50 Years of Folklife

Ralph Rinzler
Fifty years ago the Smithsonian embarked on a new venture to bring the culture on display in the museum to life with the first Smithsonian Folklife Festival.  Then called the Festival of American Folklife, it set out to show that the crafts shown inside museums are also still alive and well across the country.  The festival’s founder, Ralph Rinzler, felt it was vital to have the craftsmen and practitioners of these crafts to speak for themselves:

Woman at Festival of American Folklife, 1967
“I've just looked around the building, and an awful lot of the objects that are in your new [National] Museum of American History are still being made by people who know all the technology and learned it in oral tradition and it's part of hundreds of years of their family's heritage.  If you want to put things into the museums, have a week or a weekend or periods during the year when you can bring these articulate spokespeople and let the curators learn something and let the public see what real craftspeople who come out of the villages and towns do." – Ralph Rinzler oral history

And on the weekend of July 1-4, 1967, he did just that.  Fifty eight traditional craftspeople and thirty two musicians and dance groups demonstrated their craft and performed in two tents on the National Mall.  Participants represented ethnic groups, rural, and urban traditions from across the United States.  Basketmakers, carvers, blacksmiths, dollmakers, potters, and weavers all set up shop and invited visitors to learn about their craft and watch their work. Musicians and dancers representing traditions across the country performed: Mountain Banjo Pickers, Louisiana Marching Jazz Bands, Cajun Bands, Blues Guitar, Czech-American Polka, Scottish Pipe Bands, Chinese lion dancers, and Native Alaskan performers. 

Cajun Musicians at the First Folklife Festival
This vision of crafts, music, dance and food all evolving and working together to build cultural traditions across the country was developed over Rinzler’s years of fieldwork and time spent working on the Newport Folk Festival and the American Folk Festival in Asheville, North Carolina.  His work on these music festivals taught him important lessons about what he felt this festival should be: a celebration and sharing of culture, not an entertainment business. Though today’s festival vision has expanded to explore folklore around the world, this understanding is still central to the festival’s identity.

Ralph Rinzler’s vision was a rousing success.  Open –air and free to the public, as it still is today, the 1967 festival attracted 431,000 visitors.  Secretary Ripley perhaps summed it up best in the 1967 Annual Report: “In all of this, the great sight was the quiet and immense satisfaction of the people who came to watch and listen, sitting around and taking it all in, while their children romped nearby on the grass.  It was a moving spectacle and one that underscored the principle that a museum, to be a museum in the best sense of the word, must live and breathe both within and without.” 

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