoga, festival-goers can buy regional and ethnic foods, drink at beverage tents and shop at the N.C. Makers Marketplace of local and regional crafts.
The three-day event continues the legacy of the National Folk Festival, which was held downtown from 2015 to 2017.
Following up on the successful 2018 N.C. Folk Festival, the 2019 event featured 106 performances and workshops by more than 45 artists at five outdoor and nine indoor venues, attracting about 156,000 people to Center City.
That changed for 2020. The pandemic prompted festival organizers to create a virtual event featuring 10 performers filmed at nine locations.
This year, they opted to bring back the live, in-person festival with COVID-19 safeguards, such as maintaining 6 feet of social distance. Touchless hand sanitation stations will be located throughout downtown.
“Because we’re a non-gated, free-admission festival, we are not requiring vaccinations or masks of the public,” Grossmann said. “But we are strongly encouraging people to come to the festival fully vaccinated and wearing a mask and distancing.”
Because of their interactive nature, the Folklife Demonstration area and the Family Area have been canceled this year. But children are more than welcome to attend .
Attendance, Grossmann said, is difficult to predict.
She sees both a pent-up demand for festivals and in-person gatherings, and some discomfort about attending large gatherings.
“I’ve heard from some people who are very supportive of us doing the festival but have already said, ‘We’ve decided we’re not going to attend, but we support you and here’s a donation,’” Grossmann said.
“Even though some people will choose to stay home, I think there are a lot of people who will choose to join us,” she said.
A sample of performers
Performers, Grossmann added, “are very excited to be back in front of an audience, and very grateful about the safety precautions we are putting in place for everyone.”
For the festival, “folk” doesn’t mean folk music. The festival showcases the traditional art or culture of communities and nations.
“The festival is a celebration of people carrying cultural knowledge forward through performances and crafts they learned from their families and communities,” Grossmann said. “That is really the heart and soul of what we do.”
In the past, the national and state folk festivals have brought in performers such as Mavis Staples, Booker T. and Rhiannon Giddens, a city native with an international career.
Leading this year’s lineup are jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon from Georgia and bluegrass artist Molly Tuttle from Nashville.
Tuttle will perform at 8:45 p.m. Friday at the Lee Wrangler Stage at East Market and Church streets.
Gordon’s performance will take place at 8:45 p.m. Saturday on the Lee Wrangler Stage.
Musicians from as close as Greensboro and as far as Los Angeles will play genres such as hip-hop, funk, soul, blues, folk, gospel, Western swing, country and Southern rock.
Dewey and Leslie Brown & The Carolina Gentleman hail from nearby Burlington and play North Carolina bluegrass.
The couple are familiar faces in other locales: They own The Liberty Showcase Theater in Liberty and run two festivals, “Deweyfest” and “Gospelfest.”
Returning this year: “Songs of Hope & Justice.” Singer/songwriter Laurelyn Dossett curates the popular annual multi-performer presentation focused on themes of freedom and justice.
It will be the inaugural performance from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Friday at the new Old Courthouse Stage on West Market Street. It will feature instrumentalists, singers, songwriters and poets.
New this year: The festival has curated a hip-hop program with local artist Demeanor, a blues program with the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society and a gospel program with the North Carolina Folklife Institute and Center for Cultural Vibrancy.
Each will bring in several artists to perform.
This year’s festival coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
A special Sept. 11 presentation on the #DGSO Stage will be from 5 to 5:30 p.m., near the 9/11 sculpture at South Elm Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The commemoration ceremony there will be followed by performances.
It will be co-produced with the city of Greensboro and Downtown Greensboro Inc., the economic development agency.
Also new this year: The Not Your Average Folk Contest. The public voted to pick a winner from among four finalists. That winner is Greensboro’s Lorena Guillén Tango Ensemble. It will perform at noon Saturday on the Old Courthouse Stage.
In addition to tango, performers will bring traditions from other countries, such as East African retro-pop, Afro-Brazilian, Cuba, Norteño/Banda, South Indian Bharata Natyam, Scottish and Afghan rubâb, tabla and dhol.
This year, all performers are based in the United States. Restrictions during the pandemic prevented many international performers from traveling.
“We have been talking to them about coming back next year when we have a little more time for them to get all of their paperwork and their itineraries together,” Grossmann said.
Several performers came to the United States as refugees or immigrants and have legal status in the country.
Among them is Quraishi Roya, formerly of Afghanistan and now living in New York City. He plays a traditional Afghan instrument called a rubâb.
The folk festival already had arranged for him to perform before the U.S. military departed a 20-year war in that country and the Taliban took over.
Grossmann said that she is honored to host Quraishi Roya and “celebrate this cultural aspect of Afghanistan, just to show that there’s a lot to that part of the world beyond the conflict that we see on the news, that there are tradition bearers and culture bearers who contribute to the culture of that area.”
Javier Montano, 22, was born of Mexican parents in North Carolina. He lives in Walstonburg and will perform Norteño/Banda music at noon Saturday on the Lawn Stage and 6:15 p.m. on the Old Courthouse Stage.
Folk festival audiences love fiddle music. So organizers will bring in Mari Black — “an incredible fiddle player,” Grossmann says — and her trio from Boston to perform Scottish tunes.
What it costs
The festival is free to attend, but not free to produce.
It typically costs about $1 million a year.
This year is no exception, with the added costs of COVID-19 protections: masks, signage, hand sanitizer and backstage cleaning supplies, Grossmann said.
Support comes from grants, from presenting sponsor TowneBank, and from premier sponsors: the city of Greensboro, Guilford County, Cone Health, Lee Wrangler and the National Endowment for the Arts.
To help keep the festival free, a Bucket Brigade of volunteers in blue shirts carry blue buckets seeking donations. The suggestion donation is $10 per person per day.
Donations also can be made through the festival’s mobile app, Cash App and Venmo. The Bucket Brigade carries portable credit card machines that the festival calls Dip Jars.
Plans are for the festival to return in 2022.
“I’m not going to start thinking about next year until after Sept. 12,” Grossmann said.