For many, the thought of folk music creates a perception of melodic vocal riffs, banjos and tambourines — but MSU Museum acting director Lora Helou said folk is so much more than that.
Every summer, the Great Lakes Folk Festival aims to acquaint festivalgoers with varied forms of folk music.
“Some people think of folk as … James Taylor, Peter, Paul and Mary sort of singer-songwriter music, and that’s kind of one branch of it,” Helou said.
“But folk music is really about displaying distinctive cultural traditions that are sort of passed down from year to year so … it really gives us this rich sense of people’s cultural identity, the cultural practices that they have and the way they’re expressed through music and dance.”
The MSU Museum works year-round to produce the cultured annual event for Lansing area residents, and Helou said their main goal is to produce a well-rounded and diverse festival that everyone can enjoy.
“Every year, the festival has this common thread where we really try and put together a program that represents a diverse array of cultural traditions and expression through music and dance, through food ways, through the handmade goods and those kind of programs,” Helou said.
Helou said it’s special to have the time-honored cultural music to provide a venue where patrons can experience different traditions that can’t normally be found in the area while still offering traditional folk favorites.
“We have Cajun music, Celtic music and blues and bluegrass that are maybe familiar (or) favorites to some people, but then you can also step outside of your experience and learn a little bit about another culture at the same time,” Helou said.
Lansing resident Mary Taylor, who just recently returned to Lansing after 25 years, said camaraderie among such a diverse crowd is what she enjoyed and missed most from Michigan festivals.
“I love the diversity of people the festival draws, and I love how it brings everyone in the community together,” Taylor said. “The location is great, and it’s a beautiful, festive atmosphere. I just moved back this past year, so I came home to make the folk festivals a part of my life again.”
Taylor, who attended the festival two days in a row with her husband, said the music this year was so wonderful that she had trouble picking a favorite.
“The festival had a lot of great artists, but it was a tossup between Clear Fork Bluegrass Quartet and Dentdelion,” Taylor said. “We left during Cathie Ryan, the Celtic singer — she was really good, too. So it was really a tossup; they were all really great.”
Helou said the MSU Museum has been producing folklike festivals for 25 years and aims to showcase different folk artists every year so that patrons get to experience all types of cultural traditions.
“We work with a group of community music advisers who are kind of plugged into some of the different cultured traditions,” Helou said. “We work with the Smithsonian, (and) we work with colleagues from across the country who also produce events. And we also do a lot of community outreach to identify craft and food vendors that are also tradition barriers and give us a strong sense of authenticity and sustaining these traditions in music, food and crafts and homemade goods.”
Cathie Ryan said returning to the festival after 10 years was a wonderful feeling.
“It was so great to be back; it was like a homecoming,” said Ryan, who has Irish roots. “I forgot how great it was.”
This year, Ryan said she noticed there was a unique and unifying quality among the audience that she felt honored to be a part of.
“The Community Sing was a new thing to have a tent … full of people who wanted to sing — and who sang at the top of their lungs with a full heart, big smiling faces and were totally present for the music,” Ryan said. “People are wanting to sing in East Lansing, and I was very honored to be asked to be a part of the Community Sing and to share songs and singalong songs. … It’s just a lovely way of being in the community, and I think we all need that. It’s a good way to be connected to people, express yourself and have fun. I loved that.”
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