‘What’s Goin’ On’ at the Folklife Festival

Every year for 45 years now, visitors to Washington and the rest of us who live here have had a chance to come down to the National Mall and let the contours of the world—its music, its food, its songs and poetry and smells and clothes and sounds—come in, along with our own memories of what’s what in our souls.

They call it the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, a summer treat and tent and dog and pony and sheep and llama and guitar and memory show that occurs every summer wrapped around the Fourth of July.

This year, it’s more about us than them—the three-section festivals features the arts, music and food of Colombia, a memory train of the history and celebration of the Peace Corps and a lively, deeply rich festival of Rhythm and Blues. It’s “Colombia: The Nature of Culture;” it’s “The Peace Corps: Fifty Years of Promoting World Peace and Friendship;” it’s “Rhythm and Blues: Tell It Like It Is.”

But look what was on the menu in 1967, a veritable smorgasbord with no visible category except crafts and performance: American basket makers, doll makers, needle workers, potters, blacksmiths, spinners and weavers, fife and drum groups, string bands, gospel singers, shouts and spirituals, Puerto Rican music, New Orleans jazz, Cajun music, cowboy songs, the King Island Eskimo dancers, the dancers of Galicia, polkas and ballads, Irish dancers and Chinese New Year’s pantomimes.

Since then, over the years, the smorgasbord has become specific, focusing on states and regions, American style from Texas to Pennsylvania, to countries and continents, to Native Americans from everywhere, to the African Diaspora, to Kentucky, to the cultures of Britain and Yugoslavia to topics like Family Farming in the Heartland, the Music of Struggle, France and North America, Russian Roots, Metro Music, the Bahamas.

On summer days, you could see a Welshman shear a sheep or cook one, hear bluegrass music from the nearby mountains, dance to Reggae or Rap, see artists from Asia, Europe, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa, here, there and everywhere, watch the work of the cultural institutions and pioneers of the world.

This time, you can watch what’s often a reunion of Peace Corps Workers, catch all things musically and foodie positive about Colombia, and listen to, watch and dance to the soul music of our souls.

Friday, I stayed for a snippet, walking by the big tent of Motor City to see the Funk Brothers rip through my past in a special way.

I saw a man who danced with his wife.

That’s a supposition. They looked alike, smiled alike, and moved alike. They were thin and looked to be together for quite a while, almost like a twinned couple. She had curly hair, a smile to kill a rainy day, she was thin and sporty looking and moved like silk, and he led her, followed her, gray hair, big just-glad-to-be-here-with-her grin on his face and they twirled and stalked the way couples do.

They were singing to the Funk Brothers and their leader, wearing a white-suit from when guys in white suits could dazzle you, named Bob Babbitt. He was saying something like “Back then, like now, people were worried, what with the economy and wars, and senseless stuff, and Marvin Gay, he was singing what he could be singing now, he was askin’….

Mother, Mother, What’s goin’ on, what’s goin’ on…”

And the couple twirled into dizzy, and a mother was dancing with her little girl, and other couples swayed and some people did the same by themselves to “What’s Goin’ On.”

And earlier they were “Dancing in the Streets” and Kim Weston, who sang with Gaye back in the day on “It Takes Two,” was singing that afternoon and it was like that, the people were singing it, dancing it, and telling it like it was and is.

And you can catch a whole lot of groups still now till Monday at the 45th Annual Folklife Festival, and there’ll be people like the Jewels, the Monitors and Fred Wesley and the New JBs and you can get funky, soulful or happy as you please. Just check the Folklife Festival website and see:

What’s goin’ on.


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