News & Features » Cover Story

Folk Used to Be a Bad Word

The Richmond Folk Festival redefines a musical genre and rejuvenates a city.



Folk used to be a bad word.

It used to conjure up regrettable images of crew-cutted dudes in striped cardigans strumming guitars to “Tom Dooley.” It used to bring up memories of that roommate you had — what's her name — who was always singing along off-key to her mom's Joan Baez records. Folk used to make you think of guys with porn moustaches named Thor who'd pick up girls at the coffeehouse by winking at them during renditions of “House of the Rising Sun.”

The Richmond Folk Festival has helped to change all that.

And, let's face it, the festival's also helping to change Richmond. The three-day throw down along the riverfront is the perfect event for a community like ours going through changes both social and demographic. It's a mass event that celebrates the past and honors older traditions while forging a new tradition. Think about that for a moment: a new tradition in Richmond! Feels good, doesn't it? The record-breaking crowds during last year's inaugural installment of the fest showed once and for all that — no kidding — people will come to downtown Richmond. But only if what we build is an idea worth coming to.

But our signature mass event isn't just a good idea — a dizzying spectacle of world exotica and better-than-average fair food — it's also the best we can be. This attraction, situated along the river, presented free, is sponsored by the business community (can't forget Venture Richmond), planned by area music lovers and folk life professionals (can't forget the National Council for Traditional Arts), enjoyed by record crowds and designed to include all cultures and time frames. To pull it off, people from many different walks of life, possessing different skills, have to trust each other and work as one toward a common goal. How often do we really see that here? And it does beg the question: Why can't we do this more often? (Disclaimer: this writer serves on the festival's programming committee. So take all of this for what it's worth.)

The 2009 Richmond Folk Festival stretches the definition of folk to its wildest possible meaning — a space as big as our collective hopes, a field as large as the world's traditions. Piedmont blues, Cheyenne drums, Washington D.C. go-go, Montana yodeling, New Orleans jazz, Norfolk jubilee gospel, and something called Greek Smyrneika cabaret music — it's all within earshot.

And don't be surprised if you also hear somebody playing “Tom Dooley.”


On Your Phone: Folk to Go

We've made it easy to pinpoint our 23 must-sees while you're roaming the Richmond Folk Festival. Just pull out your Internet-enabled mobile phone and look up It will tell you what, where and when to go for some of the most promising concerts and events at the festival.


Who's Who Among Folk Folks

Jorge Negron: He's Got Rhythm


Wylie and the Wild West: That Yahoo Guy


Swamp Dogg: Still Barking


Bob French and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band: Bourbon Street Wake-Up Call


Debashish Bhattacharya: Hypnotic Slide


Sophia Bilides Trio: Divine Decadence, Darling

Trouble Funk: Dropping the Bomb Once Again


Samba Mapangala and Orchestra Virunga: Rumba, Baby, Rumba


Phil Wiggins and Corey Harris: Blues Summit


Henry A. March and La Gran Banda: Percussive Papayera


Martin Hayes: Shamrock Star


Clinton Fearon and the Boogie Brown Band: Classic Roots and Dub


North Bear: Cheyenne Hip-Hop


Don Roy Trio: The Maine Event


Jeffery Broussard and the Creole Cowboys: Bayou Next Thing

Add a comment