It’s been two whole years since the music echoed through our city’s streets.
Two years since the joyful noise of live performers found its way from five temporary stages to people seated in folding chairs, or sprawled out on soft green grass, or meandering to the next venue to catch another must-see act.
Two hushed years.
But now – after a small event streamed online last year – the North Carolina Folk Festival is back live. And UNCG is once again in the middle of it all.
“I’m excited that we’re going to be back in person,” Amy Grossman, president and CEO of NC Folk Festival, said on Greensboro’s “Talk City” podcast. “We’ve put a lot of thought into our health and safety guidelines. We’re all in this together. Let’s do it. Let’s do it safely. And let’s have a good time.”
The Spartans return with a new presence, setting up shop in Center City Park from Sept. 10-12. UNCG’s two big tents are at the geographic heart of the free three-day Folk Festival, a celebration of creativity and cultural traditions through art, crafts, food, dance and music.
Especially music. All kinds of music, a good deal of it made by performers with ties to UNCG.
The festival’s opening act is the UNCG Old-Time Ensemble, a blend of students and faculty from the university who play American folk music. The traditional string band will start the weekend with a “community jam” at 6 p.m. Friday on the Lee-Wrangler Stage, the main stage at the corner of Market and Davie streets. Anyone with an instrument is invited to bring it along and join in.
Three blocks away at a new stage — on the steps of Old Courthouse on Market Street — a dozen performers will take part in the “Song of Hope & Justice” program at 6:30 p.m. Friday. The group includes UNCG alumna Laurelyn Dossett, a singer and songwriter; UNCG alumnus Alex Bingham, a bass player, producer and engineer; and UNCG’s Lalenja Harrington, a singer who is the university’s director of academic program development and evaluation, as well as the sister of recording artist Rhiannon Giddens.
Harrington’s son has played a key role in this year’s festival. Justin “Demeanor” Harrington is an actor and hip-hop artist who grew up in Greensboro, and he has curated a hip-hop lineup that includes six artists that will perform at 3:15 p.m. Saturday at LeBauer Park.
“Demeanor was part of our virtual concert series last year,” Grossman said. “ We kept up a dialogue with him, and some seeds of an idea came out of conversations with him.
“He pitched the idea of a hip-hop program. He said, ‘There are so many great performers in our own community, and I’d love to get them to be part of this.’ He has done so much work about rap’s place in folk music.”
The Lorena Guillén Tango Ensemble will perform at noon Saturday on the Old Courthouse Stage. The group won first place in the festival’s Not Your Average Folk Contest.
Guillén, a professor in the UNCG School of Music, fronts the Argentine Tango group that also includes UNCG faculty members Guy Capuzzo (guitar), Adam Ricci (piano) and Alejandro Rutty (bass).
Bel Canto Company, an accomplished choral ensemble led by UNCG’s Welborn Young and founded by Dr. Richard Cox, will perform at 8:30 a.m. Saturday morning at the 9/11 remembrance in Center City Park. Young is Bel Canto’s artistic director and conductor, as well as a music professor and director of choral activities at UNCG.
“We really tried to do a good mix of national acts as well as trying to amp up more of the local and regional artists,” Grossman said. “There definitely was a concerted effort toward that, some really deep thinking about that. How can we as a festival be more intentional about how we’re connecting to our local community?”
… AND SITES
UNCG plans to connect with the community through its physical presence at Center City Park.
In the past, a cadre of 150 to 200 student volunteers has circulated through the crowds handing out free branded merchandise and strands of blue-and-gold beads to spread goodwill and promote the university.
That won’t happen this year because of a cautious approach to the lingering coronavirus pandemic and the surging delta variant of COVID-19.
“Because we are a free-admission, non-gated event, we are not going to have requirements of the audience members,” Grossman said. “We are encouraging people to be fully vaccinated before they come. We’re encouraging them to wear masks. We’re encouraging them to keep their hands clean and observe social distancing. If everyone follows those four CDC-recommended behaviors — four acts of kindness — then we’re going to have a really great time.”
UNCG will add to that celebration as safely as possible.
The giant, 15-foot inflatable Spiro mascot will return to the “Say G! Station” at the corner of Davie Street and Friendly Avenue, a visible presence and popular picture-taking area. Visitors are encouraged to tag their pictures #SayG and post them on Twitter or Instagram (or both) for a chance to win a prize from the university.
And the university’s two hospitality tents will promote UNCG all three days.
The larger UNCG Greeting Tent features three custom exterior walls branded with graphics designed as backgrounds for photos and selfies in the 10-foot-by-20-foot space. The messages include “Once a Spartan, Always a Spartan,” “Future Spartan,” and “We’ve Got Spartan Spirit.”
Volunteers will welcome Folk Festival visitors with a variety of free goodies including UNCG belt bags, handheld fans, beach balls and tech screen cleaners.
The UNCG Community Outreach Tent, meanwhile, is a 10-foot-by-10-foot space for groups on campus to raise awareness about their missions or activities, promote their programs, recruit prospective students and basically tell their own stories. It, too, has branded exterior walls for photo backdrops emphasizing the slogans of “Find your Way here,” “Find your Inspiration here” and “Find your Success here.”
Two blocks away, the UNCG Art Truck will be stationed at the corner of Elm Street and February One Place with daily programs and exhibits, part of the Greensboro Project Space.
The bottom line is the return to a live, in-person N.C. Folk Festival experience after such a long time away comes with an underlying message of joy and hope.
“It’s exciting on a couple of different levels,” Grossman said. “ No. 1, just the general excitement of bringing people together again. We need festivals to start to heal. But I also acknowledge that where we are with the pandemic and the rising cases of delta variant … the excitement also extends into the additional layers of planning that we’re putting into the festival.”
Behind the scenes, Grossman said, are more virus protocols for performers, crew, staff and volunteers – safety measures visitors might not notice but are there nonetheless.
“We’re really counting on our community of audience members, participants and everyone to just be kind, be respectful,” Grossman said. “And then we can have a fun and safe North Carolina Folk Festival.”
Story by Jeff Mills, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane and Jiyoung Park, University Communications