Music festival keeps toes tapping at Mielke

Charles Collier Leader Correspondent

Photo by Charles Collier Dorothy Zerbe, left, plays a duet with Bonnie Bell during the 40th annual Shawano Folk Music Festival. The two had met a handful of days before the festival and, at Zerbe’s request during Back To Shawano Part II on Sunday, Bell joined her friend on the unplugged Shawano stage.

Dozens of musicians from around the world were scattered throughout the wooded trails of Mielke Park in Shawano last weekend, all taking their respective stages in the 40th annual Shawano Folk Music Festival.

The festival has always been a celebration of folk music and the kinship it entails, and for longtime attendees, performers and organizers, that made celebrating four decades of folk all the sweeter.

“It’s been some of the best music around,” said Pat Wiley, a singer/songwriter and jack-of-all-trades musician from Clintonville.

Kay Kangas, of Oshkosh, has been involved with the festival for 25 years as a vendor selling intricate wood-burning pieces, ranging from elaborate Celtic knots to playful dual-colored cribbage boards. Though the number of craft vendors has declined in recent years, Kangas and her colleague, Michele Harrell, said that the Shawano pitch is a favorite in their cycle of yearly events.

“Every year, I meet people from all over the world here, and you couldn’t ask for better setting,” Harrell said, gesturing to the surrounding woods.

Shuffling atop freshly wood-chipped trails between old oaks and maples just off the lakeshore certainly did make for uniquely peaceful treks between the festival’s four main stages; it felt almost like a family reunion at a lake house and the neighbors happened to come over with some guitars and other instruments.

“It’s a people’s music, and its message reaches out and connects with just about everyone on some level,” said Pat Schwenke, a Shawano-based songwriter and part of the festival’s 20-member planning committee.

This was the second festival in which Schwenke played an organizational role, but she began performing there 18 years ago — proven by a necklace tucked under the collar of her shirt. The collection of festival pins from each year she has performed is a metal bouquet on par with a janitor’s keyring.

Adding her 18th pin to the necklace, Schwenke said that she has “never seen such large crowds as this year.”

The event recently began inviting up-and-coming authors to share their works in print and oratory, their booths intermingled on the trails with craft vendors like Kangas’ Smiling Otters, most of them draped in wafts of patchouli and lemongrass from a display of handmade soaps.

Growing attendance and variety of offerings should water upbeat optimism, and for the most part that was exactly the theme of Shawano’s mindset this weekend. But the future is always in motion, and traditions continue only if people continue upholding them.

“Rounding up volunteers is always the hardest part,” Schwenke said, of organizing the weekend’s activities.

Schwenke volunteered for seven days to help prepare food for different camps ahead of Friday’s kickoff. Even an hour or two helping set up chairs or doing similar tasks would help lighten the load, she said.

“When it started, there were a lot of younger people with their families (organizing and volunteering),” Kangas said.

Now 40 years in, the same dedicated support still exists. Whether the trend continues remains to be seen, like the art songwriting itself, is in the hands of today’s young adults.

On Sunday afternoon, Wiley offered his argument for retaining the trope of singer/songwriter in American culture as he performed a 20-year-old song only recently revisited.

“It’s an old song, but it’s new to me,” he said about the self-described love song, “Mountain From West Virginia,” which he wrote as an old-style country western biography of his father shortly after his passing.

Finding the inscribed paper while sorting through years of family storage, Wiley revived the piece as a spiritual gift in celebration of his first grandchild’s birth. As he played the tune Sunday, a group of local — and “almost local” — musicians chimed in with freestyled auxiliaries.