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By Peter Vankevich
For the first time since it began in 2000, the Ocrafolk Music and Storytelling Festival has been canceled due to concerns with the continued march of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) across the United States.
The cancellation, though disappointing for many reasons, is not surprising as most of the world and country, including North Carolina, suffers in some form of lock down with stay-at-home orders.
Ocracoke was officially closed to visitors on March 19 when the Hyde County Board of Commissioners declared a state of emergency. It is not known when the island will reopen.
“Everyone whom I have communicated with has been understanding,” said the festival’s executive director, Dave Tweedie, on Saturday. “We will refund to those who have already purchased early bird tickets, and some contacted us to say keep it as a donation. Likewise, the performing artists have been on board with the decision.”
The final selection of the artisans who applied for a space had not yet been made.
Although a press release notes that if public gatherings are cleared by Saturday, June 6, Ocracoke Alive would consider hosting a free community concert that day. Tweedie wasn’t optimistic today based on the worsening daily reports of the spread of the disease.
Several people who have been involved in one way or another with Ocrafolk over the years, while expressing regret and feeling sad about the decision, understood it was the right thing to do. As a consolation for not being part of the festival, they shared their reminiscences.
Ocrafolk Festival is special
Absent a pandemic, Ocrafolk has many unique qualities not found in most outdoor concerts. The program, held the first full weekend in June, includes a variety of music, storytelling, square dancing and clogging. Regional artisans set up shop along the roads to sell their crafts and there’s even a paper hand puppets parade.
Sunday mornings feature a gospel sing prior to the two island church services at 11 a.m., then resumes at 1 p.m.
A special concert called Ocrachicks, includes all of the women performers, sometimes on their own and sometimes jamming with others, often for the first time. The host has been Marcy Brenner over the past couple years and before that, Lou Ann Homan.
For many, the best is saved for last on Sunday afternoon when all the performers get on the stage for a final jam. This improv works amazingly well despite the fact that many on the stage had never performed together. The talent of these musicians is such that they pick up the “vibe,” as John Golden describes it, and pull it off with great vocals and a multitude of musical instruments.
On stage and off
Many performers over the years have said Ocrafolk is their favorite venue, and a loyal fan base, many of whom return from year to year, says the same. Its appeal for both is, in part, the small size. The two stages have a total seating of less than 1,000 chairs. It will never grow into a Woodstock or the MerleFest that takes place in late April in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains (also canceled). Island access by ferry and limited island lodging ensures it will continue this way.
But it’s more than just the intimacy of the setting. The Live Oak stage at Books to Be Red has a canopy of aesthetically striking cedar trees. Some swear this makes the performances sound even better. The smaller stage at the Village Craftsmen requires a short walk on the historic and sandy Howard Street, passing many artisans selling their crafts.
This would have been the festival’s 21st year. The first event began in 2000 as a modest outdoor concert on the Berkley Manor grounds. The following year, it moved to its current locations. In a bit of irony this year’s festival would have returned to the Berkley Manor due to the village infrastructure damage wreaked by Hurricane Dorian.
“We were hoping that this year’s festival would be a celebration of the island returning from Dorian,” said Gary Mitchell, the festival’s founder and member of the Molasses Creek contemporary folk band.
In the late 1990s, Mitchell and Bob Zentz were returning to Ocracoke on the Cedar Island ferry after having filmed a Zentz performance in Beaufort. Mitchell told him how he would like to have an outdoor concert for the community. Zentz, who had not only performed at countless outdoor concerts, but also had experience in organizing them for 15 years, got fully on board. “That’s a great idea for the folks. Let’s call it Ocrafolk,” he chuckled in recalling how it got its name.
Zentz is noted in his hometown area as the person who “put the folk in Norfolk.” For nearly 25 years, his Ramblin’ Conrad’s Guitar Shop & Folklore Center was the unofficial folk center of Virginia’s Tidewater region. There, one could buy acoustic instruments, traditional music recordings and sheet music. It was also a concert venue where many of the world’s finest folk musicians performed.
While he has performed at all of Ocrafolk Festivals, Zentz developed and coordinated a unique feature of the festival — a musicians’ workshop stage in a large tent on the Methodist Church grounds. It permits performers to interact at eye level with their fans, who can ask questions.
“What makes Ocrafolk special is how I have made so many friends over the years,” he said.
“Going back each year is like a high school or family reunion. It has such a homey feeling; even on the stage I feel there is not a separation between us (the performers) and the people watching.
“These are people who are not strangers in any way and they come for the right reasons and you can’t say that for every festival.
“I feel a sadness for everyone who worked so hard to be able to host the festival after Dorian, only to have this virus come along, but it’ll get better and it’ll happen again.”
John Golden has been both a performer and host/emcee for the stages.
