Corrections or additions?

This article written by Tricia Fagan was published in U.S. 1

Newspaper on April 21, 1999. All rights reserved.

25 Years of New Jersey Folk

As the child of a Navy physician, Angus Kress Gillespie

moved constantly — from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania to Cherry Point,

North Carolina; from Lakehurst, New Jersey to Kodiak, Alaska. The

family was transplanted to so many towns, he never bothered to count

them all. These days he continues to travel, but his wanderings are

pretty much centered on the hidden enclaves of a single state —

New Jersey. And the characters, stories, and artists he discovers

along the way he brings back, in some form or other, to share at the

New Jersey Folk Festival.

Gillespie founded the festival 25 years ago, and continues to act

as its executive director and academic advisor. In 1975 Douglass

College

was looking to celebrate the completion of the new arts complex on

campus. Dean Margery Somers Foster designated that academic year as

"The Year of the Arts," and set up a committee representing

the various college departments to develop related activities.

Gillespie,

who had been a teaching instructor in the college’s American Studies

department for two years, observed that they couldn’t celebrate the

arts without having a folk festival — and the idea was approved,

with him in charge.

That first year he was given a budget of $1,300 to work with. "I’d

never put on a folk festival before," says Gillespie, "but

at the time it seemed like a lot of money." An associate dean

took him aside and recommended that instead of spending the whole

budget on a one-shot festival, he should see if he could get musicians

to donate their time — leaving the money to invest in beer, hot

dogs, t-shirts, and other items that could be sold at a profit. The

dean pointed out that this would help make the festival a

self-sufficient

annual event.

Gillespie took the advice to heart — but soon realized that he

needed to learn a lot more — fast — about producing a folk

festival. It didn’t take him long to realize that he was going to

need some assistance. He found the help he needed that year in two

of the undergraduate students in the American Studies Program —

Barbara Irwin and Kathy DeAngelo.

"By inclination, I’m not much of a delegator," Gillespie

admits.

"By nature, usually, I prefer to do things myself, but I

understood

right away that this project was too big for me to handle by myself.

Also, there were things involved that I really didn’t know how to

do. Barbara had some experience putting on craft shows, and Kathy

had experience with folk concerts at the Mine Street Coffeehouse,

so I turned to them. Since they were undergraduates, I was able to

give them credit as interns for their involvement. To be honest, I

depended on them fully to pull off that first festival."

The first New Jersey Folk Festival opened on the lawns of the Eagleton

Institute with a single stage for music and about 25 crafters. It

was an immediate success. "The response to that first year was

amazing," Gillespie recalls, "almost like one of those Buzby

Berkley musicals where they held up a flag and said, `Come on! Let’s

put on a show!’ It happened very spontaneously."

Close to 10,000 people attended the festival that year. Gillespie

credits the impressive turn out — at least in part — to the

fact that Cook College’s popular and long-running "Ag Field

Day"

took place the same day on the adjoining campus. "To be honest,

the festival was occurring at the right place at the right time."

Musicians did donate their performances that year, but Gillespie notes

that by the second year they were able to use profits from sales of

food, beer, and craft items to pay musicians at least a token stipend.

In the early years of the festival, the beer truck was — hands

down — the most lucrative source of revenue. Gillespie says,

"The

drinking age at that time was 18 years old, so the sales from beer

were extremely lucrative. It allowed us to roll the funds over so

we could keep the festival going from year to year." He notes

that one of the most difficult challenges faced by the festival came

10 years ago when university policy changed to prohibit beer sales

at university-sponsored events on campus. "Suddenly we needed

to identify new sources of revenue through grants and

sponsorships,"

he says.

Although he had majored in American Studies at Yale, Gillespie’s

interest

in traditional folk music didn’t begin to develop until after he

graduated

in 1964. "When I was a college student in the ’60s, I bought some

records by Joan Baez, the New Lost City Ramblers, and Bob Dylan. But

it was just a passing interest. It certainly wasn’t an all-consuming

passion — it was just the type of records that college students

bought at that time."

Although Gillespie had never heard of an American Studies major prior

to entering Yale, the major represented a good synthesis of his

interests.

"I liked literature," he says, "I liked history, I liked

anthropology, and it seemed that American Studies was a good way to

combine those interests."

In retrospect Gillespie, the oldest of three children, sees some of

his mother’s influence on his choice of studies. "As we were

transferred

from place to place, my mother — who had been a school teacher

prior to marrying my father — always tried to get us kids to learn

more about and appreciate where we were. Possibly that helped

stimulate

my interest in American Studies and regionalism."

