It’s not easy to pin Blaine Waide down. As Programming Manager for the National Council for the Traditional Arts, he has a full calendar of folk festivals across the nation. We caught up with him to talk about what it’s like to have a career in folklore and to learn more about the folk festival scene—and how Richmond measures up!
All in a day’s work
Blaine found his fascination with folk traditions when he first started searching for someplace he could put down roots. His family moved around the South a lot, and he never quite had a place he called home. “At some point, Southern culture became interesting to me,” he remembers. And listening to musicians like Bob Dylan who were interested in social justice and civil rights issues led down another path to blues music—Mississippi John Hurt, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson.
Later, his study would become more official as he pursued a graduate degree in folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill. While he enjoyed learning in the classroom, there was something so great about getting off campus and sitting down with the real musicians, hearing their stories, taking part in their day. Just being so near to the generations of brilliant oral tradition gave Blaine a completely different perspective on the importance of preserving culture.
As NCTA’s programming manager, he’s often in several cities at once (or, at least, it feels like that). Blaine works with local programming committees in each community and focuses on assembling a program of musicians, performers, and artisans that represent a sampling of culture across the globe as well as a deeper dive into the regional acts who carry on more local traditions.
His schedule this summer would be exhausting if Blaine didn’t enjoy his job so much: a three-day festival in Lowell, Massachusetts, then meetings in both Greenboro (site of the National Folk Festival through 2017) and Richmond. Then in August, it’s up to Bangor, Maine for the American Folk Festival, and back down to Greensboro. “Then our festival season always ends on a high note in Richmond,” he said. After that, it’s just a few weeks of downtime before the 2017 season demands his attention.
Showing ourselves what we can do
Each of the festivals that Blaine Waide programs taps into a certain vein of pride in that city. In Lowell, it might be the economic revitalization that the festival helped bring about. In Butte, it might be the number of visitors the festival helped attract to the city. In Richmond, he’s seen its citizens volunteer in record numbers and to attend in force. “With the Richmond festival, there’s pride in the sense of what Richmond can do when it comes together,” he says, remembering his first meeting in Richmond in which volunteers proudly counted off the number of years they’d been participating.
“Based on the fact that nearly everyone in Richmond says the festival is the best thing to happen to the city, I think it has been a huge success, giving people great pride in what the city of Richmond can accomplish when all its diverse communities work together toward a common goal. That pride and sense of ownership is palpable throughout the festival weekend.”
Blaine has seen Richmond physically change over the years. It’s a city with “a lot going on,” as he puts it, “a lot of energy.” And he’s seen that energy bolster the festival. “It’s continually striving to be more inclusive, to bring in more groups, whether culturally, geographically, or even in terms of age.” That’s something he feels that folk festivals all over the country are trying to nail.
There are similarities between Richmond’s festival and its cousins elsewhere in the country—volunteers, bucket brigades, number and types of stages, and a lot more of the nuts and bolts. But it’s the intangible commonalities that are really exciting to see, from the variety of ways they engage the senses (music, dance, costumes, and the smells and tastes of food) to the strong sense of community.
Once the Richmond Folk Festival comes to a close, Blaine always hears from performers how well-run it was, how enthusiastic the crowds were, and how unique their overall experience was. “We’re not just asking them to perform,” he says. “We’re asking them to talk about where they’re from, their family, their tradition. There’s this deeper level, and that’s very important to them.”
Blaine has so many favorite Richmond Folk Festival moments that it’s tough for him to list them on the spot. But, when pressed, he mentioned DJ and hip-hop legend Grandmaster Flash. “It’s always been important to me as a folklorist to help people think about what can be traditional,” he explains. “And looking out at that crowd and seeing the diversity—not just culturally or racially, but also seeing young children enjoy the music alongside seniors. So many people were thrilled to see him out there.”
There was also Sun Ra, James “Super Chikan” Johnson (who Blaine interviewed at age 20, one of the most important moments in his life), and Native American hip hop artist Supaman, all of whom stick out in his memory.
But the school shows might just be his favorite aspect of the Folk Fest. “Each year we send festival artists into local schools to perform for under-served students who often don’t have access to cultural enrichment opportunities. It’s a piece of the festival few people know about and fewer people probably see, but it’s very meaningful, and the students have a chance to see truly amazing performers, some that are seldom seen in the U.S. The impact it has on the students is inspiring."
And that’s what Blaine Waide hopes most for folk festivals in Richmond and beyond. He wants to get young people fired up about folk traditions—just as he was (and still is!)—so that those traditions will be sure to continue for generations to come.