Updated Dec 5, 2023
Eisteddfod International Folk Festival
Oct 4-6, 1996
By Ryan Thomson
I've been attending the Eisteddfod Festival (pronounced "eye-stead-fud") regularly since the 1970's and have observed many changes over the years. One thing that has remained constant has been the high quality of the featured performers in the Friday through Sunday concerts. This year was no exception. The music included Appalachian string band, Scottish, Portuguese, Irish , Egyptian, Cambodian, and many others.
Many performers have appeared in previous years, but every new Eisteddfod brings new faces, voices, and sounds. One of my favorites at this year's event was Robert B. Jones, an acoustic guitar player and blues singer. On the fiddle side of things, was Tommy McCarthy, one of my very favorite Irish players, from the Boston area, and Benton Flippen, a fine southern style fiddler with his Smokey Mountain Boys.
A real personal treat for for me was being asked by Maureen Haley to play fiddle for the Irish step dance demonstration. It was one of the few opportunities I found during the weekend, to actually participate in the workings of the festival, since I was single handedly manning the "Captain Fiddle Booth."
The festival itself takes place on the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth campus, described in brochures as "beautiful." It is built entirely of exposed concrete and glass. Sci-fi movie fans will recognize it immediately as looking like an ultra modern living complex of the future where the last vestiges of humanity remain after the nuclear holocaust. The architects have saved a bundle on maintenance expense, since nothing is painted, and "natural" gray concrete color is the norm.
They also had fun with interior design, creating passage ways with dead ends, lofts with no access, and a myriad of multi-leveled rooms and spaces suitable for mountain goats. My wheel chair bound friend, (who is very clever at getting around in most situations) narrowly missed crashing in his chair while attempting difficult traverses from one area of the student cafeteria to another.
The saving grace of the campus are the many smallish stands of trees and natural vegetation which are allowed to proliferate within their boundries with the large areas of wide open lawn. These areas proved very useful to myself and my musician friends in the 1970's when we were making music while living on low incomes. For several years during Eisteddfod we quietly pitched our tents in the very middle of one particularly heavily wooded area about 200 feet from the campus police station. We didn't bother anyone, and no one bothered us. We were up bright and early for the music jams.
And now the bad news: Over the years the organizers have gradually stripped away, one by one, all of the features that I felt made the festival special enough that I would want to return year after year. Participatory events have been greatly reduced. Gone are the beginning workshops on how to play the fiddle, banjo, guitar, or other folk instruments.
Gone are most of the beginners folk dance workshops and traditional New England contra dancing to live music. Gone are the open mikes where my old band got the opportunity to perform on stage to an appreciative audience just like the "paid" performers. Gone are most of the spontaneous live jam sessions where amateur musicians and singers of all abilities would gather in nooks and crannies to make music together in the true "folk" tradition.
The performance opportunity that the Eisteddfod festival used to offer amateur players had a large influence on my own decision to become a professional performer. Years later, this resulted in my band being "hired" to perform at the festival. We felt honored at being selected and were treated very well, put up at a local hotel, and made to feel welcome. I wonder how many other performers have also benefited from this now discontinued feature of Eisteddfod?
One of the most unpleasant features of the present festival is the tendency of certain vendors new to the folk festival "circuit," to loudly play cassettes of recorded music in order to attract customers to their booths to buy them. I actually witnessed a festival organizer berate a group of musicians (fiddle, recorder, banjo) who were playing next to my booth, and tell them to limit their playing in the crafts area because the sound was interfering with a vender across the room that depended upon playing tapes in a boombox in order to make sales.
This is sad. That's one less opportunity for spontaneous music making at Eisteddfod. Any of us that are into folk music for the long haul, either performers, or vendors, know that live music attracts buyers far better than recorded music. In addition, the beginning players often become a vendor's best customers, and future Eisteddfod performers!
My concern is that when I come to a "folk festival ," I want to sing, dance, and make music with other like minded folks. I can go to a "concert" any day of the week in the Boston area and hear world class music of any genre. As a festival goer, I want to actively participate in the fun that the hired performers have. I'll buy a ticket to attend a scheduled performance of a hot fiddler or singer, but then I want to go off afterward with a group of other aspiring musicians and make our own music together.
These opportunities have diminished so much, year by year, at Eisteddfod, that many of my fellow folk musicians, amateur and professional, tell me that they no longer attend the festival because it isn't "as much fun as it used to be." So they don't come, their friends and family don't come, and the word spreads.
For example, I personally witnessed several accomplished folk musicians I know, show up at the festival just before a particular scheduled jam session. They joined the session, played until the finish, and then got in their cars and left the festival site a short time later. In the old Eisteddfod I remember, they might have stayed around for the whole day or afternoon, created more informal jam sessions, attended a concert, and purchased from the vendors. Instead, they got in, got the "good stuff," and got out of town.
Another folk music professional I know, who has, in the past, been previously hired by the festival to lead certain dance activities, showed up just to see a certain concert performer, and then left for home, after mentioning to me how much fun it used to be at Eisteddfod when there was lots of dancing.
During the Saturday night concert while taking a snack break at the entrance to the student center, I encountered some people entering with instruments in hand. Seeing me and my fiddle case, they asked where the "music" was.
I pointed them in the direction of the ongoing concert, but they informed me that they had driven all the way from Arlington to actually play their own instruments with other folks at the festival. We became acquainted and played and sang together for an hour or more. To me, that is what folk festivals are all about, bringing the folks together! In my experience, that sort of thing doesn't detract from concert attendance, but ends up strengthening it in the long run.
I do respect the right of the organizers to do as they see fit, but in my view, a healthy festival atmosphere is created from numerous opportunities for folks at all skill levels to actually participate in the various folk traditions and not merely observe and applaud the "masters" in action. How else can we possibly expect to preserve and promote these traditions that we hold so important? Once someone new to folk music actually holds an instrument in their hands and attempts to play it, for example, they begin to develop a real appreciation for all the thousands of hours that top folk performers have put into their craft during the course of their lives.
There were several good workshops which were open to participation, but very little for the beginner. I know, because many of them came to my booth seeking advice, and I would send them off on a search for particular persons that I knew to be specialists in particular folk traditions. I believe that every "dance demonstration," should have a corresponding workshop for anyone who wants to dance.
Every "fiddle styles workshop," which is actually merely a mini-concert, should have a corresponding beginners how-to-do-it instructional workshop on fiddling. And so on. I guess I'm biased, but I remember so well the feeling I had when I first picked up a fiddle or banjo, or tried to sing harmony to a folk song. I don't know about you, but when I see someone doing something that looks like fun, I want to try it out myself!
I would ban (as several other festivals I attend have done) all playing of recorded music on boomboxes. I would encourage more live music making by festival participants, and more activities for children.
Almost all traditional fiddle music has been historically connected with dancing. I had a great time dancing to the music of Benton Flippen this past summer at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Washington state, and found myself yearning to do so again at Eisteddfod. When there's no participatory dancing to speak of, 50% of the potential folk audience is eliminated. And don't forget that dancers also attend concerts, buy tapes, bring their friends and family, and can become enthusiastic festival volunteers!
My final recommendation: If you want to attend concert performances of folk music at its best, come to Eisteddfod. If you like to also play folk music yourself or dance to it, the pickin's are pretty slim.
This review written by Ryan J Thomson, 1996