It wasn’t until Gillespie began his post graduate studies at the

University

of Pennsylvania that he finally "stumbled into" the study

of folklore — and with it, folk music. Working towards a Ph.D.

in American Civilization, Gillespie had assumed that — within

the discipline — his focus would be on literature. "The

problem

was, I could never get the literature courses to fit into my schedule.

So a friend of mine said, `Why don’t you try folklore?’"

He did — and quickly discovered a genuine interest in the course.

Gillespie eventually opted to concentrate on folklore and folklife

within the American Civilization doctoral program. He completed his

doctorate in 1975, after serving as a Fulbright professor in Manila,

the Philippines, and teaching at a private boys’ school in

Pennsylvania.

It was while in Manila that he met Rowena, his wife of 13 years. She

presently works as an accountant for Rosenburg, Rich, Baker & Berman

in Bridgewater, New Jersey.

Today the New Jersey Folk Festival is managed by a committee of

undergraduate

students who are participants in a four-credit course which offers

instruction in the varied aspects of running this type of festival.

The class meets once a week under the direction of Gillespie as

academic

advisor, and Stephanie Ledgin, a folk music event specialist who is

the technical advisor. The first half of each class is instructional,

with students learning everything from how to write a press release

to the distinction between "traditional" versus

"revival"

folk music.

The second half of the class functions as a business meeting, with

the 12 student coordinators each reporting on progress in his or her

assigned area. Each year this approach has generated an efficient,

close-knit team that has effectively handled all aspects of putting

on this day-long, multi-stage festival, while helping each student

to develop her own leadership and management skills.

Ledgin, who also publishes Traditional MusicLine magazine, was brought

in by Gillespie to work with him on the festival five years ago. She

sees her role as helping the students professionalize the festival

while retaining its own unique characteristics. "We are quite

different from most other folk festivals," she says. "We’re

free to the public, we focus — for the most part — on

traditional

and indigenous folk music, while the vast majority of other regional

festivals are pretty much contemporary folk. We have to be at least

as competitive as those other festivals."

"I have to emphasize," she adds, "that Angus, all along,

has always said `yes’ to me as I’ve worked towards professionalizing

the festival. He’s allowed me the flexibility in starting to develop

it, to keep it competitive with other folk festivals."

She sees the festival continuing to grow. "We’ve seen some

significant

growth in the past few years. When I first came on board we were

getting

estimates of 7,000 to 10,000 visitors. The past couple of years those

counts have gone up to 10,000 to 12,000 — to as high as 15,000.

As a matter of fact, two years ago our food vendors actually sold

out by mid-day!"

"Our main mission," says Gillespie, "is to really

celebrate

the folk arts of New Jersey. We do, each year, try to bring in

appropriate

traditional performers who may live outside of the state — like

John Jackson who we’re bringing in this year, for example, from

northern

Virginia. He’s one of a kind, a National Heritage Award winner."

To this day, at least 80 percent of the festival performers and

craftspeople

are from New Jersey.

Gillespie has also tried, over the years, to offer special folk

demonstrations

or displays discovered through his fieldwork throughout the state.

This year festival attendees will have the opportunity to view a

photography

exhibition, "Celebrating Life: Images of Down Jersey Folk

Artists."

The freestanding photo mural depicts folk artistry practiced

throughout

the southern portion of New Jersey. The Down Jersey Folklife Center,

located in Millville, Cumberland County, has been documenting

expressive

traditions observed by ethnic, regional, and occupational groups —

including ship-builders — since 1994. The exhibit will be

available

for viewing by the public throughout the day in the Loree Building

on the Douglass campus.

Looking back on the festival’s 25 successful years, Gillespie says,

"I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m very proud of what

I’ve done, and I’m very grateful to the students who helped me produce

this over the years. On the other hand, I’m very frustrated that the

American Studies department is so tiny that there are no junior

faculty

people who can be trained to take things over. I’m hoping that

sometime,

in the foreseeable future, we’ll be allowed to hire an assistant

professor

who would be interested in taking this over. Much as I would like

to be immortal, the actuarial tables suggest otherwise."

Gillespie was recently presented with the Ernest E. McMahon Class

of 1930 alumni award for his work in founding and sustaining the New

Jersey Folk Festival. Those nominating him write "The Folk

Festival

is the lengthened shadow of one man — Angus Kress Gillespie. It

is very rare within the university to find someone who is not only

an outstanding teacher and scholar, but also . . . manages a major

university . . . institution, without a dime of extra compensation.

He does it out of love." During this Silver Jubilee celebration,

he should feel proud. He’s absorbed the lessons of his studies well,

and has created his own American tradition: The New Jersey Folk

Festival.

— Tricia Fagan


Next Story


Corrections or additions?


This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments