Saturday, June 22, 2013

Still Life With Robin: Best of the Fest

by Peggy Robin

On Wednesday of this week the Smithsonian's American Folk Life Festival ( kicks off for the 46th time. Every year there are three different themes. This year the themes are: Hungarian Heritage; Endangered Languages; and African American Diversity, Style, and Identity.

I am pretty sure I have attended this event every single year since the first year, 1967, when the festival ambitiously opened with a whole lot more than three themes; here's the list of highlighted activities and programs from that first year: American fife and drum groups; brass bands; string bands; gospel; shouts; jubilees; spirituals; Puerto Rican music; New Orleans jazz; Cajun music; ballads; Mesquakie Indian music; blues; country music; polka music; cowboy songs; clogging; Scottish, Russian, Irish dancers; Chinese New Year's Pantomime; King Island Eskimo dancers; dance of Galicia; Crafts: American basket makers, carvers, doll makers, needleworkers, potters, blacksmith, silversmith, spinners, weavers. (No, I did not remember all these exhibits but copied the list from the Folk Life Festival history on Wikipedia,

Over the decades of faithful attendance, I have seen more hula dancing, totem pole carving, tipi-raising, nose-flute playing, dulcimer-stringing, yurt-building, silver-smithing, butter-churning, maple-tree-tapping, sheep shearing, Navajo blanket weaving, and pot-shard cleaning than I could shake a traditional Mayan marimba stick at -- but that doesn't mean the exhibits of the past are all jumbled together in my mind. A few performances truly stand out:

In 1986 the featured craft was "lawyering," and in the demonstration tent hosted by the American Trial Lawyers Association, defense attorneys re-enacted speeches from actual trials they had conducted. Sitting on one of the country-courthouse-style benches supplied for the audience, I listened, spellbound, to the full summation to the jury by the attorney in a murder case, and by the end of his stirring appeal, I was so convinced of the defendant's thoroughgoing innocence that had this man not been acquitted in real life, I would have been jumping up and down at the gross miscarriage of justice.

In 2008 the featured profession was space exploration, and the performance tent had a rotating cast of astronauts who talked about their experiences on the space station, or if you were lucky and caught an appearance by an Apollo astronaut, you would hear a first-hand account of what it was like to step onto the surface of the moon. I was there on a 98 degree day, and it felt like 110 under the tent, despite the electric fans whirring and mist spraying to try to cool things down; still, we were all so riveted by stories of life beyond the pull of the earth's gravity, that the temperature could have reached Venusian heights and we'd have stayed nonetheless. If the speaker could stand being strapped into a seat and thrust with the force of eight to 10 G's into orbit, we could stand being baked back here on earth to hear the tale.

In 2003 the featured country was Scotland, and I just remember feeling so sorry for these wool-kilted bagpipers, sword-dancers, and caber-tossers, outfitted for the rain-swept highlands and boggy lowlands but showing their grit and indefatigable Scotch spirit in the shimmering, dust-clouded stretch of the National Mall at the height of a Washington heat-wave.

This year, it will be Hungarians who will have to hope that their national traditional costumes don't leave them vulnerable to heat-stroke.

I do have a few tips to pass along to anyone going to the Folk Life Festival for the first time.

My best tip: Go twice. Go once for a couple of hours, just long enough to give everything a quick walk-through and see what's there and what's worth a second look.  Pick up the festival booklet and look over the schedule, and then plan your second visit around the specific performances, demonstrations, and exhibitions that you want to see, and time your second visit accordingly.

Check the weather reports, and try to pick a cool(er) day, if you can.

Weekdays are best, if you want to avoid the crowds. Go early or go late, but avoid mid-day if you can.

Don't eat lunch there. The lines will be long, and the even the featured ethnic dishes are still basically fast food.

Don't take a bag -- just carry whatever essentials you need in your pockets. That way, you'll be able to duck quickly into one of the Mall museums to use the bathroom, or just enjoy a bit of air-conditioned quiet, without waiting in the security line to have your bag checked.

And for my final tip: Take Capital Bike Share there and back. I haven't done this myself, but if you're up for a pedal and the weather's right, I'm sure it's a fine way to go.

The Smithsonian's American Folk Life Festival 2013 starts on June 26 and goes through July 7, with two days off on July 1st and 2nd.


Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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