Every spring for the past nineteen years, usually on the first weekend of April, people from all around gather in Boonville, Missouri, for the Big Muddy Folk Festival, organized by Dave Para and Cathy Barton. The format generally consists of a full evening of concerts on Friday and Saturday evening, a dance following the concerts on Friday, workshops during the day on Saturday, and barbeque throughout the weekend.
The performances are held in the historic Thespian Hall, beginning around 7:00 p.m. and ending around 11:30 p.m. Between acts, Masters of Ceremony Dave Para and Meredith Ludwig entertain the audience, make announcements, and thank volunteers and sponsors, while the stage hands set up microphones and monitors for the next set. This is the only concert series I know of with an intermission long enough that people have time to wander across the street to Turner Hall to partake of barbeque or purchase CDs and books, or handmade dulcimers, rag rugs, wooden toys, or silver jewelry. This year you could also purchase raffle tickets for a colorful afghan (which were not, as Dave Para explained, “despite what you may have read in previous communications,” one dollar per ticket or four tickets for five dollars, but were actually six tickets for five dollars.
I missed the early years of the festival, but in the past twelve years, I have had the privilege of hearing many fine performers play a wide variety of roots music: old-time string music; Appalachian ballads; Missouri fiddle tunes; Irish fiddle tunes; Cajun; Texas swing; ragtime; minstrel tunes; blues; German polkas; klezmer music; straight-up folk songs both traditional and contemporary; gospel; some Carter family songs; and what you would probably have to call variety acts (one year an eighty-year-old woman played the fiddle while holding it on top of her head; another time a man from the conservation department made bird calls). These kinds of acts have become less common at the festival over the years, but Dave will still occasionally do an ironic performance in which he plays a serious and wide-ranging tune such as Autumn Leaves, while an equally accomplished and funny musician will accompany him on piano, with exaggerated arpeggios and dramatic pauses between phrases. The audience always gets a kick out of this.
Often there is dancing as well as music. For the past few years, Cathy and Dave have invited a small group from the Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers to come on stage and dance an old-time square at the beginning of their set; this year they also invited us to come back on stage at the end of their set to dance a waltz and do a little clogging. The audience seems to enjoy watching us dance, even if they don’t join us later at the open dance at Turner Hall after the concert.
Many of the tunes and songs have a river theme, as you might have guessed from the name of the festival. In addition to growing up along the Missouri River, Cathy and Dave spent seventeen summers on the Mississippi River, playing music on the Delta Queen riverboat. Consequently, many of the songs and tunes they have collected and written over the years are about life on the river. Frogs and turtles and water birds often appear in the designs for the backdrop at Thespian Hall and for festival t-shirts. Behind the small stage at Turner Hall where the musicians play for the Friday night dance is a painting of a riverscape.
Another equally strong theme of the festival is loss: loss of a way of living, loss of place, and loss of friends and family who have passed on, including Cathy and Dave’s dear friend Bob Dyer, who was a big part of this festival from the beginning and who also wrote and performed many songs and stories about the river. Often I find myself weeping during the performances, when I think about all who have gone ahead or hear about people or places I wish I had known: an old woman named Hazel whose belongings are up for auction, a fiddler who lost his fingers in a logging accident, or the residents of a town named Ellenton, SC, which was taken over by the government for the purpose of producing materials for the H-bomb. This year both themes were particularly strong, because the Delta Queen riverboat has recently been put in dry dock due to financial problems, and Cathy and Dave and many others are mourning the loss of a grand tradition. The large ceramic frog that serves as the festival mascot these days crouched stage left throughout the festival, sporting Bob Dyer’s straw hat.
The spirit and basic format of the festival has not changed much over the years, as far as I can tell, although the schedule has been tightened up a bit and the performances don’t tend to run over as often as they used to. Also, I think there may be fewer acts each night and fewer surprise appearances by performers not listed on the program, so each individual or group gets to perform longer. In recent years, there have been four or five performers scheduled each evening. I believe there may have been more workshops this year, but unfortunately I was not able to attend during the day on Saturday. By the time we arrived for barbeque before the evening performance, a group of musicians was jamming on the front porch of Turner Hall, making me wonder what a good time I had missed.
(Photos and video from the Big Muddy Folk Festival website.)