The Korolenkos make the music happen at the New Bedford Folk Festival

The New Bedford Folk Festival, celebrating its 25th birthday, has earned an international reputation for its unique musical offerings. And the couple behind the music has been doing it since the beginning.

“It’s very gratifying … We’re amazed,” says Alan Korolenko, who along with wife Helene has been involved since the festival’s start.

This year’s event, set for Saturday, July 9 and Sunday, July 10, benefits from the organizational prowess of the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center. But the musical lineup is compiled by the Korolenkos, who have watched it grow all these years.

With approximately 3,000 expected ticket sales, the festival is a significant economic catalyst for the city. It draws thousands of additional visitors thanks to the inclusion of more than 80 vendors with quality crafts and food.

Alan recently spoke about the evolution of the New Bedford Folk Festival, what makes it special, and the benefits it brings to the city.

New Bedford Light: What was the genesis of the New Bedford Folk Festival?

Alan Korolenko: First there was Summerfest, which we became a part of after being involved with the steering committee for the Eisteddfod Folk Festival at UMass Dartmouth in 1987 and 1988. Summerfest was looking to upgrade and they substantially expanded the budget with the goal of upgrading the music and making it a higher-quality event. 

Developing a festival, especially with a genre that is not pop — like doing a jazz festival or a classical music festival — takes time to catch on and spread the word. I asked if they wanted to hire a headliner, like Tony Bennett, but they were very specific that they wanted the concept that Helene and I had developed. And so the concept of bringing a multi-stage folk festival was brought about. 

Today there are seven different music venues at the event. It’s unique for a folk festival to be outside with coverings for the audience, and we’re blessed to have the Zeiterion Theater as well. 

We have a South Coast stage where we have the best talent of folk musicians from this area, and we have an intimate location at the Whaling Museum. There’s a very nice venue at the Seamen’s Bethel where we do a “Meet the Performer” event. The performers not only present their music, but they answer questions, they talk about their music … So we’re trying to bring an intimacy to the experience that you don’t often get. 

NBL: What are the ingredients for the success of the Folk Festival? Why has it blossomed? Why are you where you are now?

AK: I can tell you what the festival is and I can tell you how pleasantly amazed I am that it has become as generally popular as it is. I really wasn’t sure that a folk festival would catch on in the area, but it did. 

I read somewhere that the New Bedford Folk Festival [does] what the Newport Folk Festival used to do — mainly having a mixture of traditional and contemporary musicians. Having the workshops that combine styles such as Celtic music, bluegrass, blues, French Canadian, and other genres, you have spontaneous situations going on throughout most of the two days. It makes for a classic folk festival. 

And then having a quality crafts show — not a flea market, although there’s very affordable crafts for people to look at and buy — and then of course there’s quality refreshments and food. 

But most of all, we have New Bedford itself. We do all of this in the downtown area and the National Park, the unique and wonderful atmosphere which even the Newport Folk Festival doesn’t have. And we present the music to people. It’s just a rare way of experiencing music. So I think all of that comes together, and apparently enough people like it so that they come. So we’re glad.

If somebody had told me in 1996 that we would be doing our 25th Festival in 2022, I would have asked what drug they were on. It’s absolutely the most gratifying thing. Just the people at the Zeiterion, they’re working so hard, the whole staff. This is a huge event and they’re putting so much effort in, in addition to all the other things they do. They’re so supportive, so positive about the event itself. It’s very gratifying for me and Helene. We’re amazed.

The audience fills the Whaling Museum Theater during the New Bedford Folk Festival. Credit: David W. Oliveira / The New Bedford Light

NBL: The workshops are such a key facet to the festival’s success and popularity. Could you describe to the uninitiated what a workshop is and the virtues of them?

AK: I’ll start with what it isn’t. It sounds like a scholarly thing that you get a test on, but that is not a workshop. The Folk Festival workshops, in simple terms, are shows that combine artists who’ve never played together before, putting on a performance under a given theme. There may be three, four, or five different acts on stage together at the same time and we say: “Here’s the theme.” And they go with it. We designate someone to be the leader in the workshop to keep it somewhat structured, and then off they go. When you have all these first-rate musicians in New Bedford on the same weekend, it would be unfortunate not to put them together. It’s a treasure.

Each workshop is between 75 to 90 minutes. Oftentimes these workshops become collaborative with the extreme talents and abilities of these musicians. It’s like jazz musicians who can jam with each other. It’s the exact opposite of classical music, a style I love, which is playing just what is on the page and how the conductor wants it. This is much freer and spontaneous. It’s when the magic really happens. The musicians talk briefly and off they go. It’s just miraculous.

