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Timeless Transfixion: The Ann Arbor Folk Festival in Review

article & photography by Virginia Baker

Fans come to the 35th Ann Arbor Folk Festival as if arriving at the theater or sanctuary. They come not just to enjoy the music, but also to respect and admire it. hey come to hear stories, both old and new, to create a community. While most music festivals seem to prefer quantity to quality, the Ann Arbor Folk Festival creates a society where individuals come together to cherish the artistic creativity.

Myriad colorful people fill the lobby, students in plaid flannels and skinny jeans, and also white-haired men supported by canes. In between acts, old friends greet each other with extravagant hugs and dramatic greetings. The average age of the festival-goer seems to be around 47. There’s no drug culture here. It’s a unique mass collective.

This event initially began as a fundraiser for The Ark, Ann Arbor’s non-profit organization dedicated to the presentation, preservation and encouragement of folk and roots music. The organization believes in the power of music to enrich the human spirit and it strives to provide a welcoming atmosphere for people to listen to, learn about, perform and share music.

Friday night is dedicated to the newer musicians on the horizon, while Saturday is reserved for the emblematic, legendary performers. While Friday night attracts a broader age group, Saturday’s performers draw that unique category of music-goers.

Ann Arbor Folk Festival

But this audience is not there just to watch. It is there to engage, to participate, to clap along when Caravan of Thieves sets a rhythm for them to repeat or when Nanci Griffith asks them sing along. When Glen Campbell walks out before them, they immediately rise to greet him and as he makes fun of himself. (“At my age, it’s hard to do anything” – at age 75, he is still a powerful performer). When Ryan Adams fills the room with melancholy melodies, everyone is transfixed, mesmerized.

The auditorium has turned from a performance space to a house of respect. There are no cat-calls making requests, no talking in between songs. There is hardly even a cough or sneeze.

When the performances are over, tangled excitement hangs in the air like smoke. I walk through the crowd, amazed at the number of smiles I receive. I lean against the wall in the back, observing the crowd weave through the lobby and out the doors, where some jump on their bikes, their vinyl and t-shirts tucked under their arms. An older man leads his woman through the crowd. ]As he walks past me, he turns to her, a smile painted on his wrinkled face. “What a wonderful evening!” he exclaims. “It almost makes me feel young again.”


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