If America can be described as a melting pot, then we are going to need a stronger metaphor for the city of Ithaca. Drawing its population from diverse cultures in and out of the United States, Ithaca is a place where you can encounter cuisine, fashion, and arts from all over the world. A great open-mindedness toward new arts and ideas has made this a place where people have created a unique community. There are few events quite like the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance, just 10 miles north of Ithaca, in Trumansburg, for celebrating and participating in this great culture and community.
“It’s kind of a reunion,” says Dan Swanson, who has been recording musical acts for the festival for years. “So much of it is seeing friends, people who come every year to GrassRoots.”
While the community atmosphere is important, the diversity of music is what lies at the core of the festival. Typical styles originate from Africa, North America, the Caribbean and South America, and within each of those categories there are abundant variants. In just one day at the festival, it is quite likely that you could hear zydeco, Cajun and reggae rhythms, sometimes all wrapped up in the same musical act.
“There are a lot of types of music you hardly ever see,” says Nancy Grossman, also a regular volunteer. Indeed, the closest most people get to the styles at GrassRoots would be the international section of their local record shop.
All of this is performed by an even balance of local and national performers. The distinction between these two categories, however, has been blurring of late. Many of the out-of-town performers return year after year and have been adopted by local music fans as their own. Local bands, meanwhile, have been making their way around the region, the nation and the world. Donna the Buffalo and John Brown’s Body regularly tour the country, while Sim Redmond Band, Sunny Weather and Wingnut, to name just a few, have been traveling further and further from their home bases.
The GrassRoots Festival has been an annual event for 13 years, slowly growing from a small evening concert at Ithaca’s State Theatre to a large, four-day festival encompassing much more than music. The festival was incorporated in 1991, and moved to the Trumansburg Fairgrounds in 1992. Today, the festival boasts over 40 bands on four stages, on- and off-site camping, bus service to the festival, and the opportunity to be entertained practically non-stop from its kick-off on Thursday to its finale on Sunday night.
“There is so much rich music,” says John Brown’s Body’s Nate Silas Richardson, “that it’s like a cultural enrichment. It’s like the harvest of the music.”
While the music is the centerpiece of the festival, family, community and other arts also play a key role. There are abundant opportunities for everyone to participate. On Saturday morning there is a band contest in which any festival attendee may enter. There is a youth center and a healing arts area, where people can experience all sorts of alternative medicines, from massage to acupuncture to reiki. There is also the infamous Art Barn, where local artists display their talents. The outside of the barn is adorned with space for anyone to contribute to a mural which takes shape as the festival progresses. And at any time, amateur drummers take up the rhythms of their instruments, forming drum circles that often last for hours at a time.
While festival-goers are free to pack their own coolers, the food sold on premises is as diverse as the music and art. Several local restaurants participate, bringing a cross section of Ithaca’s cuisine to Trumansburg. Diamonds, a downtown Ithaca eatery, sells delicious Indian food. The Little Thai House, also from Ithaca, serves up pad thai as well as curry dishes. Other offerings include Middle Eastern, barbecue, and pizza made just down the road, at New York Pizzeria in Trumansburg. Last year also featured pirogues and authentic Quaker oatmeal cookies—baked and served by local Quakers.
Another great diversion from the music is the selection of crafts dealers who set up tables on the premises. The only vendors allowed in the gates are those who make their own wares. Even then, the festival organizers pare down the list of applicants to about 25 assorted artists who make such items as candles, clothing, drums, and jewelry.
After a break perusing the crafts or sampling the food, it’s time to head back to the various stages to hear even more music. If you attend year after year, you get to witness the evolution of the local sound, as the very existence of the GrassRoots Festival has changed the face of the music performed there. Bands get a chance to display their talents in front of thousands of people at a time, and
meanwhile, they make connections with musicians from around the world. The various styles have rubbed off, as dozens of local bands have created unique sounds which are their own blends of various American and world styles.
“If GrassRoots didn’t exist,” asks Sunny Weather’s Trevor MacDonald, “how would these bands have come to town?” MacDonald says he first learned about zydeco, the predominant style of Sunny Weather, by observing out-of-town acts performing at the Festival. “If GrassRoots didn’t exist, I probably wouldn’t know about it.”
“It’s been very complementary,” says Grossman. “GrassRoots has helped the local music scene, and the music scene has helped GrassRoots.”
Look at the growing roster of Ithaca-based I-Town Records, and the effect is obvious. Bands in the I-Town collective perform such varied styles as reggae (John Brown’s Body), zydeco (Sunny Weather, Macgillicuties) or some blend of American and African styles (Sim Redmond Band, Oculus). Amy Glicklich, a recent addition to the festival roster, performs chants from various cultures and sings in more than a handful of languages representing five continents. Adonai and I, an off-shoot of John Brown’s Body, is a successful blend of reggae and traditional Israeli folk music.
The festival began as a charity event to benefit local AIDS relief. It has continued to serve the community, though now the funds are used to help a more varied cross-section of local organizations. While still contributing to AIDS-related work, the festival now sponsors local arts as well.
This year, festival organizers have lent their name and their expertise to a group in North Carolina looking to create a similar experience. Also established with the main purpose of supporting local organizations, the Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance, held in early April, included many faces familiar to the Trumansburg Festival. Ithaca bands appearing at the event included Jenny Stearns, Sunny Weather, Amy Glicklich, Donna the Buffalo, Oculus, Sim Redmond Band and the Hix.
According to organizer Leslie Puryear, mother to singer, guitarist, and festival founder Jeb Puryear, the idea was to help get the festival up and running using expertise developed over the past 13 years. With the help of Puryear and dozens of other volunteers, it looks like Shakori Hills is off to a fine start.
The end of the GrassRoots festival does not have to signal the end to summer music. Two similar annual festivals are held within miles of Trumansburg: the Ithaca Festival and the Musefest. Both feature local food, music and the same community spirit as does the GrassRoots Festival. And both are free to the public, though donations are suggested. Ithaca Festival, held the first weekend in June, focuses its musical selections on local talent. There is no camping, but with the purchase of a button or a t-shirt, you can enjoy days of entertainment, from music, to storytelling to juggling. The Musefest, approaching its fourth year in existence, takes place on Labor Day weekend. It is similar to GrassRoots in that it offers abundant camping, but it is also much like Ithaca Festival in that it focuses on local talent. It has quickly grown in size, and Ithaca bands have rallied in support, with 35 bands performing in 2002.
With an abundance of choices out there, there’s no reason not to enjoy some great outdoor fun this summer in the Finger Lakes.
by Mike Levy
Mike Levy lives in Ithaca. He teaches junior high English, plays bass guitar, and writes a bi-monthly column on Finger Lakes breweries and cideries for The Great Lakes Brewing News.