Folk Festivals: Showcasing Cultures Throughout the Country

“Well, surely I knew what Folklife was, in fact, I was Folklife!”- O. T. Baker, Texas Folklife Festival Founder, 1976 oral history interview with the Institute of Texan Cultures

They say that imitation is the best form of flattery.  So it should come as no surprise that as the National Mall is slowly altered into a small city of tents, culinary smells, and cultural sounds for the upcoming Smithsonian Folklife Festival that communities in San Antonio and East Lansing begin to undergo similar transformations.

A member of the Odessa Chuck Wagon Gang makes chili at the 1968 Festival of American Folklife

This summer in San Antonio, the Texas Folklife Festival will hold its 40th festival. But such anniversaries cannot be celebrated without the key aspirations of a visionary. In 1968, the Smithsonian invited the Institute of Texan Cultures to arrange programs for the second Festival of American Folklife. The ITC Exhibitions Coordinator, O.T. Baker, coordinator of the Texas exhibit in Washington, returned home with big plans–to replicate a similar event celebrating the cultural heritage of Texas in San Antonio.  The wheels were set in motion. The concept of creating a festival that brought together different ethnic groups to celebrate and share their traditions was ingenious. Proceeds from the event would be given back to the participating cultures so the customs would continue to stay alive and be passed on through the generations. And, most importantly, the event’s focus directly correlated to the mission of the Institute of Texan Cultures. O.T. Baker’s leadership and dedication came to fruition from September 7-10, 1972, when the first Texas Folklife Festival was held on the grounds of the Institute in HemisFair Park.

Approximately 20 years later, a similar story played out in Michigan. As part of Michigan’s 1987 sesquicentennial celebration of statehood, the Michigan State University Museum staff worked closely with the Smithsonian Institution to present Michigan’s cultural traditions at the annual Festival of American Folklife. Through presentations by cooks, storytellers, musicians, craftspeople and others who represented the state’s diverse regional, ethnic, and occupational heritage, more than a million visitors to the National Mall were introduced to Michigan folklife. The staff then brought the festival program to East Lansing as the centerpiece of the first Michigan Festival – a showcase of the state’s performing and creative arts. Renamed the Festival of Michigan Folklife (FMF), the event became the largest annual exhibition of the state’s traditional culture. Over its history, the Festival of Michigan Folklife has provided a platform for the presentation of more than 1,400 artists–the vast majority had never been presented by any other arts organization in the state.

Today, the partnerships with the Smithsonian Institution are still evolving and flourishing. Last year, the Texas Folklife Festival featured the Smithsonian Folkways Grammy award winning group, Los Texmaniacs and Michigan State University Museum staff continues to work with the Smithsonian to develop new programs for the Great Lakes Folk Festival.