After the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the milestone anniversary for two years, the New Bedford Folk Festival turns 25 in 2022! We celebrate bringing together our community to rejoice in the magic that music and art give to our lives and to our city. We are excited to feature many musicians who have thrilled our festival audiences over the years going all the way back to the first “Summerfest,” the festival’s original name in 1996!
The 25th annual festival will take place July 9 & 10 and will once again feature two days of folk music on seven stages throughout downtown New Bedford. There will be areas free and open to the public, including food court & beer garden, Southcoast Stage showcasing local artists, and more than 80 artisan vendors.
The 24th annual New Bedford Folk Festival on July 6 & 7 brought together more than 70 renowned and emerging performers in New Bedford’s historic district. Headliners included Grammy Award-winning Cajun band Beau Soleil avec Michael Doucet, Dar Williams called “one of America’s very best singer-songwriters” by The New Yorker, folk, jazz, and pop songstress Susan Werner, blues masters Chris Smither and Guy Davis, old-time and American roots music trio Molsky’s Mountain Drifters featuring Grammy-nominated fiddler Bruce Molsky, cutting edge Celtic band Bua and many more.
The two-day festival offered continuous folk music from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on seven stages in and around the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, ranging from the majestic 1,200 seat Zeiterion Performing Arts Theater to the intimacy of the National Park Garden Stage. Additionally, many enjoyed the areas free and open to the public,including the food court & beer garden, Southcoast Stage showcasing local artists, and more than 80 artisan vendors.
Great weather, great music and great crowds made for a memorable 23rd festival weekend. Wonderful to see Tom Rush, Cheryl Wheeler and J.P. Cormier again. Performers new to the festival like Hubby Jenkins, Musique à Bouches and the Mammals impressed the crowd. And Pete Kennedy playing a fine version of Angie during our Tribute to guitar legend Bert Jansch was a highlight.
The times they are a changing. Social protest and social justice seemed to be on the minds of people so several popular workshops addressed current issues head on. The Jeremiahs made an impression with the Celtic crowd, young trads like Sam Gleaves and Tyler Hughes made the old songs live and J.P. Cormier made a lot of new fans. A workshop highlight was “How Can I Keep From Singing the Songs I Love,” which featured Aoife O’Donovan, Patty Larkin, Susan Werner and Catie Curtis. This was a show you never saw before and will likely not see again. A true NBFF experience.
The festival that wasn’t supposed to happen. First timers, The Stray Birds and Miss Rosie WOW everybody. Les Poules à Colin join Benoit Bourque and Antoine Pigeon-Bourque for a great French-Canadian Kitchen Party while RUNA and Miss Rosie create a new music genre called Celtic-grass. Siblings Livingston and Kate Taylor weave their magic.
What an amazing 20th Anniversary celebration. The weather was perfect, the crowds were outstanding and the performers excelled. Tom Rush, John Hammond, Susan Werner, Patty Larkin, Catie Curtis and so many other great artists made this 20th year the best yet. Some suspense that this was the final festival but the City of New Bedford, the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center and the festival Artistic Directors would not let that happen.
The festival returned to Custom House Square, now a true central park for the city. It proved to be one of our loveliest stage areas. A wonderful celebration of the music of the Everly Brothers and perfect weather assured that everyone had a memorable weekend.
Big changes for the festival. We moved the Main Stage from Custom House Square, under construction as a City park, to the Zeiterion Performing Arts Theater. We moved the Meet the Performer Stage into Wings Court. Finally, the name of the festival officially became the New Bedford Folk Festival.
Weather: Hot and humid. Popular stages: the Whaling Museum Theater and the National Park Theater. That both theaters are air conditioned is just a coincidence. Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame performs at the festival for the first time. Two guitarists, Pete Kennedy and Hiroya Tsukamoto, scheduled in a fiddle and guitar workshop found themselves performing alone when the fiddlers failed to show up. Result: fiddles not missed and there is a prolonged standing ovation for a great performance. An Irish accordion player, John Whalen, takes the place of two Australian women (Women in Docs) and wows the crowd without missing a beat. The Deadly Gentlemen play their “epic folk and grasscore” to an enthusiastic audience. Did I mention it was hot and humid?
That year featured the return of festival favorites Le Vent du Nord and Cheryl Wheeler, a workshop commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War with, among others, Kim and Reggie Harris and a Celtic Extravaganza with Benoit Bourque and three powerhouse Celtic groups, Vishtén, the Outside Track and Annalivia.
Festival highlights are the Sunday workshop “Kind of Blue: Jazz, Blues and Folk” with Chris Smither, Vance Gilbert, Susan Werner, Jeremy Kittel and Nathaniel Smith and the tribute to Richard and Mimi Fariña with the Kennedys and Caroline Doctorow.
