The Richmond Folk Festival gets better every year. On a crystal clear weekend, with the sun sparkling on the James River, about 200,000 people enjoyed an amazingly eclectic range of culture ranging from Ethiopian Azmari music and dance to Argentine tango and traditional New Orleans jazz, and from demonstrations of the Chinese jaw harp and the Iraqi oud, to Irish and Cape Breton fiddling.
We arrived at the festival on the first day as Rosanne Cash (daughter of Johnny Cash) rocked an enthusiastic crowd of mostly white baby boomers. (She has a red-hot band and her lead guitarist and husband, songwriter John Leventhal, is a terrific musician). As the day wore on the crowd became noticeably younger and more diverse. A colleague who recently arrived in Richmond remarked on the number of interracial couples – a surprise to her in a city known as the Confederate capital and proponent of segregation.
The festival stages and booths surround the American Civil War Center housed in the old Tredegar Iron Works, on the banks of the James River, that once produced cannon for the Southern army during the Civil War. Without the industrial muscle of Tredegar, the South could not have sustained the long, brutal struggle, a war instigated by slave states to maintain a system of perpetual bondage and to enable the growth of a slave nation as America expanded west.
We took a Romanian friend to visit the Center. Diana Damsa is a dialogue facilitator and member of a group addressing the need to heal the wounds created by historical divisions in Eastern Europe. She is on an internship in Richmond to study this city’s efforts to deal with its past and to build trust and cooperation. The Tredegar museum is unique in telling the story of the bitter conflict from three perspectives – Union, Confederate and African American. It is a sobering experience to try to imagine the suffering caused by competing and deeply-held concepts of liberty and group identity.
Emerging from Tredegar into the happy, sometimes raucous celebration of our multicultural world, I was struck by how far we have come in overcoming old ideas about race and ethnicity. An unexpected and delightful discovery of the weekend was the music of Joshua Nelson, a black Jew known as the Prince of Kosher Gospel. Nelson takes traditional Jewish liturgical songs and infuses them with the energy of gospel music.
Yes, there is still a long way to go. Yes, racism still lurks beneath the surface and makes its presence felt in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. As we walked to the festival we passed a table selling pictures of Obama. A man in front of me put his finger to the president’s head and said to his family, “I would like to put a bullet right there.” (He was joking – I think – but it still sends chills down your spine.)
But the fact that Richmond, Virginia, can host such a wonderful folk festival underscores that yesterday is not today. The ghosts of the past are fading. Richmond and America are far better places and will continue to get better.