Bob Dylan may have changed music forever and inspired millions of coffee-shop songwriters to pick up an acoustic guitar, but that nostalgic brand of folk music won’t be heard at this weekend’s Great Lakes Folk Festival in East Lansing. Lora Helou, the festival’s associate director, said she respects the Dylan-esque sound, but said the team of organizers is more interested in introducing fascinating faraway cultures to East Lansing.
“Folk music is such a broad term,” Helou said. “A lot of people think of it as just Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and James Taylor — the singer-songwriter brand. That’s one element, but what we’re trying to do is really show the diversity of traditions, ones carried on and passed down through generations.”
The free, three-day, multi-ethnic festival is organized and hosted by the Michigan State University Museum, and goes beyond live music, exposing the massive crowd —approximately 90,000 attendees each year — to worldly dance, arts and cultural programs from across America and around the globe. The festival collaborates on programs with Smithsonian Institution, adding to the ambience with hands-on activity workshops and an art fair and market place featuring works by traditional and “green” artists. Plus there’s a lot of tasty food in the Taste of Traditions Food Court.
While music lovers can expect some legit American blues from Piedmont blues artists Jay Summerour and Warner Williams along with the usual mix of bluegrass and Cajun acts, Helou promises another “incredibly diverse” roster of far-reaching genres.
“There will be Armenian and Indian music, music from Iran, polka, and Dominican merengue,” Helou said. “It’s one of the first times I think we’ve featured Dominican music. Some people may be big Celtic music fans, and that’s what they come to see, but while they’re here they might also be totally amazed by something they’ve never heard before. It’s sort of a fun sense of discovery in a lot of ways.”
Helou said performers often fall in the “left of the dial” category, but are recognized and respected in their given genre.
“We’re not doing pop music here so it’s maybe a little bit more under the radar, just because of the whole diversity of these musical genres,” she said. “But we’re getting a lot of great feedback on (popular bluegrass artist) Clare Lynch. We’ve actually been trying to book her for a couple years so we’re happy that she’s going to be here. Also the Freight Hoppers, they’re just a terrifically talented group.”
Ron Eggleston, a volunteer and blues representative on the festival’s committee, credits Patrick Powers, the event’s coordinator, photographer, and head of music programs, for keeping each year fresh.
“Pat (has) done a wonderful job at bringing in young, new talent,” Eggleston said. “People have started to realize that it doesn’t matter if you’ve heard of someone or not—it’s going to be a quality act. The variety is great.”
Eggleston will also present one of the four Michigan Heritage Awards to the late Detroit bluesman Johnnie Bassett, a Great Lakes Folk Festival veteran who died last week after complications from a stroke.
For attendees who enjoy piping in, the Community Singing event happens at 3:15 p.m. Saturday at the Abbot stage outside Beggar’s Banquet. The event’s song leaders, Mark Dvorak and Sally Potter, welcome everyone to the two-hour event, no matter the skill level.
Helou said the festival still has three stages, but the main, open-air venue has shifted down to the City Hall parking lot to escape the road construction going on in downtown East Lansing. The M.A.C. stage has been axed for the year, but the Albert Avenue dance tent and stage remain in place.
A Campus and Community theme is also spreading across the fest this year, with much of it centered at the Legacy Stage near Dublin Square. It will focus on the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, a bill signed by Abraham Lincoln that provided funding for universities. But the grassroots emphasis doesn’t stop there.
“We’re, of course, focusing on Michigan State University,” Helou said. “We’ve got different research programs that are spotlighting everything from community gardens, green building, and then some more light-hearted looks at campus.”
Amber Shinn, a longtime volunteer, said taking part in the festival has helped her stay involved in the community. She said the event never fails to open her ears to lively new sounds, even though, to her, “folk” feels like such a “dusty, antique word.”
“Since I’ve started attending the festival, I’ve fallen in love with Zydeco and sacred steel, danced to Malian kora music, and even learned to Merengue,” Shinn said. “I’ve clapped along to Caribbean junkanoo, Irish Celtic and heard amazing blues. This year I´m excited to check out international strings, like the Indian sitar, Ethiopian begena and Iranian kamança. I´ll take those over Justin Bieber any day.”