NBL: What is it like for people to be up close to the performers?

AK: My up-close experience came from being exposed to folk music at the Eisteddfod festival at UMass Dartmouth in the 1980s. It’s just a different experience. You see some of these musicians and you shake your head and say “How do they do that?” We had a fellow coming down from the Maritimes, J.P. Cormier, who’s been at the Festival a couple of times, and to watch him play the guitar while he’s flat picking is miraculous. When you’re up close you can really become a part of the music. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s just different. It’s not like sitting back in a big concert hall or watching somebody on television. At the festival you’re there and you’re part of the experience, so the music takes on a different dimension.

NBL: How has the Festival evolved beyond the music? What do people enjoy about the experience in addition to the music?

AK: I think it’s the general atmosphere that the city brings to it. We have a musician that moved to New Bedford because he came here to play and loved it. It has had an impact on the city. It has had an impact on the businesses in the city. And there’s also an impact on the audience. Whether they go to the Whaling Museum or see the Seamen’s Bethel, if they come to one of the “Meet the Performers” events — the National Park Headquarters — it’s a lovely area. The festival is more than the music. It’s the total experience.


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NBL: How does the event represent New Bedford? What are the benefits for the city? What do visitors discover about New Bedford? How does it market the city to outsiders?

AK: When we first got involved, one of the things I said to the steering committee was “Whatever you do, you want to do the highest quality. Because that’s what raises the reputation as a whole.” 

So maybe you can’t afford big celebrity acts like Bob Dylan, but what we’re getting is the highest quality of this kind of music, which has an impact on the city’s reputation. There was a recent article in the New York Times about the good things happening in the city, and we’re part of that.

One of the reasons Helene and I have continued with this and have enjoyed it right from the beginning is not just to put on the event, which is fine, but we’re doing something for the city. We’re able to do something positive and bring people into the city. All of a sudden there’s thousands of people milling around, including the performers. They want to go into a restaurant and check out the stores. I’m sure it has a positive effect on the businesses. It certainly can’t have a negative impact. 

We’re not the be-all-end-all that represents the city, we have so many other festivals —– the Cape Verdean Parade, the Portuguese Feast, the Jazz Festival. So we’re a part of that. The city is becoming known for the visual and performing arts, and that brings people to the city as tourists who may want to live here or settle down here. 

I’m still waiting like everybody for the rail service that they’re planning for. I think it’s going to make a big difference. 

And I think all of the emphasis on the arts really does help. I think it helps the morale of the people who live here. It’s part of the quality of life in the city and that’s important and special. So the festival is all part of building and maintaining high morale, which the arts do.

NBL: The Folk Festival has a reputation for being very affordable. Why is that?

AK: When I was growing up in New York City, I lived in Brooklyn and I used to go into Manhattan. There was a wonderful concert series in Central Park. They had the biggest stars. I can remember concerts with Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, and Louis Armstrong. The concerts were $1, or 50 cents for the bleachers. I really loved them and saw so many musicians that I knew. They were outdoors and there would be 4,000 people at each concert. 

Years later, when Helene and I were putting together the proposal for the Folk Festival, we wanted to keep the price reasonable, so that as many people as possible could come and get a ticket and enjoy the whole thing. Now we’re with the Zeiterion and the prices they have set for tickets is quite low compared to many other festivals where just a general admission ticket is a hundred dollars or more. So the Folk Festival is really accessible to the community and anybody else that wants to attend. 

Plus, much of it is open to the public — the crafts, the South Coast stage, which features the best folk and acoustic music in the South Coast — and you can hear some of the music from the outdoor stages. You don’t necessarily have to go in. You can sit outside at Custom House Square and listen. We’re keeping it as accessible to the public as possible, particularly the people from the city.

NBL: You mentioned the South Coast stage with many different local performers. What in your estimation is the quality of local music, and does it allow audiences to discover artists they can enjoy year round at other local venues?

AK: The answer is yes. We’re delighted to have this performance area that features the locals. The quality is first rate. We set it up right in front of the Zeiterion and there’s tables and chairs, there’s food, and people can take advantage of that. I watch the audiences’ reactions and they’re superb. I think it definitely exposes a substantial number of people to the incredible talent we have. Even the most famous performer is local to somewhere. Every local area has their talent. We have ours, and it’s a pleasure to present them.

Sean McCarthy is a freelance writer and correspondent for The New Bedford Light.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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