Nancy Alderman, now President of Environment and Human Health, Inc., was interviewed and provided some information on the inception of folk festivals in Edgerton Park as a fundraising event to support environmental causes.
Edgerton Park had first been used in the 1980s for entertainment in an event called Picnic in the Park, with a performance by the New Haven Symphony. Nancy had been coordinating this event, and was involved in founding the Farmington Canal Rail Trail Association. Funds were needed to support this project, and a folk concert was conceived to raise the money. Although the plan was to have the festival in Edgerton Park, it was named the Eli Whitney Folk Festival because of its proximity to the original Eli Whitney factory.
Among the original committee members were Bruce Llewellyn, an attorney, Steve Winters, of folk radio, Andy Rubinoff, a graphic designer (POSTER), who provided design work for the festival, Janet Hall, of the CT Fund for the Environment, and Paul Spector, a yoga instructor.
The first concert was in 1989 with Tom Paxton. Founders Bank was a major sponsor, and funds were raised from the concert to benefit the Connecticut Fund for the Environment and the Farmington Canal Rail to Trail Association.
1990 featured Arlo Guthrie; 1991 had Tom Rush.
1992 featured Judy Collins: 1993 offered Emmy Lou Harris and the Nash Rambers; 1994 had Peter Yarrow. Then the organization petered out, and there were four years when there were no festivals.
James Van Pelt was interviewed about his role in the evolution of what is now CT Folk. Referring to what I learned from Nancy Alderman, he said, “Nancy had the contacts, and Paul Spector made it happen.”
In December, 1998, Andrea Jovin, a Yale student, was murdered. James and his wife Jane briefly saw the murderer fleeing the scene, but were unable to identify the murderer. When they drove by the scene the next day, Jane had the idea that the Eli Whitney Folk Festival should be revived to change the energy in this area. That was the motivation.
Then some Yale students called a meeting at the New Haven library . James and Jane joined as participants. wanting to add positive energy. They met at Yale and the Eli Whitney Barn, It looked like the students would not be able to pull it off. James met with Paul Spector and and Nancy Alderman.
Fundraising: became an issue. There was a reception held prior to the festival to raise funds. James went to neighborhood leadership – they were not supportive. They wanted to forget about Jovin. The Yale community support person said that official Yale policy should be to not draw attention to it.
They needed funding, a star act, publicity, and a ticketing system. James decided to use the internet, which was very controversial because nobody trusted using credit cards on internet – no precedent for this.
The street banner was first in CT to advertise a website. The organization was originally called CT Folk, but they got a tax exemption by becoming member of North American Folk Music and Dance (Now Folk Alliance International) – and an alliance was formed between the community and Yale. So, the name became New Haven Folk Alliance. First they produced the Eli Whitney Folk Festival, later changed to New Haven Folk Festival. Bob Congdon, past president, (may have) changed it to New Haven Folk. They did not want to call it CT Folk Festival, so as not to offend Sounding Board, Branford Folk Society, and other established folk organizations.
They needed a headliner, money, connections to community. One of Jane’s clients (she was a massage therapist) was a high official at Citizen’s Bank – they set up a meeting. James had used his technology skills to prepare a flip chart presentation, and their proposal was approved.
James and Yale students were initially working with the Rail to Trail organization , but the head of that organization, Dick Lyons, asked that they not be connected with Rail to Trail because it was March, and he knew that level of commitment would not work for students. A public meeting at a church on the green drew 50 people, and an ad was placed in the Yale Daily News for other student help. Luke Bronin (now Mayor of Hartford) applied, and became the student coordinator (called himself festival director – not really accurate, but it helped him advance – he became a Rhodes Scholar) Another student, Liz Saunders, showed up to help, and together they did a great job.
James and Jane realized that they would have to do more leadership to make it happen, because students were into other things. Jane was flipping through record albums, and saw Odetta. They thought she would be a perfect headliner. The students wanted Dar Williams, who was not touring at the time. But the students wanted her, and she agreed to perform.
They had support of the local organizing group, and they secured a bank sponsor. Jane felt the festival should be supportive of the local business community, because a huge mall was proposed where coliseum had been – the unions for it for the construction jobs, the Mayor was for it – but downtown business were very against it. They learned that Dar Williams had a song about how malls are attacking downtown merchants – it became very political.
James said, “If you are going to do something that everyone thinks is impossible, you need a series of miracles.” They had support, and a headliners, and people doing background work.
James did computer work for progressive organizations. Was at Al Marder’ s house. He had just gotten big grant (from the state dept of tourism?) for the development of Freedom Trails. They had a Hartford event, and needed New Haven event, but needed to have minority entertainer – and they had Odetta. He then did all the publicity – posters, bus cards. Local business all bought ads – this became their event about how the mall needed to be defeated. Jane told Coleen Campbell, then owner of Dava, a boutique in Hamden, who wrote her a generous check, and then volunteered to coordinate the ‘vendor village’ Then Jane talked to other people to form a board, to bring back folk music into New Haven and start more frequent folk concerts – we became First Fridays so as not to interfere with Branford’s Saturday concerts.