“I missed the first one but have been involved with all of them ever since,” he said. Golden has written songs about shipwrecks, pirates and other themes of eastern Carolina. He has recorded many CDs over the years, starting in 2000, in Gary Mitchell’s recording studio. Some of his favorite collaborations have been with islander Martin Garrish.
“I feel like it’s one of the most unique festivals in the country,” Golden said. “The way the audience has developed and how loyal they are to keeping the festival going. (The fans) adjusted to the financial realities.” He is referring to the festival that started as free, but a few years ago, facing serious economic realities, transitioned to a ticketing system.
“It always has a good vibe. When the few times that it rained, the audience just hung in there and I expect the same thing to happen,” he said. “I think it’s valued so much as a musical experience and… a little adventure of going to an island and enjoying its ambiance. So, I expect that that it is going to continue.”
Jef Lambdin when he sports his game face, transforms into Jef the Mime. He has had a hard-to-miss presence at the festival almost since its inception. Multi-talented, he can be seen — but not heard — performing on the stage as a mime and juggler. When off stage, he can be seen stilt walking or on a unicycle weaving skillfully down the road. When not performing at fairs and festivals throughout the region, Lambdin spends much of his time running workshops on a variety of performance arts themes, including mask theater. He instructed Ocracoke students in melodrama and circus skills at an Arts Week program sponsored by Ocracoke Alive a while back.
“Although I will miss seeing all of our Ocrafolk family, I fully understand that sometimes the show must not go on” he said in a written message. “This is one of those times that we, as a community, must make strong choices which reflect how much we care for each other: festival attendees and performers. So, let’s take a deep breath, stay sheltered-in-place, and look towards a Victory Celebration in June of 2021!”
For Rob Sharer, a member of Craicdown that describes its music as world “acousticana,” the festival and the Ocracoke have a spiritual connection.
The trio has performed for years at the festival. He has made many island friends over the years, particularly with Lou Castro and Marcy Brenner of Coyote fame. For the past few years, he would remain on the island after the festival to do a special Coyote Plus One concert at the couple’s Coyote Music Den on the harbor at the Community Square. Sadly, the building was devastated by Dorian, but Coyote has plans for a new location.
Sharer was so distraught by seeing the suffering and lost homes from Dorian that he and Craicdown members David DiGiuseppe and Jim Roberts organized a fundraising concert, Music Folk for Ocracoke, in October in the historic Carolina Theatre in Durham.
The well-attended event raised more than $15,000 and featured Ocrafolk alums Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba, the Chatham Rabbits, Joseph Terrell and Libby Rodenbough of Mipso. Jonathan Byrd and the Pickup Cowboy also performed. Byrd had played with Fiddler Dave Tweedie on Ocracoke some years ago and was scheduled to perform at his first Ocrafolk Festival this June.
In an emotional moment towards the end of the concert, Sharer announced that Tweedie gave him the go ahead to announce the Festival would go on in 2020.
“It’s certainly understandable in light of what’s happening these days, that it would be canceled,” he said. “The festival is the highlight of my performances every year.”
Louis Allen is a familiar face and voice to many over the years. He who has served as the host/emcee for the stages and occasionally has played with his bluegrass band Warren, Bodle and Allen.
His connection to Ocrafolk is a friendship dating back to 1968 with Gary Mitchell. They even played together briefly in a blue grass band while college students.
Allen has a tough day job as the federal public defender for the Middle District of North Carolina in Greensboro where he oversees 11 attorneys.
“Ocrafolk is one of the highlights of my year,” he said. “I love telling stories and this gives me the opportunity to share them.
“It must have been tough for Gary and the others to make the decision to cancel, but better to do it now than later. I’m curious about what Ocracoke and North Carolina will be like in a year,” he said in light of the pandemic.
Carter Whitman, of Andover, New Hampshire, has planned his vacations on the island for the last several years around the
festival. He was so enthralled two years ago with Omar Ruiz-Lopez and Lizzy Ross, who perform as Violet Bell, that he managed to get them bookings in his home state.
“I was expecting this and understand,” he said about the cancellation. “Everyone has to do their duty now and stay at home. I’m particularly disappointed this year since I stretched my stay to attend the Firemen’s Ball (Memorial Day weekend), the festival and the WOVV Women’s Arm-Wrestling tournament (scheduled in mid-June).”
For Mary Rocap, of Cedar Grove outside of Hillsborough, “Ocrafolk is one of the anchors of our year and one of the many reasons that keep us coming back the first weekend of June,” she said about herself and husband Tom Prince. “It is a loss for us, but more so a loss for the Ocracoke community. I am glad for the many years of precious memories we have. And how those memories ever linger, how they ever lift my soul.
“We need a hefty dose of soul lifting these days. The memories will have to suffice this year. We look forward to its return next year.”
Tweedie, in a final note of optimism, said in the press release that next year’s Ocrafolk Festival is scheduled for June 4 to 6.