Since its founding in 1933, the National Folk Festival has primarily been a traveling celebration, moving around the U.S. to present the country’s grassroots artistic and cultural diversity, and establishing ties with communities nationwide. Following a unique, 12-year residence in Wolf Trap Farm Park in Vienna, Virginia, from 1971-1982, the festival returned to this tradition, first traveling to Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area (CVNRA) from 1983-1985. Its three-year tenure became the model for subsequent National Folk Festivals in communities across the country, marking a new era for the NCTA.
CVNRA, designated Cuyahoga National Park in 2000 and administered by the National Park Service (NPS), preserves 51 square miles of wilderness along the Cuyahoga River in Northeast Ohio. Briefly home to migrant Native American groups pushed westward in the early colonial era, the area’s prior inhabitants, called the Whittlesey, relocated prior to European arrival, leaving the area uninhabited between 1650-1730. Utilized recreationally by urban dwellers beginning in the late 19th century, in 1929 the park acquired 430 acres from the estate of Cleveland businessman Hayward Kendall, whose will stipulated that the “property should be perpetually used for park purposes.” Initially called Virginia Kendall Park, much of its infrastructure was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. By the 1960s, local citizens concerned about urban sprawl and environmental degradation appealed to both state and federal government in pursuit of protections for the park, and in 1974, President Ford signed the bill establishing the CVNRA.
The NCTA had worked informally with CVNRA since the late 1970s, presenting a variety of well-received events. The appeal of getting the National back on the road and co-presenting it with experienced Ohio folklife colleagues at CVNRA was enhanced by the opportunity it afforded the NCTA to deepen its decade-long relationship with the NPS. Seizing the chance, the NCTA joined forces with NPS and the non-profit Cuyahoga Valley Association to bring the 45th, 46th, and 47th National Folk Festivals to CVNRA, establishing what has become the festival’s current model: A free, three-day event presenting a diverse range of the nation’s finest traditional artists on multiple stages, including one devoted to showcasing regional artists and traditions. This innovative approach called for a collaborative partnership between the NCTA and each new National Folk Festival host community to present the event for three consecutive years. Critically, local partners in each host city would now establish their community’s own annual festival following the National’s departure. A reversal of the previous model in which the NCTA sponsored regional festivals as feeders for the national event, the National’s new model would now seed ongoing and sustainable traditional arts festivals all over the country.
The National Folk Festival in Cuyahoga was a triumph. Taking place outdoors—a rarity in the festival’s first half century—the first year was inaugurated by a cohort of skydivers descending into the park. Annually, the festival featured three stages, and areas for crafts demonstrators, food, and family activities. The roughly 15,000 annual attendees—among the highest in the National’s history at that time—included crossover from the nearby Kent State Folk Festival, and despite the formidable challenge presented by CVNRA’s lack of electricity or running water, all three years were a resounding success.
Following the National’s final year at the CVNRA, in 1986 the NPS and Cuyahoga Valley Association debuted the Cuyahoga Valley Festival, renamed the Cuyahoga Valley Heritage Festival in 1990. Beloved throughout the Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan tri-state area, the festival enjoyed eleven more years at the site, adding a dance tent for a total of four stages, and, in its early years, a historic, steam-powered calliope. By adding electrical wiring, the festival revolutionized CVNRA’s capacity for large scale, amplified entertainment. Though it folded due to a decrease in funding following the 1996 event, the Cuyahoga Valley Heritage Festival’s vision, infrastructure, and legacy laid the groundwork for subsequent music events at the CVNRA, including Voices in the Valley, Happy Days Lodge Concerts, and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park Concert Series.
Explore the programs from the 45th, 46th, and 47th National Folk Festivals by clicking on the thumbnails below.
Lowell Folk Festival (1987-)