The National Folk Festival: Success Stories From Around the Nation

Changing locations on a three-year cycle, the National Folk Festival has been held at 13 sites since the NCTA adopted the current host-city model and is now entering its 80th year: Peninsula, Ohio; New York, New York (one year for the Bicentennial); Lowell, Massachusetts; Johnstown, Pennsylvania; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Dayton, Ohio; East Lansing, Michigan; Bangor, Maine; Richmond, Virginia; Butte, Montana; Nashville, Tennessee; Greensboro, North Carolina; and Salisbury, Maryland.

Lowell, Massachusetts was host to the 50th National Folk Festival in 1988.

The National’s thriving offspring include such popular annual events as the 37-year-old Lowell Folk Festival in Massachusetts, the 34-year-old Flood City Music Festival (formerly the Johnstown Folk Festival) in Pennsylvania, the 19-year-old Richmond Folk Festival in Virginia, the 16-year-old Montana Folk Festival in Butte, and the 9-year-old North Carolina Folk Festival. Festivals have typically experienced a doubling or even tripling of annual attendance within a few years, and have an annual economic impact in the range of $15-30 million.

The city of Lowell, Massachusetts, where the National was held from 1987-89, expected a significant drop in audience after the last year of the National and was surprised by a 20% increase that put it on the front page of The Boston Globe and improved fundraising despite a recession. The Lowell Folk Festival, now in its 37th year, remains one of the best-attended folk events in New England, attracting 150,000+ annually.

80,000 visitors hail Bangor debut… the once-neglected strip of riverside property exploded with a vibrancy that locals only could have dreamed of years before… a magical moment, elevating both spirits and pride as the community proved it really was capable of pulling off an event of such grand scale.

Bangor (ME) Daily News

Host cities both large and small have achieved notable successes. In its first year, the Dayton, Ohio festival (1996) attracted more people to its downtown than had ever gathered there before. National Folk Festival attendance in East Lansing, Michigan (1999–2001) grew from 75,000 in the first year to 125,000 in year three, and laid the groundwork for the Great Lakes Folk Festival. In Bangor, Maine, one of the smallest cities ever to host the National, attendance increased 70% between 2002-2004, from 80,000 to 145,000; its successor, the American Folk Festival, continued to draw the crowds in this range. The 69th National Folk Festival in Richmond attracted a record 175,000 in 2007, a figure consistently surpassed by its successor, the Richmond Folk Festival, which drew 220,000+ in 2019. In Butte, Montana, 165,000 attended the 72nd National Folk Festival in 2010, a number equal to 13% of the state’s entire population; surveys calculated its economic impact in southwestern Montana to be $31 million. The new Montana Folk Festival continues this success. In Greensboro, North Carolina, host city for 2015-2017, attendance increased from 103,000 to 162,000 over the festival’s three-year stay. Yet attendance and economic impact alone do not comprehensively measure success; the quality of the experience is central. Public feedback consistently affirms that attendees find the National Folk Festival both an exciting and a deeply meaningful experience.

The National Folk Festival has provided the impetus for creative-sector growth, for the enhancement, re-imagining, and re-purposing of public spaces in host communities and for building community. It is credited as a prime mover in the transformation of Lowell, Massachusetts from an economically depressed mill town into a desirable and culturally vibrant community. The American Folk Festival was the catalyst for turning Bangor, Maine’s once rubble-strewn riverfront into an activity-filled space that is now a major attraction. In Butte, Montana, the festival effort sparked the transformation of an abandoned historic mine yard into a spectacular outdoor concert venue, and has helped to build this historic city’s reputation as a heritage tourism destination. The Richmond Folk Festival fostered a new, inclusive spirit of community that annually brings Richmonders, along with many thousands of visitors, together along Richmond’s historic downtown riverfront. 

The NCTA is still involved in the presentation of successor festivals in three former National Folk Festival host communities: Lowell, Massachusetts; Richmond, Virginia; and Butte, Montana. But local partners have taken over much of the work of producing these events—as planned.

Click through the menu below to learn more about the NCTA’s flagship event.