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
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.
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
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
"By nature, usually, I prefer to do things myself, but I
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
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,
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
Although he had majored in American Studies at Yale, Gillespie’s
in traditional folk music didn’t begin to develop until after he
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
"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
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
my interest in American Studies and regionalism."
It wasn’t until Gillespie began his post graduate studies at the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
growth in the past few years. When I first came on board we were
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
the folk arts of New Jersey. We do, each year, try to bring in
traditional performers who may live outside of the state — like
John Jackson who we’re bringing in this year, for example, from
Virginia. He’s one of a kind, a National Heritage Award winner."
To this day, at least 80 percent of the festival performers and
are from New Jersey.
Gillespie has also tried, over the years, to offer special folk
or displays discovered through his fieldwork throughout the state.
This year festival attendees will have the opportunity to view a
exhibition, "Celebrating Life: Images of Down Jersey Folk
The freestanding photo mural depicts folk artistry practiced
the southern portion of New Jersey. The Down Jersey Folklife Center,
located in Millville, Cumberland County, has been documenting
traditions observed by ethnic, regional, and occupational groups —
including ship-builders — since 1994. The exhibit will be
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
people who can be trained to take things over. I’m hoping that
in the foreseeable future, we’ll be allowed to hire an assistant
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
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
— Tricia Fagan
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