Tom Staples was not delivering a warning or throwing down a challenge, just making an observation on how difficult it is to describe the Montana Folk Festival in Butte.
“I don’t know that anyone has captured the flavor,” he said. “You have to be here to capture the experience. There is nothing like it.”
But he tried anyway, comparing the festival to the decades-old tradition of the L.A. Philharmonic playing the Hollywood Bowl.
“It’s that kind of presence and power and energy and awe,” he said.
Barbara Miller said simply that “it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened in this town.”
Your Last Best News correspondent, who has missed only two of the six annual festivals in Butte, agrees with Staples and Miller, who have been involved with the festival from the start. Your correspondent might go so far as to say it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened in this state, but again, unless you’ve been there, that statement doesn’t help you much.
Let’s see what some cold facts can do.
The three-day festival, which opens this year on Friday, July 11, annually draws more than 100,000 people who listen to hundreds of musicians performing on seven stages scattered around Uptown Butte.
Don’t let the “folk” in the title mislead you. This is not a collection of Peter, Paul and Mary wannabes, a bluegrass festival or a rock concert. It is a showcase of the best performers in the world playing traditional music, often in genres you’ve most likely never heard of.
This year, the lineup includes Appalachian blues, Kurdish tanbur music, West African highlife, Zydeco, Jamaican reggae, Dominican meringue, klezmer and Laotian traditional music. There are more familiar offerings, too, including soul, Chicago blues, Native American hand drumming, bluegrass, mariachi, gospel, New Orleans jazz and Western swing.
The performers are selected with the help of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, which brought the National Folk Festival to Butte in 2008, ’09 and ’10, before it became the Montana Folk Festival in 2011. On its website, the national council said it looks for two things when selecting performers for festivals: quality and authenticity.
What more can you ask?
At the Montana Folk Festival, it’s not just that you hear incredible, soul-stirring music, which you do, but that you come away from it feeling as though you have just completed a dizzying tour of the world, having immersed yourself in the music, culture and perspectives of previously unknown peoples.
Besides the music, there are marketplaces featuring Montana arts and Native American artists and craftspeople. There is a family stage, a dance pavilion, food courts and a Montana Folklife Area, the theme of which this year is the “Culture of the Car.” A highlight of that show will be a collection of “art cars” fancifully decorated and transformed by artists from all over the country.
Did we mention that the whole thing is free? Legions of volunteers troll the streets with buckets in search of donations, but there is no charge for any of the events.
There is one more important ingredient that makes the festival what it is, and that is Butte itself.
You might find yourself in front of the Granite Street stage, flanked by what Butte-Silver Bow County Chief Executive Matt Vincent calls “these great metropolitan turn-of-the-century buildings,” only to round a corner and behold the snowy peaks of the Highland Mountains.
Or go uphill from Granite Street to the site of the Original Mine, where a huge stage is built right inside the black iron beams of the headframe that once held the hoist that lowered miners, mules and supplies deep into the guts of the copper veins that made Butte the Richest Hill on Earth.
Everywhere you go during the festival, there is a spirit in the air, a feeling that you have stumbled into … well, we don’t know what. We are trying to describe the indescribable again.
Let’s let Tom Staples’ brother, Mark, give it a go.
“It’s magic,” he said. “Maybe that doesn’t do it justice, but there is a magic about it.”
Whatever it is, it was felt by representatives of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, too. The council has been organizing the National Folk Festival continuously since 1934, and until 2008 it had been west of the Mississippi River only once, when Denver hosted the festival 60-some years ago.
Barb Kornet, the owner of the Uptown Café, attended a National Main Streets Conference in New Orleans. She went on behalf of Mainstreet Uptown Butte because the director, George Everett, was unable to attend. It was there she heard about the National Folk Festival, and how the National Council for the Traditional Arts picked a new host city every three years.
“She brought that back and said, ‘Boy, you guys should take a close look at this,’” Everett said.
Improbably, perhaps, Everett and his board of directors decided to throw Butte’s hat in the ring. Everett wrote a proposal and then went to Washington, D.C., to meet with people from the national council. Competition was intense, with more than 20 other cities hoping to land the festival.
When representatives of the council came out to see Butte for themselves, it was cold and snowy. Tom Staples, chairman of the Mainstreet Uptown Butte board, remembers standing in an abandoned mine yard in 10 inches of fresh snow at 11:30 p.m., telling the visitors, “You can’t believe how beautiful this is going to be.”
Remarkably — or not, if you believe in Butte the way Staples does — the delegation got it.