Art Tebbetts does a fine tribute to folksinger, writer and folk song collector Paul Clayton. Clayton, who lived in New Bedford, was an important figure in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 50s and 60s. He wrote the classic song “Gotta Travel On” and may have been the subject of Bob Dylan’s song “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.”
Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, friend of Woody Guthrie and mentor to Bob Dylan, comes to the Summerfest for a Sunday afternoon concert. After several years with six stages, we add a seventh stage, now called The Southcoast Stage, featuring New Bedford area talent.
Benoit Bourque begins leading the Celtic Extravaganza and our first Friday evening concert in many years features Irish singer Maura O’Connell.
The first of our artist tributes is “God Help the Troubadour: the Songs of Phil Ochs” with John Gorka, Kim and Reggie Harris and Bob Franke among others. Hosted by Phil’s sister Sonny Ochs, it is well received by the audience and paves the way for future tributes.
A personal favorite workshop for me is “A Couple of Guitar Players” with Brooks Williams, Peter Lang, and John Renbourn, all led by Raymond Gonzalez. If you didn’t play the guitar, it made you want to learn how, and if you did play the guitar, it made you want to burn it. Fortunately, I had stopped playing years before so no harm is done.
Good-bye to the State Pier and the carnival. Except for the seafood vender, the entire festival moves into the National Park. The seafood will move off the pier the following year.
A workshop “The Greatest Squeezebox Workshop Ever!” brings together Phil Cunningham, John Whalen, Benoit Bourque and Gareth Turner. Despite a badly swollen right hand from a spider bite given emergency treatment two hours earlier at St. Luke’s Hospital, Gareth leads the workshop and performs beautifully. A concert by Scottish brothers John and Phil Cunningham is one of the last times they perform together.
The electric folk band Little Johnny England and the Copper Family from Sussex, England, whose songs, sung unaccompanied, date back six generations are in a workshop called “Two Ends of the Same Spectrum.” The workshop perfectly captures the spirit of the Summerfest by bringing together ancient and contemporary musical forms to show their connections. The emotional excitement of this workshop is felt by the audience at the conclusion when 87 year old Bob Copper, the patriarch of the family, gives Little Johnny England’s fiddler, Guy Fletcher the thumbs up. Like other Summerfest workshops, it is a great musical experience never to be repeated.
The Boston Globe calls the Summerfest “one of the most exciting and smartly programmed festivals in the Northeast.” Attendance of people from around the nation continues to increase.
The Kennedys and a Canadian group, Mad Pudding, are in a workshop together called “Sound Your Instruments of Joy.” Thanks to Pete and Maura Kennedy, the two groups, who meet for the first time on the stage as the workshop begins, musically blend so excitingly for the entire hour, that people refer to them the rest of the weekend as “The Mad Kennedys.” The Kennedys remain a favorite of the Festival crowd to this day.
The New Bedford Standard Times reports that love bloomed at the festival when a proposal of marriage interrupts Christine Lavin singing “Bald Headed Men.” As our groom-to-be was hair-challenged, he specifically waited for that song to pop the big question. His proposal was accepted. The first Sunday morning Sacred Harp sing with Jim and Cindy Bean takes place. Over twenty musicians crowd the stage for the Celtic Extravaganza, which John Cunningham leads every year until his death in 2003.
A dance workshop called “Dancing Feet” is presented for the first time with dancer Sandy Silva, Scottish musician Rory McLeod, the New England group “Fresh Blend” and a trio of musicians form Montreal, Simon LePage, Gaston Bernard and Benoit Bourque, soon to form the group “Matapat.” Art Tebbetts performs in a workshop “Those Great Old Standards” with the late blues legend Dave Van Ronk. Art still talks about it.
Several music workshops are included in the schedule for the first time. The first workshop presented at the Summerfest is “Songs of the Sea” with John Roberts, Lisa Preston and Jeff Davis.
After several years of presenting a waterfront seafood event, the organizers approve of a multi-stage folk festival with a juried crafts show to be added to the mix. Although still centered on the State Pier, for the first time the festival has two stages and crafts in what is now the National Park. A third stage on the Pier is ‘attractively’ situated on the loading dock and performers determine that the two noisy refrigerated trucks parked near the stage are loudly humming away in the key of G. A carnival and a large seafood tent compliment the music. The first Celtic Extravaganza hosted by Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham has an audience of just 90 people. Over the years other hosts for this finale include Pat Kilbride, Robbie O’Connell, April Verch, John Whalen and Benoit Bourque. In 2013 the audience numbers over 1000 people.