“Damn I’m glad festival season’s over,” said my friend, who’s a professional musician. He said that with a mild curse and a heavy sigh, as if it had been a real ordeal. He’d been obliged to play for several of them.
I concurred without thinking about it. But after half a beat, it occurred to me that what he’d just said was pretty remarkable. I’m not sure I’d ever heard the phrase before: Knoxville has a festival season?
And, of course, it does. It starts in mid-March, with Big Ears and Rhythm N’ Blooms, and ends in early July, with Festival on the Fourth. During that manic spell there are about 20 festivals, including the International Biscuit Festival, Brewhibition, Brewfest, Pridefest, Bark in the Park, Kuumba, Vestival, Dogwood Arts, the marathon, and the Rossini Festival. This year there was also a sort of Civil War sesquicentennial festival. There’s a festival attracting at least a couple thousand people every single weekend.
They’re all pretty good festivals. A couple of them are really great festivals that get deserved national attention.
It hasn’t always been like that. There was a long, sad spell in my youth when the city or some nonprofit would announce a festival, and you’d attend, like any dutiful citizen, and there would be some booths, set up like a high-school science fair, perhaps some lonesome people selling jewelry or scarves or pine cones.
Sometimes there’d be some music, even good music, but few to behold it. Once I found myself on Gay Street, watching a free show by some pretty famous rock stars from the ’60s, the original Turtles, Flo and Eddie themselves. And they sang all their hits, “Happy Together,” and the rest. I was in a mob of about 23 people, half of whom I think were roadies. I wanted to try to explain Knoxville to Flo & Eddie, that Knoxvillians won’t come out for a show unless it’s inside an approved building.
I’ve been to some advertised “festivals” that didn’t even offer food or drink. I once concluded that some Knoxvillians who hosted festivals may never have been to a festival. They were perhaps unfamiliar with the concept.
Festival comes from the same root as Feast. I’m not saying it needs to be a binge, roast pig and wine by the barrel. But to call something a festival, you at least need to offer the option of Coca-Cola and maybe some popcorn. Without that, your “festival” is, at best, a seminar.
We all had low standards for festivals. If the organizer and his or her friends and colleagues and children, and maybe a quorum of their board of directors, and a dog or two, showed up and stayed for at least 20 minutes—anything less would have seemed rude—the festival was hailed as a success.
There were a few exceptions, including one fairly big one called the 1982 World’s Fair. A festival about energy conservation and alternative fuels is not likely to get out of hand. It seemed to spin off a few festivals in its wake.
A big barbecue cook-off seemed one of the most successful annual events on the World’s Fair grounds. The evening event drew thousands, and was a good deal of fun. I’m not sure what happened to it. Same with Saturday Night on the Town, a massive effort in the ’80s, a diverse celebration of music. It was held downtown for a few years, was massively popular in the mid-1980s, then one year there was a knifing in an alley. It then moved to the World’s Fair Park, I guess because it lacks alleys, but there it proceeded to fizzle. A hopeful book festival on the fair site was a bust.
By the 1990s, some were convinced Knoxville just wasn’t a festive place. Some blamed Republicans, or Presbyterians, or the legacy of Prohibition, which lasted longer here than in any non-Mormon city in America. Some blamed the plausible theory that Knoxvillians just didn’t like each other.
Somehow, in this still-new century, Knoxville has become a very festive place indeed. And as strange as it may seem, I believe it started with one especially peculiar opera festival in 2002. More than a century after his death in Paris, France, Gioacchino Rossini changed Knoxville, Tenn. The Knoxville Opera’s festival in his honor was so much fun it raised the bar for all festivals. It was a turning point.
Festivals are a good barometer of the vigor and diversity of a city and how comfortable its citizens are with themselves. Our range of festivals says good things about Knoxville.
Some festivals have a life span. Asheville’s giant summer music festival Bele Chere was once huge. About 20 years ago, Bele Chere was the main thing we heard about Asheville. It was kind of a distinctly urban Bonnaroo, on multiple stages around their downtown. It regularly drew, credibly, more than 30,000. Once or twice, I was among them. But because it was free to the people who attended, it was expensive to the city. And the original reason for it was to attract people to downtown Asheville. They don’t need to do that anymore.
In the 1990s, we were saying, “Why can’t we ever do something like Bele Chere?”
After 35 years, Asheville began asking why they were doing something like Bele Chere. Two years ago, that city just pulled the plug on it.
Maybe 35 years is enough for a festival. Maybe, in some cases, a festival serves its purpose and runs its course. Then again, New Orleans’ Mardi Gras is over 175 years old and has survived wars, hurricanes, and other major disasters. Some European festivals go on for centuries, and that’s part of their appeal.
I’ve been loath to miss any of them. I’m glad, and pretty surprised, that I have wound up in a festive town, and even more surprised that it’s Knoxville.
But I’m also pretty relieved I have my Saturdays back. I wonder if it’s too late to plant some tomatoes.