Branford was meeting in a church. Jane talked to Reverend Bill Gettler, of First Presbyterian Church. The Folk Friday events still take place there.
James’s client Bob Congdon (he had a band, and liked music) worked at Methodist home in Shelton, and then joined the board. They needed a booking committee, so asked Meredith Tarr and Rob Woiccak., who were hosting house concerts in their home.They decided the booking committee should be separate from the board.
Initial efforts were frustrating because the internet was not what it is today – It was difficult to communicate with people.
Jane started dealing with the city to determine who is responsible for what tasks. The city wanted to charge all the money – Al Marder stepped in and met with board of alders, who were supportive of the folk organization.
Jim Burzinski was to be the producer, but stepped down. Jamie Burnett was doing Shakespeare in the Park, but was able to work on lights and sound. He is still involved today.
Ticket sales were really difficult – It was hard arranging ticket outlets. Robert Messore was great on publicity – he drove all over the state putting up posters. He was also on booking committee.
Frank Panzarella had a band called Crow’s Feet. Frank took over afternoon stage preparations for the festival. He also coordinated the monthly concert series, bringing artists such as Pierce Campbell, Shipping News, David Roth, Patty Larkin, Mary Gauthier, Richard Shindell, Modern Man, Kate MacDonnel, Oscar Brand, Peggy Seeger, Tracy Grammer, Greg Greenway, Trina Hamlin, Richard Shindell, Jean Ritchie,Brooks Williams, a Phil Ochs Tribute, and many more.
For the first festival, James also wanted a poet and comedians. They were booked for the afternoon – it only happened once! Then they replaced that with a children’s concert.
They did not know if they’d get 300 or 3000 people – they got about 600 sales. The students arranged shuttle bus from Yale – hundreds of students came up and walked back. The CT Freedom Trail was a big part of it. September is CT Freedom Trail month. The purpose of The Freedom Trail (not formally authorized by The CT General Assembly until 1995) is to bring a greater appreciation for the Experiences and contributions of CT’s African Americans.
The 1999 festival made $10-12,000. Everything was in place to do this again. Al Marder called James, and said he had a friend called Berneice Reagon – She sang with Sweet Honey in the Rock in the 2000 festival.
1999 – Odetta, Dar Williams
2000 – Sweet Honey in the Rock, Dave van Ronk (in a concert on Friday night – separate crew: Meredith, Robert, at First Presbyterian)
2001 – Tom Rush, Nanci Griffith, who was then on Billboard’s top 10 – The concert was 9/14/01 .They had an avalanche of phone calls asking if the concert still on. This was their third year. They didn’t have a minority entertainer, but still wanted to bring all the groups together. James proposed a Freedom Trail march through the middle of the folk festival. They included African Americans, Palestinians, Jews, women, members of the LGBTQ population. They had about 1000 people. Amy Gorman coordinated. James wrote lyrics to the tune of Oh, Freedom. They looked for lanterns carried by slaves making their way up underground railroad, and ordered them from Sturbridge village. After 9/11 had happened, singing Oh, Freedom took on very different meaning. He led everyone in singing America the Beautiful and Last night I had the Strangest Dream. Donnelly Colt showed up with huge banner with the Ghandi Quote “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
2002 – Tom Rush, Eddie from Ohio, and Vance Gilbert. It was now a 3-day festival, with the Friday night song circle (named Grassy Hill Song Circle after a major sponsor), the Saturday festival, and an open, no-amplified song circle on Sunday led by Pierce Campbell. The hoot continued through 2013.
2003 – John Gorka – They tried to do something not in the park, but in Trinity Church on the Green. Only about 400 people attended. The name changed to the New Haven Folk Festival.
2004 – Arlo Guthrie– rainstorm. 700 people
Barbara Manners from Ridgefield became involved, and took over booking. Also started using Southern CT as venue. This was not successful as a main venue, but worked as a rain venue in 2007, when Judy Collins performed.
The concerts continued in Edgerton Park. They were ticketed until 2012, when it was decided to offer a non-ticketed festival. It was observed that for an outdoor festival it was difficult to sell tickets in advance, and funds were already committed to pay for performers, stage, tents, etc. That was the year of tornado warnings. Cheryl Wheeler, set to headline, did not come to the festival, was presented in another concert a few months later. Pesky J Nixon Band and the Stringfingers band performed for a small, wet crowd in the Eli Whitney Barn.
In 2016 a beer tent was added.
Coleen Campbell spearheaded and directed the Green Expo component of the festival, beginning in 2005, and eventually, the festival itself. Nicole Mikula took over as festival director in 2016.