By Hannah Davis
Armed with a camera and recorder, I’m spending the summer documenting the folklife of Tompkins County’s fairs and festivals to help The History Center learn more about the place it calls home. Work began in June with three days at the Ithaca Festival.
First held in 1977, the festival emerged as a two-week extravaganza that filled the city with sculptures and performance art. Visionary leaders eventually introduced the now-iconic parade, buttons and t-shirts, and spectacles like “Circus Eccentrithaca.” Directors have come and gone. The festival’s grounds have moved. Its schedule has changed. But its claim to “[celebrate] the artist in everyone” has very much remained the same.
The idea that everyone has a creative spark worth celebrating is central to the field of folklore. As folklorists generally define it, “folklife” (used interchangeably with “folklore”) expresses the informal shared culture of a group through narrative, material, or customary traditions. That group might be defined by ethnicity, a region, an occupation, a religion, or some other connecting factor. Folklife is learned from family, friends, and community members, not through formal education. Festivals like this one perfectly encapsulate community folklife as participants of all stripes, armed with knowledge instilled by generations of family and friends, band together to do whatever it is that they do.
Folklorists spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the big-picture functions of events like this for the communities that organize them. One commonality between all festivals is their role as an opportunity for communities to escape everyday concerns and responsibilities. Even organizers, often overwhelmed with coordinating vendors, performances, volunteers, etc., can find pleasure in being immersed in something other than what they'd otherwise be doing. Think of the festival as a steam valve: It’s a chance for Ithaca to let off the pent-up Ithaca-ness that builds up between each instantiation. Folklorist Roger Abrahams said this about community celebrations on the island of St. Vincent, but he could’ve said the same about the festival’s parade:
Rather than viewing them as revelations of a single concept of social order, one can more profitably regard them as the traditional enactments of individuals in the community who recognize the focus of energies inherent in recurrent social tensions and conflicts of lifestyle, and who capitalize upon these energies by embodying these otherwise embarrassing nonhousehold ‘nonsense’ behaviors in their licentious festival performances.
“Christmas and Carnival on Saint Vincent,” Roger D. Abrahams, 1972
As former organizers shared with me, not capitalizing “energies” can make parts of the Ithaca Festival look an awful lot like dozens of other regional events. But when participants and organizers with a careful eye makes the most of things, magic happens.
Laurel Guy, the festival’s longest-serving director, reflected on one of those special moments during an event held at The History Center last month. Laurel is a gifted, animated storyteller, so I’ll share her words directly.
It was Year 1 of “Circus Eccentrithaca,” and it was a crazy Ithaca Festival. We’re doing “Circus Eccentrithaca.” Nobody knows what that is, I don’t even know what that is, we’re just going on faith. We have about 80 people who are going to perform. Dave Davies is leading the band, and we can’t rehearse it, because there are too many people, and we’re just assuming it’s all going to be fantastic. And we were going to rehearse it that morning, Sunday morning, and you’ll be shocked… it was raining. No, it wasn’t raining, it was pouring, and it was cold and windy, which… it was just a really bad scene. I remember thinking, “Oh my god, I did this! What was I thinking?” So, I said something along the lines of, “I know this is going to be okay, because the intent is really good, so I want you back here at 4:30 or 5, we’ll meet at the boathouse, and it’s going to be okay.”
After I said that, I felt an electric current. I don’t know how to tell you this, but we were in a circle, and I felt this current. A charge. And then I never worried about it the rest of the day. Everybody that was part of the festival kept coming up to me going, “Laurel, you need to cancel that circus, because it’s raining!” And I said, “No, it’s going to be okay.” What was also very weird was that we thought we might have 300 people show up. There were thousands of people! We put bleachers up in the ballpark at Stewart Park. And I had my walkie talkie… I was at the ball field, and all the performers were at the boathouse, and there was someone there with a walkie talkie, and we were going to queue them as soon as we could. But we couldn’t, because it was just pouring! And then Dave Davies, who plays trombone, and Frank Campos, who plays trumpet… God knows what caused this to happen.
What happened was, the two of them, because they had instruments that could get wet, they went to the center… they went out, the two of them, and they started playing “Here Comes the Sun,” the sweetest version you’ve ever heard. Slow, kind of jazzy, beautiful, and all these people, they just went, “Aw!” We were just so charmed. And literally, they played the last note… I know you think I’m just exaggerating, but if you were there, you know I’m not lying, this is so true! But as soon as they played the last note, the rain stopped, the clouds parted, the sun came out, the sky was blue, and yes, there was a rainbow. And I said, “okay, now! Come now!” on the walkie talkie, and here comes the great unknown, because honest to God, we didn’t know. As soon as it started, I realized, “Oh! Why did we need to rehearse? It’s like a parade! All you need to know is who to follow.” All the performers in the circus, they just needed to know when to go on. It was the most beautiful thing you’ve seen in your life. Honest to gosh. They came out, they did the circus, it was so magical. And then, as the last performer left, it started raining again. And I’m just kind of standing there amazed, you know? The people have left, the band is breaking down, I was starting to go away, and it’s sort of like a movie, because Dave is still there, and he goes, “Hey, Laurel, did you feel that this morning?” [Dave] felt that charge, that electrical current. It was real. It was just saying, “Don’t worry about it.”
So, why did I do it 10 years? Because when you tune into the spirit of the community in such an intuitive way, there is real magic that can occur and does all the time. It’s all around us all the time. But, literally, we had miracles happen. All the people that were there that day will never forget that. Never. If [Dave and Frank] hadn’t come out to play, I don’t know that the rain would’ve stopped.
I’ve included a few snapshots of the magic I witnessed during my own visit to the festival here. Looking at them again, I can’t wait to see what organizers conjure up for next year.
If you’d like to share photos or stories about similar observations and experiences at the Ithaca Festival, email Davis at email@example.com to include them in this project’s documentation.
Davis will also document the Trumansburg Fair and Groton Olde Home Days. At each event, she will join collaborators in a community conversation, during which attendees will be invited to share their own experiences. A culminating public event will be held at The History Center this fall. More information about these events will be made available at www.thehistorycenter.net. “Interpreting Community Folklife at Tompkins County's Fairs and Festivals” is made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
Davis currently serves as the New York Folklore Society’s upstate regional representative and is a research assistant at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She holds a BA in Folklore and Ethnomusicology from Indiana University and an MA in Folklore from Western Kentucky University.