The National Folk Festival features, clockwise from top left, The Fox Family, Wylie Gustafson, Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas and Le Vent du Nord.
The National Folk Festival, which first opened in St. Louis in 1943, is considered the oldest multicultural festival in the United States. There have been 70 festivals in all, but it’s been 42 years since the traditional folk celebration has traveled west of the Mississippi. This year, 23 cities competed for the chance to host the next three years of the event and, whattaya know, Butte—or should we say, Butte, America—got the bid.
What this means financially for Butte is still yet to be seen, but the organization that spent a year and a half crafting the bid proposal, Mainstreet Uptown Butte, sees it as another way to revive the city’s culture and economy. George Everett, executive director behind the bid effort, thinks it can be more than just a boost to Butte.
“It’s really a statewide thing,” says Everett, who estimates 75,000 to 100,000 attendees over the weekend. “It’s located in Butte and we’re lucky about that, but we’re really doing it for the whole state of Montana.”
This year’s lineup reflects that Montana spirit. While the National Council for the Traditional Arts (NCTA) oversees the festival, a local committee helped consult on acts that would specifically appeal to Western appetites. Included in the genres, therefore, are country and bluegrass, as well as a huge Native American component—and a lot of musicians are linked, in one way or another, to Montana.
Wrapping one’s brain around the diversity of performers isn’t easy. Between the 25 acts, there’s everything from zydeco to gospel, mariachi to jazz. There’s one band, a Quebecois outfit from Montreal called Le Vent Du Nord that plays 400-year-old traditional, high spirited Quebec songs. Yuqin Wang and Zhengli Xu—a couple originally from Beijing, now residing in Tigard, Ore.—present something called Chinese Rod Puppetry. It all sounds fascinating, but we’ve highlighted a few of the festival’s more intriguing performers.
Wylie & the Wild West
Wylie Gustafson is originally from Conrad, Mont. and he’s a world-class yodeler. You know him because he yodeled the “Yahoo-oo!” in the “Do you Yahoo?” commercials starting in 1996. Though he ended up suing the company—and winning—after they only paid him a couple times despite the constant use of his yodel, Gustafson continued on his merry way to make a name in country western. He has appeared more than 50 times at the Grand Ole Opry, and once on “A Prairie Home Companion.” He has written a book titled How to Yodel: Lessons to Tickle Your Tonsils. And what’s more, he’s probably as close to a real singing cowboy as anyone in this day and age, considering he’s a rancher in Dusty, Wash., population 11.
Performing: Friday, July 11, at 9:30 PM, Saturday, July 12, at 1 PM and Sunday, July 13, at 4 PM.
Yuri Yunakov Ensemble
Wedding music doesn’t necessarily bring to mind folk festivities. It brings to mind drunken, hazy memories of “Red, Red Wine” and “Baby’s Got Back.” And maybe Adam Sandler.
But Bulgarian wedding music has its roots in some meaty political subversion, which is why the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble will be nothing close to the wedding music you know. The Bulgarian socialist government used to arrest members of the Ensemble up until the mid-1990s for their incorporation of gypsy music and “foreign” instrumentation. The members had to serve jail time with forced labor and had personal items like their cars confiscated. So while wedding music here inspires little aside from predictable debauchery, the Bulgarians’ is marked by unpredictable political activism.
Performing: Saturday, July 12, at 2:45 PM and 5 PM and Sunday, July 13, at 3 PM.
Oinkari Basque Dancers
Idaho Valley has the largest population of Basques in the world, with the exception of the Basque region in Spain, itself. In the 1960s, a group of Idahoan Basques made a pilgrimage to their motherland, learned traditional dance—which can include swords, high kicks, bright red hats and exuberant shouting—and brought it back to the states. The Oinkari dancers (Oinkari means “one who does something with his feet”) have managed to pass on the tradition in Idaho through two generations.
Performing: Saturday, July 12, at 5:15 PM and 8:45 PM and Sunday, July 13, at noon.
The Fox Family
The Métis people have a mixed heritage split between European and Native ancestry, and speak either Métis French or a hybrid language called Michif. This mix led to cultural collisions, as well, and in early years Métis were seen as a bridge between two worlds—though they also have been historically shunned from both. Musically, the Métis created a mix of Celtic fiddling and Native music. The Fox Family grew up on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana, and Vince and Jamie, the family’s two young adults, have learned to play the ancient style. The music includes fast-paced toe-tapping, uneven beats and complicated jigging.
Performing: Saturday, July 12, at 4:30 PM and Sunday, July 13, at 1:30 PM and 3:45 PM.
Johnny Arlee was the technical advisor to Sydney Pollack’s 1972 flick, Jeremiah Johnson. He’s also been in the U.S. Army and written several books. But Arlee grew up on the Flathead Reservation with Salish as his first language, and in the early 1970s dedicated himself to reviving Salish culture, including the language and music.
Arlee now leads a group of singers, drummers and dancers called Yamncut (“YAH-men-soot”), meaning “the gathering.” For the National Folk Festival, the group will perform a scalp dance called “Es Yuli,” which is reportedly both comical and serious. It’s not the traditional dance—that can’t be presented to the public—but it’s a version of it. “Es Yuli” almost disappeared as a known dance to native communities, and activist educators like Arlee are trying to revive these traditions.
Performing: Saturday, July 12, at 1 PM and 6:45 PM and Sunday, July 13, at 1 PM.
The Butte Folk Festival runs Friday, July 11, through Sunday, July 13, in Historic Uptown Butte. Festivities begin at 6 PM Friday and noon on both Saturday and Sunday. Free.