“First up for me is the hurdy gurdy orchestra,” my friend said.  What the hell is a hurdy gurdy I wondered.  But not wanting to reveal my ignorance I decided to just follow my friend.  It turns out that a hurdy gurdy is a stringed musical instrument which is played by turning a crank on the side.  It was my first time attending Seattle’s Northwest Folklife Festival and by the end of the weekend I was to have heard several instruments which I previously did not know existed.

Folklife – The Basics

Orkestar Silvovica. Photo by Wm Leler.

What: A celebration of folk music (and what music doesn’t come from folks?) in all it’s forms. Descriptions of the music include phrases like: “ear-splitting Balkan brass,” “old-timey front porch,” “French café” and “cool old time blues and boogaloo.” Along with festival food, numerous (and impressive) street performers and craft vendors, there are dance, instrument and singing workshops.  If you play an instrument, bring it.  You might find the Simon to your Garfunkel.  Want to dance the day a way? There is a huge hall with “non-stop contras and squares”.

Where: Seattle Center – the complex which was constructed for the 1962 World’s Fair gets transformed into a melodical mayhem.  The schedule lists 16 venues and some of the best stuff isn’t even in an official venue.

When: Memorial Day Weekend (the weekend preceding the last Monday in May).

How Much: It’s free (which is a very good price)!!! Except they do request that you make a donation. Sort of a conundrum – they need people to donate so that they can keep putting it on for free.

Dancing to Balkanarama. Photo by Wm Leler.

I Always Cry at Folklife

The last time I knew it was coming.  I was at the “Pete Seeger Sing-along” and the next song on the list was We Shall Overcome.  The presenter said, “This song has played such an important role in our history that some people can’t sing it with out getting choked up.” I felt the tears well up right on cue.

The first time it caught me off guard.  Overwhelmed by the number of choices, I had decided to put the program schedule away and just wander.  The Cultural Focus that year was Arab Communities of the Pacific Northwest, perhaps in recognition of the fact that in the years following the September 11th attacks the social climate in the U.S.  had become increasingly hostile towards Arab-Americans.  Unbeknownst to me, I  had stumbled into the Labor Showcase.  The group performing on stage had modified haunting Niemöller’s haunting quote and put it to music

             First they came for the communists, 
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
            Then they came for the trade unionists, 
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
            Then they came for the Jews,
 and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they added a verse:

              And now they come for the Muslim and the immigrant and I will stand up.
              I will speak out… 

As they sang it, all of the people in the darkened theater around me stood up.  I started balling.  I love idealistic people.

And Laugh Too

Along with those poignant moments, there’s also a lot of humor.  One year, I saw a group called The Bobs perform hard rock a cappella – as in they did every note of Cream’s “White Room” without the aid of musical instruments. Then there’s the Ballard Sedentary Sousa Band.  Complete with lots of horns, marching uniforms and a majorette, they are everything you expect a Sousa band to be.  Except that, well, they’re sedentary.

Ballard Sedentary Sousa Band. Photo by Wm Leler.

Finally, I like to make a habit of attending the annual Liar’s Competition sponsored by a local storytelling group.  You’d be amazed how skilled some people are at this! The first time I went, the winner had a wild yarn about a runaway haggis that left me in stitches.


Feeling tired after days of festivity, I decided to go into a theater to be out of the weather and have comfortable chair.  I didn’t even look at the schedule to see who was playing.  A delicate looking woman with a guitar walked out and sat in the lone chair onstage.  Her name was May Nasr and the minute she started to sing I was in love.  It was a fantastic finale to the weekend.