17 Years of Summerfest

It’s hard to believe that so many years have passed since the New Bedford Summerfest established a multi-stage music event in the heart of New Bedford. As the Artistic Directors for the entire 16 years, Helene and I looked back at some of the highlights. How many do you remember?

1996 After several years of presenting a waterfront seafood event, the organizers approve of a multi-stage folk festival with a juried crafts show to be added to the mix. Although still centered on the State Pier, for the first time the festival has two stages and crafts in what is now the National Park. A third stage on the Pier is ‘attractively’ situated on the loading dock and performers determine that the two noisy refrigerated trucks parked near the stage are loudly humming away in the key of G. A carnival and a large seafood tent complement the music. The first Celtic Extravaganza hosted by Scottish fiddler Johnny Cunningham has an audience of just 90 people. Over the years other hosts for this finale include Pat Kilbride, Robbie O’Connell, April Verch, John Whalen, and Benoit Bourque. In 2010 the audience numbers over 1000 people.

1997 Several music workshops are included in the schedule for the first time. The first workshop presented at the Summerfest is “Songs of the Sea” with John Roberts, Lisa Preston, and Jeff Davis.

1998 A dance workshop called “Dancing Feet” is presented for the first time with dancer Sandy Silva, Scottish musician Rory McLeod, the New England group “Fresh Blend” and a trio of musicians from Montreal, Simon LePage, Gaston Bernard, and Benoit Bourque, soon to form the group “Matapat.” Art Tebbetts performs in a workshop “Those Great Old Standards” with the late blues legend Dave Van Ronk. Art still talks about it.

1999 The New Bedford Standard-Times reports that love bloomed at the festival when a proposal of marriage interrupts Christine Lavin singing “Bald Headed Men.” As our groom-to-be was hair-challenged, he specifically waited for that song to pop the big question. His proposal was accepted. The first Sunday morning Sacred Harp sing with Jim and Cindy Bean takes place. Over twenty musicians crowd the stage for the Celtic Extravaganza, which John Cunningham leads every year until his death in 2003.

2000 The Kennedys and a Canadian group, Mad Pudding, are in a workshop together called “Sound Your Instruments of Joy.” Thanks to Pete and Maura Kennedy, the two groups, who meet for the first time on the stage as the workshop begins, musically blend so excitingly for the entire hour, that people refer to them the rest of the weekend as “The Mad Kennedys.” The Kennedys remain a favorite of the Summerfest crowd to this day.

2001 The Boston Globe calls the Summerfest “one of the most exciting and smartly programmed festivals in the Northeast.” The attendance of people from around the nation continues to increase.

2002 The electric folk band Little Johnny England and the Copper Family from Sussex, England, whose songs, sung unaccompanied, date back six generations are in a workshop called “Two Ends of the Same Spectrum.” The workshop perfectly captures the spirit of the Summerfest by bringing together ancient and contemporary musical forms to show their connections. The emotional excitement of this workshop is felt by the audience at the conclusion when 87-year old Bob Copper, the patriarch of the family, gives Little Johnny England’s fiddler, Guy Fletcher the thumbs up. Like other Summerfest workshops, it is a great musical experience never to be repeated.

2003 A workshop “The Greatest Squeezebox Workshop Ever!” brings together Phil Cunningham, John Whalen, Benoit Bourque, and Gareth Turner. Despite a badly swollen right hand from a spider bite given emergency treatment two hours earlier at St. Luke’s Hospital, Gareth leads the workshop and performs beautifully. A concert by Scottish brothers John and Phil Cunningham is one of the last times they perform together.

2004 Good-bye to the State Pier and the carnival. Except for the seafood vendor, the entire festival moves into the National Park. The seafood will move off the pier the following year.

2005 A personal favorite workshop for me is “A Couple of Guitar Players” with Brooks Williams, Peter Lang, and John Renbourn, all led by Raymond Gonzalez. If you didn’t play the guitar, it made you want to learn how, and if you did play the guitar, it made you want to burn it. Fortunately, I had stopped playing years before so no harm is done.

2006 The first of our artist tributes is “God Help the Troubadour: the Songs of Phil Ochs” with John Gorka, Kim and Reggie Harris and Bob Franke among others. Hosted by Phil’s sister Sonny Ochs, it is well received by the audience and paves the way for future tributes.

2007 Benoit Bourque begins leading the Celtic Extravaganza and our first Friday evening concert in many years features Irish singer Maura O’Connell.

2008 Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, a friend of Woody Guthrie and mentor to Bob Dylan, comes to the Summerfest for a Sunday afternoon concert. After several years with six stages, we add a seventh stage, now called The Southcoast Stage, featuring New Bedford area talent.

2009 Art Tebbetts does a fine tribute to folksinger, writer and folk song collector Paul Clayton. Clayton, who lived in New Bedford, was an important figure in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 50s and 60s. He wrote the classic song “Gotta Travel On” and may have been the subject of Bob Dylan’s song “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.”

2010 Festival highlights are the Sunday workshop “Kind of Blue: Jazz, Blues, and Folk” with Chris Smither, Vance Gilbert, Susan Werner, Jeremy Kittel, and Nathaniel Smith and the tribute to Richard and Mimi Fariña with the Kennedys and Caroline Doctorow.

2011 That year featured the return of festival favorites Le Vent du Nord and Cheryl Wheeler, a workshop commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War with, among others, Kim and Reggie Harris and a Celtic Extravaganza with Benoit Bourque and three powerhouse Celtic groups, Vishtén, the Outside Track, and Annalivia.

So thank you for supporting the last 15 years of great music. Helene and I wish you and your family a great musical weekend at this 16th edition of the New Bedford Summerfest.

Which brings us to 2012. Peter Yarrow of the legendary Peter, Paul, and Mary make his first appearance at the festival. The hit of 2011, Zoë Lewis returns as do festival favorites Jeremy Kittel and Nathaniel Smith. Saturday night features Women in Docs, Pete and Maura Kennedy and Zoë Lewis in a musical finale with The Deadly Gentlemen, a show that is sure to be memorable. This is also the first festival to feature Americana Celtic and Americana Jazz. Don’t miss it!


Alan Korolenko
Artistic Director