Nov. 16 2011 12:00 AM

Wanda Degen ponders her future after 25 years as East Lansing Art Festival performance coordinator


In the summer of 1967, between
eighth and ninth grade, young Wanda Degen decided to have a hippie
party. She went to a head shop in her little hometown of Montague
Whitehall, on the dunes of west Michigan, and fell in love with a
trippy poster for a Jefferson Airplane show at the Fillmore in San

She taped the poster to a lot of walls over the years until it got too tattered to save.

By the time Degen settled in East Lansing in 1971, the
poster’s days were numbered, but the spirit of Fillmore rock impresario
and scenemaker Bill Graham was with her — in a gentle, mountain
dulcimer sort of way.

In her 25 years as performance coordinator at the East
Lansing Art Festival, Degen booked over 200 acts, drawing national and
international names and keeping the evergreen local folk-rock-jazz
scene watered and fed.

In August, the festival’s board of directors voted to cut costs and eliminate Degen’s position.

This weekend, Degen will return to her first love —
playing her self-made mountain dulcimer — at two area appearances, and
she’ll attend a reception in her honor at Beggar’s Banquet in East

Degen was offered the chance to apply for a new stage
host position, at a “huge pay cut — almost one-fifth of what I made
after 25 years.” That prospect, along with the festival’s shrinking
budget for performers, led Degen to decide it was time to move on.

“‘Relief’ isn’t the right word, but perhaps there’ll be some time to do something else,” she said.

In 1986, Degen was already a veteran folk performer and
music teacher at Elderly Instruments. After working with a children’s
concert series in East Lansing, she was invited to build the music side
of the East Lansing Art Festival, then 25 years old.

Starting as a one-woman fundraising committee with a
budget of $400, she surely and steadily built what amounted to a music
festival within an art festival.

In the following years, Degen booked national names such as Tom Paxton, Robin & Linda Williams, Peter Ostrousko, Butch Thompson, Bill Kirchen and Vienna Teng.

Almost every perennial of the Michigan
and Lansing music scene, from folk to rock to country to jazz, played
the festival, including The Chenille Sisters, Da Yoopers, Joel Mabus,
the Michigan State University Professors of Jazz, Claudia Schmidt,
Kitty Donohoe, Root Doctor and Wally Pleasant.

Degen’s home is graced by framed
collections of festival artist portraits, year by year. She considers
the year 2000 a standout among many. “The Weepers played before Tom
Paxton, and he invited them to work up a song together — it was
amazing,” Degen said.

The 2000s were Degen’s
Fillmore-in-Michigan heyday. In 2009, thanks largely to a grant from
the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, the budget for
festival performers reached a zenith of $24,000. Singer-songwriter
Vienna Teng got $3,750, the highest fee ever paid at the festival.

But grants and other funding sources began to dry up after that. When Teng returned in 2011, she was paid $1,750.

“Her agent threw a fit, but (Teng) really liked playing the art festival,” Degen said.

Degen knew times were changing when a board member asked her if she had considered asking performers to play for free.

“There was a little bit of a sinking
feeling with that,” she said. “I basically said, ‘No, I’m not going to
call a professional act and ask them.’”

By 2011, Degen was down to booking eight
bands for the main stage only, from booking over 35 acts on three
stages in the festival’s heyday. She thought about quitting before the
festival board eliminated her position. 

Under a new system, Ben Hall, the
festival’s main stage host, will submit information on artists and
availability to a performance committee, which will set up the schedule
and draw up contracts.

Meanwhile, Degen plans to keep up with local music, if only for the pleasure of watching it replenish over the decades.

“It was amazing to me when Steppin’ In
It came on the scene,” Degen said. The eclectic Lansing roots band
reminded Degen’s generation of the Lost World String Band, an old-timey
group with Elderly Instruments owner Stan Werbin that came out of East
Lansing in the 1970s, to national renown, including an appearance on
the Prairie Home Companion.

But the inner muscle that has been on
continuous alert for potential festival performers for 25 years can
finally relax and concentrate on other pursuits.

Degen has taught pre-schoolers for over
20 years and gives workshops to teachers on how to use music in early
education. She plays her self-built mountain dulcimers at a variety of
venues, including senior homes. These days, she takes care of a family
member with Alzheimer’s, and likes to spend time with her two young

“So my life has been pretty crazy the last couple of years,” she said. “I can handle having less to do.”

Although Degen is closing the book on
the art festival, she wouldn’t mind coming back to help curate the
music for its 50th anniversary in 2013. 

It’s not a far-fetched idea. Several
years ago, while visiting a friend, Degen spotted another copy of her
old Jefferson Airplane poster. When the friend saw her eyes light up,
he gave it to her. It is placed proudly on her dining room wall, next
to two of her mountain dulcimers.

You never know what will come back.

Reception for Wanda Degen

4 to 6 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20

Beggar’s Banquet, 218 Abbot Road., East Lansing

(517) 351-4573

Degen performances

Christmas Celtic Music;

part of Silver Bells in the City

6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18

Michigan Library & Historical Center, 702 W. Kalamazoo Ave,, Lansing

Christmas music with flutist Dan Giacobassi

Noon, Saturday, Nov. 19

Van Atta’s Greenhouse & Flower Shop, 908 Old M-78, Haslett

(517) 337-2264