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Connecting people across the world: Reflections at the end of the Folklife Festival


Marideth Sisco looks back on her recent trip to Washington, D.C. for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills. Y’know, I was saying to a friend just a few days ago – about the 2023 edition of the Smithsonian Institution’s Summer Folk Life festival – It could have gone wrong in so many ways.

And it did, from the odd and often arbitrary rules and regs of the park service (no tents could cross the driplines of any trees - really?), to the set-your-clock regularity of the afternoon thunderstorms that sent us running for the shelter of the museums.

And the even more niggly things, like the over zealous volunteer who wasn’t going to let another volunteer have dinner because he arrived late and his name wasn’t on his badge. It came out ok. Someone else stood up for him. Or the night Tina Wilcox, creator of those beautiful raised beds and classical portrayer of the Widder Wilcox on stage, came down with Covid and some kitchen person insisted she come down and get her own dinner, right there in the middle of everybody. Someone came to their senses and took it to her.

But, except for those small niggly things, the festival itself soon became its own organism, a seamless amalgam of creative artistry, cultural depth and richness, and a joyful recognition of our deep commonality.

We Ozarkers came literally from all over - Susan from Maryland, Chris from Tucson, Rachel from Fox. And Tom Peters from Meyer Library, driving a 24-foot long Enterprise rental box truck with all our stuff , from my books and CDs to Bo Brown’s plant books and literally dozens of mature plant specimens that were lovingly transferred to the newly created framed raised beds, and shown, and tasted and tended (and watered by the daily rainstorms) and then two weeks later were uprooted and driven back to be replanted in their Ozarks homes. Such concern was given for their exposure to the heat of the box truck in transit that they made the entire return trip riding in the cab with Tom.

Many of the folks with whom we spent those two weeks were familiar faces, others we’d never previously known. But we were all family, or quickly became so. Missourians, Arkansans, Oklahomans and other Ozarkers quickly bonded over the rich combination of homegrown music, plant remedies and sour mash. Oh yeah, about that - nobody knows for sure how it happened or who okayed it, but somehow an entire working distillery in the wilds of North Central Arkansas got dismantled, packed up into another box truck and driven to DC, with the owner and driver looking over his shoulder the whole way.

”I couldn’t help but be scared every time I crossed a state line,” he said later. "I kept envisioning a state trooper pulling me over and wanting to see into the back of the truck.”

Someone interrupted his account with the suggestion that he’d only have to contact the Smithsonian folks and they could clear it up. Nick laughed and gestured across the room to where Pablo Molinero- Martinez, the Ozarks program coordinator, was sitting.

“I can see it now - hey officer, I can explain everything. Here, let me let you talk to Pablo!”

Everyone laughed, including Pablo. As the days wore on, we became better acquainted with each other, and gradually got to know the folks better who were on the other side of the mall in the Creative Encounters area - the Hmong, the Vou-Don, the Hindus, the Sikhs, and they with us. Were sharing all our meals after all.

And then the sweetest thing of all - on the very last night, at our very last meal together - the Ukrainian girls who had been raising the roof all week on large stage and small, stood up at dinner and serenaded us. Then a Mexican girl stood with her guitar at another table and sang to us all. Then a Hindu man, and on and on until all the other tables had spoken.

Last, the Ozarks folks stood at their tables and sang “Will the Circle be Unbroken” right back to them. It was just lovely.

And that wasn’t all. The instrumentalists adjourned to the hallway outside, brought out their instruments and began a jam session. Others gathered around, and soon here came the Ukrainians, towing along a wiry lad with a button accordion, and the music sped up. Then suddenly, almost as if orchestrated, Nathan McAllister and Willi Carlisle leapt from their seats, put down their instruments and held out their hands, and a whole bevy of watchers became dancers, and we, by God, taught them all, including the Ukrainians, to square dance. Now if that’s not a fine end to a festival, I don’t know what is. I wish you coulda been there. There are several performances that were live-streamed and are still up on the festival web site. Look ‘em up. They’re sure to provoke a smile.

Thanks to too many to name and the Smithsonian’s vast generosity and grace in hosting us, we all came away the richer, and grateful for it. What a gift was this experience. We did our darnedest to make these Ozarks hills proud of who we are and what we’re about. I can’t imagine we could have done any better. Thanks for listening.

Marideth is a Missouri storyteller, veteran journalist, teacher, author, musician and student of folklore focusing on stories relevant to Ozarks culture and history. Each month, she’s the voice behind "These Ozarks Hills.” Sisco spent 20 years as an investigative and environmental writer for the West Plains Quill and was well known for her gardening column, “Crosspatch,” on which her new book is based. Sisco was a music consultant and featured singer in the 2010 award-winning feature film “Winter's Bone.”