by Anastasia Penchi

Folk music is the original music of the working people.Great River Folk Festival

The term has been used to describe the music made by whites in the rural South, but it also includes the music of the Southern blacks, Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, Cajuns and others. Realistically, there is no origin – it’s more an oral tradition of songs.

Folk music was sung by workers as they toiled in the fields. It was sung when people gathered at parties and relaxed on front porches. Folk songs were sung by parents who were putting their children to bed.

Folk songs are community-focused and often encourage participation. They are about work, war, love, civil rights, poverty and even nonsensical stuff. The songs are hopeful and sorrowful and mundane just like the lives of ordinary working people.

Here are five reasons to celebrate folk music at the Great River Folk Festival Aug. 26-28:


1) Folk music is the original music of the working people.


Think you aren’t going to know much folk music? Think harder. Your brain will sing the most popular classics without you. Ever see a tumbleweed in the desert and suddenly you’re singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan? That’s folk music. Problems in the family? Your brain will sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel – another folk song. Ever-lovin’ light shining on you? You know “Midnight Special” by Lead Belly is coming. Granted, I can’t promise those song will be sung, but there will be music by Patchouli, Sawtooth Brothers, Paul Cebar, Dead Horses, Crooked Willow and many others.

2) The crafts sold here are rooted in folk art.

Every year, the Great River Folk Festival features some of the area’s most talented and creative crafters and artisans. Participants submit pictures of their work, and fest officials select quality, original objects that are rooted in the folk arts to be shown and sold to the public. All items are handcrafted, and crafters include potters, wood workers, fiber artists, jewelers, sculptors, luthiers (people who build or repair string instruments – I had to look that one up), food specialists and basket makers. Nothing mass produced is allowed. Come see this original work, and maybe buy yourself something nice for a change.

3) Hear the results of the Songwriting and Performance Contest.

The festival holds an annual Songwriting and Performance Contest with a mission to promote “the spirit of songwriting for all.” As a result, 12 finalists perform two songs each at the festival on Sunday. Songwriters are evaluated by a panel of Great River Folk Festival judges, and the first place winner receives a cash prize, a day in a recording studio and performs as the opening act on the main stage later that afternoon. Songs can be folk, acoustic, singer/songwriter, old time, bluegrass or a combination thereof. Entries must be original, may not exceed five minutes and cannot be previously recorded and released through national distribution in any country.

4) Be food brave.

Ethnic and traditional foods are offered during this festival, so it’s a great opportunity to try something new food-wise. Crepe Jeanluc sells crepes, macaroons and tartlets. Don’t those sound good? Best Way Gyros offers original gyros and chicken ones on pita bread. The Jewish Women’s League will be selling an Israeli plate on Sunday. Even though I’m not quite sure what that is, I’m always up for a new culinary experience. If you’re not as adventurous, there’s pulled pork by Sandberg Valley Meats and homemade ice cream by The Pearl, among other deliciousness.

5) Don’t forget the new location.

The Great River Folk Festival was held on the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse campus for 40-some odd years. It recently got moved to Riverside Park in downtown La Crosse. Now you can enjoy music, food and fun as you relax near the Mississippi River. The picturesque backdrop of the river, bluffs and bridges surrounds the band shell, which also serves as the event’s main stage. It’s beautiful for both the eyes and ears.

If you would like to see more traditional food options, or learn more about the Great River Folk Festival in general, visit the Web site at:

Anastasia Penchi

Anastasia Penchi

Freelance writer

Anastasia Penchi is graduate of UW-La Crosse and a long-time Coulee Region writer who has written for area newspapers and magazines (