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On Its 75th Birthday, A Look Back At National Folk Festival's Changes

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The National Folk Festival is celebrating its 75th anniversary. And for the first time, it's being held in North Carolina. It's a good fit when you consider that state has produced greats like Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs and Elizabeth Cotten. But North Carolina is also a place with a very particular idea of what folk music means. As Bethany Chafin of member station WFDD reports, that idea is changing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DROWSY SLEEPER")

SHEILA KAY ADAMS: (Singing) Awake, awake, you drowsy sleeper. Awake, awake, it's almost day.

BETHANY CHAFIN, BYLINE: That's the sound of folk music, right? In North Carolina especially, you think of the western part of the state - the mountains and sounds of the Appalachian region. The music of people like Sheila Kay Adams, a ballad singer and storyteller from Madison County.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DROWSY SLEEPER")

ADAMS: ...And I'll cry above and pity the.

For me, folk music meant the traditional ballads that were preserved within my family and passed down from generation to generation. My family was mostly Scotch-Irish, and they didn't have much in the way of material good, but, boy, they sure had a lot in their hearts and in their heart's ear that they brought with them. And they shared that down through the generations.

CHAFIN: The definition of North American folk music in the early 20th century was music made by whites of European ancestry, and it's the definition Bascom Lamar Lunsford used when he started the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Ashville in 1928. Kentucky folklorist Sarah Gertrude Knott attending one of Lunsford's festivals and six years later started The National Folk Festival. Julia Olin is executive director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts.

JULIA OLIN: There was a folk festival movement in the '20s and '30s, but it was The National Folk Festival that first put the arts of many nations, races and languages onto the same stage.

CHAFIN: In determining what was traditional and not traditional, The National often broke barriers. W.C. Handy, known as the father of the blues, played the festival in 1938, his first performance on a desegregated stage. Audiences were exposed to Cajun, polka and the music of Chinese immigrants. Over the decades, the festival moved around the country. As it traveled, Olin says, the festival also moved with the times. Still...

OLIN: living culture is tricky business.

CHAFIN: Meaning it's always changing. The Carolina Chocolate Drops have navigated that change pretty successfully. Their music is drawing in a new, younger audience with its update on the sounds of the African-American string band.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUBY")

CAROLINA CHOCOLATE DROPS: (Singing) I've done all I can do to try to get along with you. Still, you're not satisfied. Oh, Ruby, Ruby, funny how you manage your man.

CHAFIN: Musician and Greensboro-native Rhiannon Giddens, along with her original bandmates, sought out African-American fiddler and songster Joe Thompson to learn the music and share its history with others.

RHIANNON GIDDENS: You know, we're sort of taught this very thin kind of wrong idea of where American music comes from. It's a real narrow view, and it's not always right. And to expand that and to deepen it, it's actually way more interesting than what we're kind of taught.

CHAFIN: Giddens and former bandmate Justin Robinson will perform at this year's festival in Greensboro. Also on the lineup is Bill Myers.

BILL MYERS: You see? Right here? There's the graphanola right there with a '78 record right there. But you got to wind this up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHAFIN: Myers chuckles as he listens to the Roberta Martin Singers of Chicago on the same graphanola that played in his childhood home. Behind him, posters span decades of performances with his Eastern North Carolina band The Monitors.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MONITORS SONG)

CHAFIN: Myers cofounded the group in 1957 with one goal - if someone said...

MYERS: I'm Pennsylvania, play me a Pennsylvania polka, say, I got it. If someone comes up and says, listen, I'm from the Caribbean, and I want to hear a bossa nova, hey, we got it.

CHAFIN: So he was a little hesitant when he was asked to play at this year's National Folk Festival.

MYERS: I said, well, I didn't want to come up there and do something that you guys weren't calling folk, you know, 'cause people have an idea what they think folk is, you know. It's dulcimers and all those kinds of little things that they do like that.

CHAFIN: But festival organizer Sally Peterson reassured him.

MYERS: She says no, I want you to play what you play because this is your Eastern North Carolina, quote, "folk music."

CHAFIN: And that's fine with Myers.

MYERS: Folk I think refers to folks, you know, and what do folks do. And we have to broaden our thinking to include all kinds of things.

CHAFIN: And, he says, the music should speak for itself regardless of definition. For NPR News, I'm Bethany Chafin in Winston-Salem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.