Staples said, “They came back and said, ‘You have overwhelming enthusiasm. We just hope you can do what you say you can do.’”
That’s the kind of challenge people in Butte like to hear.
“Aside from the hosting and the celebration aspect,” Vincent said, “it has been a really great way for us to showcase what Butte does better than most places, which is roll up our sleeves and get the job done.”
Everett and Staples, whose day job is being a financial adviser, are among a core group of 15 or 20 people who work year-round on the event. Staples lives two doors away from Everett, and he said they talk to each other at least twice a day every day of the year about the festival.
Helping them are another 850 or so volunteers who work during the festival, setting up and tearing down, working booths, collecting donations and doing a hundred other chores that need doing.
During the first three years, when it was the National Folk Festival, Butte had to raise a total of $3.9 million. Everett and company did it, rounding up about two-thirds of that from corporate and foundation grants and a third from public funding, including use of the bed tax and hardrock-mine tax revenues and local grant programs.
The National Council for the Traditional Arts encourages host communities to continue the festival after the three-year run is up. Everett said there was some talk of scaling back when it became the Montana Folk Festival in 2011, with fewer stages and with performers from just the state or the region.
After extended discussion, Everett said, “The consensus was ‘No, we need to keep this at the same quality level.’ We really did not want to cut back on the quality at all.”
The national council provided the stages, tents, sound equipment and other infrastructure during the first three years, but much of that is now provided by Butte-Silver Bow County and Mainstreet Uptown Butte.
Sound equipment and tents are rented for the festival, but the county bought stages, chairs, tables, fencing and a wooden dance floor, all of which are used at other events, including Evel Knievel Days, the Irish Festival and Freedom Fest, the city’s Fourth of July celebration.
Speaking of which, while some events, including Butte’s St. Patrick Day celebrations, get famously rowdy, the folk festival has managed to retain its family-friendly feel.
The national council still helps out by recommending the best traditional performers it can find and then working with a statewide committee to select acts for the Butte festival. In addition, volunteers from the council who worked as emcees during the national festival have come back every year of the Montana festival.
The emcees don’t merely introduce the performers. They are knowledgeable about the music and always deliver perfect little pocket summaries of what you’re about to hear. One of the highlights of the festival is a series of workshops at which musicians, fielding questions from the emcees, compare notes and trade licks with colleagues from diverse genres.
One of the emcees is Charlie Seemann, director of the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nev., and a board member for the national council. He said his job and that of the other emcees is to put the music in context, “so that if they’re listening to a Ukrainian nose flute player, they know why they’re listening and what it is.”
He was kidding about the Ukrainian nose flute, but anyone familiar with the festival wouldn’t be surprised to see that on the schedule.
Barbara Miller, director of the Affordable Housing Network in Butte and another of the core of year-round volunteers, said the work is as satisfying as it is overwhelming.
“We have been pretty much living and breathing this thing for eight years, and we don’t take weekends off,” she said.
The festival has “a magic-dust effect on people,” Miller said, infusing Butte residents with a new sense of pride and enthusiasm about what Butte is and what it can be.
Vincent, the county’s chief executive, said Butte used to empty out in the summer, but no more. It is now busy all summer. Part of that is the influx of people who’ve heard about the place, but another is that local people tend to stay home more because friends and family want to visit them in Butte.
Everett said the economic impact on Butte has been “enormous,” with 160,000 people attending the last year of the national festival. Attendance dipped a bit during the first year of the Montana Folk Festival, but it has been “well over 150,000” the past two years, he said.
The effects are felt all over the region, Everett said. Many visitors stay at motels in Helena, Bozeman and Missoula and drive over for the festival every day. Volunteers also “try to push people in all directions” after the festival’s over, Everett said, sending tourists to other places in Montana.
Mark Staples, who lives in Helena now but has also worked as a festival volunteer, said the annual event is a pure expression of Butte’s spirit
“It’s just so typical of that community to embrace what a lot of other places would consider a pipe dream,” he said.
That explains why his brother, Tom, thinks the festival, as large as it is, hasn’t begun to realize its potential. He envisions it growing to a four-day event that brings in 350,000 to 400,000 people a year.
And why not? Tom Staples thinks back to the second year of the national festival, up on the grass amphitheater in front of the main stage, where he ran into former Butte Mayor Mario Micone, then living in the Southwest.
“He was there lying in the grass at the Original Mine with tears in his eyes,” Staples said, “and he said, ‘Tom, I never would have dreamt we could do anything like this.”
Details: Our story, long as it is, barely hints at all the riches in store for those who attend the Montana Festival. You’ll have to check out the festival website.