North Georgia Folk Festival brings music and memories to Athens | Arts & Culture



Saturday in Athens meant football and folk music. The North Georgia Folk Festival has returned for its 37th year celebrating folk music, art and tradition.

The Athens Folk Music and Dance Society hosted the festival at Athens’ Sandy Creek Park on September 24. Doors opened at 10:30 a.m. and the music started at noon with the Rebecca Sunshine Band. The festival catered to all ages, with local art vendors, demonstrators, potters, food trucks and children’s activities in addition to musical performances.

The AFMDS canceled the 2021 festival, and held it virtually in 2020 due to the pandemic. Tommy Jordan is co-director of the festival with Claire Campbell. Jordan has been with the festival for over 15 years and is looking to pass the baton to Campbell for years to come.

The value of folk music and culture was celebrated through the festival.

“Our definition of folk music isn’t just Peter, Paul and Mary and Pete Seeger, it’s a range of music – singer-songwriters, individual fiddlers, acoustic groups…” Jordan said.

This year, Jordan’s hope is for people to celebrate the folk community and the community of Athens as a whole. “Most people come to enjoy each other’s company and to enjoy the music. It’s always been this really nice family affair,” Jordan said.

Upon entering the festival, onlookers were greeted with happy smiles, laughter, dancing and occasionally a four-legged friend. The welcoming spirit contributed to the pleasant atmosphere of the festival. The generational impact of the North Georgia Folk Festival has seen it as a homecoming for the Athens community.

The festival honored co-founder and renowned artist Art Rosenbaum, who passed away earlier this month. One hour of the festival featured various speakers and musicians to honor Rosenbaum’s life. The festival cover is a portrait of Rosenbaum, drawn by his wife Margo Newmark Rosenbaum.

Campbell shared a close bond with the Rosenbaums as a neighbor. “Everyone is very upset about it, but I think it went as well as it could have gone…Margo wanted everyone there. Everyone wanted to pay tribute,” Campbell said.

A number of speakers and artists who worked closely with Rosenbaum shared their stories and memories of him for the tribute. The tribute included contributions from his wife, son Neil Rosenbaum, Hog-Eyed Man, The Around the Globe Sea Shanty Singers and others.

Art Rosenbaum holds the titles of artist, folklorist, musician, educator, friend and Grammy Award winner, among others. Through his involvement with both the festival and as an art teacher at UGA for 30 years, it was evident that Rosenbaum’s unforgettable impact had touched many hearts.

In front of the main stage was a memorial book where people could pay their respects in writing to Art Rosenbaum. His legacy is sure to live on.

“[Rosenbaum] helped make the festival what it is today,” said Jordan.

Margaret Frey has been attending the festival for years. The Athens native described her experience as a child at the festival, participating in activities such as pressing apples to make cider and applesauce. Even as an adult, Frey returns to Sandy Creek Park for the event.

“It definitely opens you up to new experiences. It’s also a great place for local artists,” Frey said.

Nelita Willey was another participant of the festival. In previous years, Willey performed with his father as part of Joe Willey and the Movin’ Men. This year, Willey led the children’s activities tent, but as an adult, it’s the music that brings her back.

“It is important to keep this type of culture alive. It’s the positive. You don’t want to lose the positive. There is an attitude of really wanting to welcome people into the space and the community of all identities. Everyone is welcome,” Willey said.

Frey was accompanied by her friend Sadona Thompson, friend and newcomer to the North Georgia Folk Festival. Thompson is an avid folk music listener. “There’s a kind of peace and wholesomeness about it,” Thompson said.

The same excitement from customers can be seen with salespeople. Charlie Mustard attended on behalf of Jittery Joe’s roasting plant in Athens. Even as a vendor, Mustard benefits from the festival every year. “You can tell how tight-knit everyone is. You get that and you get a bunch of new people,” Mustard said.

Richard Daniels contributed to the production of the festival and doubled as an actor in The Lucky Jones.

“One of the things we hope to see over the next couple of years is nurturing the next generation of young people…Tommy passing it on to Claire definitely moves us in the right direction,” Daniels said.

“I want to continue the traditions they already have. When you have a lot of modern stuff seeping in, you lose the old traditions,” Campbell said.

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