At least Noah saw a rainbow when his flood was over.
It was a good weekend. "Sal" and I traveled to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, for the annual Johnstown FolkFest
The annual event began on Labor Day weekend in 1989, as an "ethnic festival" in the Cambria City neighborhood, part of the centennial commemoration of the 1889 Flood. For three years after that, the National Folk Festival was held there. The idea was to leave a local event in its wake, and that's what happened.
But tensions developed between the sponsoring organization, the Johnstown Area Heritage Association -- JAHA
-- and the various church groups that comprised the old neighborhood. The use of "scrip" to pay for food and other items ensured that JAHA would receive a percentage to cover general operating costs. This didn't sit well with the old parishes, who saw this event as their only major fundraising opportunity. As the years went by, most would move their events onto church property, beyond JAHA's reach. Some parishes complained of beer-drinking in their churches. Others resented JAHA as outsiders, coming in and taking over their
Finally, this year saw the first FolkFest at the new permanent site on the edge of downtown. But less than a mile away, the "Cambria City Ethnic Festival" survived -- scaled down from the "official" event of previous years.
I've been going to Johnstown on Labor Day weekend, almost every year from the beginning. This year there was some lingering animosity over the split. The parishes in Cambria City could be seen as being a bit greedy, oblivious to the need for an overall plan, and the reality of operating costs to bring large-scale talent to the various stages. With a new permanent festival site for this and other annual events (including a biker's convention and a polka festival), JAHA would appear to have won the upper hand.
Except for one thing.
The "Johnstown FolkFest" is neither a folk festival (as one would understand the term damn near anywhere else), nor does it have much of anything to do with Johnstown or its heritage. The music is great, and makes for a memorable weekend. But roughly two-thirds of the acts this year were brought in from outside the region of Western Pennsylvania (although practically all of them could generally be defined as "ethnic").
At the "unofficial" event in Cambria City (which proceeded despite initial resistance from the city itself), we had less trouble parking than ever before. The "Johnstown Area Button Box Club" played polkas and waltzes at the Croatian parish, in an atmosphere conducive to a neighborhood festival. But down the street, three guys banged out Eagles tunes on guitars. (Is "redneck" an ethnic group now?) Meanwhile, at the Bottle Works museum, there was an exhibition of folk dancing -- something that may or may not have occured to JAHA as a part of the local "heritage."
The "official" event has the cooperation of the city, and more extensive corporate sponsorship. It draws a bigger crowd (although the "other" event wasn't too shabby as the weekend went on), and is better orgainized logistically. So JAHA won't know the difference. Neither will anyone from out of town.
And that's the problem.
It's sort of an occupational hazard in the "business" of folklore; sooner or later you have to associate with the subjects of your "field work." Differences in class, petty bickering between various factions, old grudges that remain unhealed -- in time, a certain disdain of the subject matter breeds an ongoing love/hate relationship.
But if they're smart, JAHA will never give up on building bridges amongst those with whom they would disagree, and the people of the old neighborhood will not hesitate to receive them. Cambria City is a unique phenomenon in the present day. Besides being a National Historic District, there are nearly a dozen churches -- most of them Catholic and each serving a different ethnic group -- surviving despite the exodus to the suburbs and pressures from their bishop to close down or merge. A street festival of the scale of past years at the original site may never be possible, but nothing is stopping the operation of shuttle buses for the less-than-one-mile stretch between the events.
Like I said... if they're smart.
But it's easier to rest on one's pedestal when one holds all the cards. Meanwhile, JAHA runs a very impressive Heritage Discover Center
on the edge of Cambria City. After a visit to the interactive exhibit (which I highly recommend), one is left with the impression that African-Americans did not have a part in Johnstown's history.
Somebody's gonna get knocked off the pedestal soon enough.