In August 1999, the 61st National Folk Festival kicked off in East Lansing, Michigan, inaugurating the esteemed festival’s three-year tenure in the city of approximately 48,000. Co-presented with Michigan State University Museum’s Michigan Traditional Arts Program (MTAP) and the City of East Lansing, the National Folk Festival in East Lansing presented a compelling opportunity for the NCTA to expand on a foundation established by partners experienced at producing large festivals, in a state with an established folklife program and broad public appreciation for traditional arts.
Located along the banks of the Red Cedar River on Anishinaabeg land in central Michigan, East Lansing’s origins date back to the 1850s, when a college of scientific agriculture was established a few miles east of Lansing, the small township that had recently been named the state’s capital. As an outgrowth of the college, East Lansing was incorporated in 1907 and grew in tandem with its larger adjacent neighbor, building a vibrant community centered around present-day Michigan State University. Grand River Road, a Native American trail turned early wagon route traversing central Michigan, was expanded in the 1850s to pass through East Lansing and renamed Grand River Avenue. A thriving business corridor and thoroughfare since the 19th century, the historied avenue would in 1999 become the site of the National Folk Festival and its successor, the Great Lakes Folk Festival, directly across from the university.
In the early 1980s, MTAP folklorists began producing festivals featuring traditional arts from Michigan and the Great Lakes region. In 1987, they presented the first of what would become the annual Festival of Michigan Folklife, which brought together over 75 musicians, storytellers, and crafts demonstrators. Following the city’s application and selection by the NCTA as host city, the Festival of Michigan Folklife was folded into the 61st, 62nd, and 63rd National Folk Festivals, presented from 1999-2001. All three years of the National were enormously successful town and gown affairs, notable for bringing together around 90,000 locals, members of the university community, and visitors in East Lansing. With special emphasis on regional traditional arts, the three-day, free event on Grand River Avenue infused nearly $2 million into the city’s economy annually.
With the National’s move to Bangor, Maine, following the completion of the 63rd annual festival, the MSU Museum’s MTAP debuted the Great Lakes Folk Festival in 2002, carrying on East Lansing’s tradition of showcasing the cultural treasures of the Upper Midwest alongside national and international artists on Grand River Avenue. The free, three-day annual celebration boasted 4-5 stages and nearly 100 performers as well as storytellers, craft and traditional foodways demonstrators, children’s activities, a crafts marketplace, and even a community jam and sing-along. In 2018, following the festival’s 15th and final year in 2017, several of the organizers produced a smaller local event in a similar spirit: the Lansing Eastside Folk Festival. The culminated legacies of the Festival of Michigan Folklife, the National Folk Festival, and the Great Lakes Folk Festival are deeply rooted, and continue to find expression and community support in East Lansing.
American Folk Festival (2002-2019)