By any other name, a spring festival would smell as sweaty, as greasy and as delicious. And around
this time of year, they're as plentiful as the thunderstorms, the daffodils and of course, the dogwoods. It may be too bold to say that spring festivals run through people's veins around these parts, but we certainly have a past dotted with them, and lately they've been as abundant as ever. The tradition of the Dogwood Arts Festival, the novelty of the Ska Festival, the culture of the Rossini Festival and the social-consciousness of EarthFest, each promotes a palpable sense of community, and all within the same month.
The right festival can take a physical toll on you. You'll not be scheduling a doctor's appointment by the end of it (unless we're talking Bonnaroo here), but a well-organized local festival will have the soles of your feet throbbing from the sandal-pounded pavement and your tummy grimacing as it perseveres to process your choice mixture of funnel cake, beer and veggie burrito. Your ears will long recall the speaker you stood directly next to as you yell, "Huh? Do what?" in the direction of your honey for the umpteenth time that day.
By any other name, a spring festival would smell as sweaty, as greasy and as delicious. And around Knoxville this time of year, they're as plentiful as the thunderstorms, the daffodils and of course, the dogwoods. It may be too bold to say that spring festivals run through people's veins around these parts, but we certainly have a past dotted with them, and lately they've been as abundant as ever. The tradition of the Dogwood Arts Festival, the novelty of the Ska Festival, the culture of the Rossini Festival and the social-consciousness of EarthFest, each promotes a palpable sense of community, and all within the same month.
Dogwood Arts Festival
It's an oft-told tale, but an important one to the fate of our sensitive city. In 1947, travel writer John Gunther wrote a book in which he gave Knoxville the unflattering superlative of "America's ugliest city." Much like the girl who got voted "Most Likely to Put Out" by her senior class, Knoxville immediately set her jaw against such an accusation, lifted her skirts haughtily and rushed off to disprove the misinformed Gunther.
Betsey Creekmore was one woman particularly indignant about Gunther's observations. After all, she found Knoxville strikingly beautiful—the varied architecture, native plants, hospitable people. In 1949, Creekmore and others proposed to the local beautification committee that a dogwood trail be created to display the city's natural beauty.
Many households worked in unison to right their jilted city, logging time in their yards to plant dogwood and azalea, redbud and flowering crabapple. But mostly just lots of dogwood.
The first "trail" opened in 1955 and wound through one of the city's most treasured neighborhoods, Sequoyah Hills. A year later, the next trail opened in Holston Hills, and 50 years later, the circuit is still expanding. Trails through Oak Ridge and Knoxville's historic Fourth and Gill neighborhood have been blazed this year, marked by dotted pink and green lines along the streets. There are now more than 60 miles of trails.
"I don't know of any other city in the world where homeowners spend hundreds of hours working on their yards, and then say to anyone and everyone, 'Stop and come in and take a picture and see what I've done with my home and my garden.' It's a wonderful kind of commentary about the kind of people who live in Knoxville," says Betsey Creekmore, daughter of the late Betsey Creekmore.
Five years after the first trail opened, the Dogwood Arts Festival had its opening day and would go on to become the grandest festival in Knoxville history.
Though events like the dog and horse shows are no longer part of the repertoire, the Gay Street parade (this year on April 16) remains. Other favorite events include the Market Square bluegrass competition (April 17) and the crafts marketplace in the Krutch Park extension (April 14-17).
Because there are hundreds of events, something will likely appeal to every citizen in Knoxville. The schedule is most easily accessed at www.dogwoodarts.com .
"I like it all," says Creekmore. "If they have a little carousel, I'm apt to ride it. And the children are apt to laugh at me."
This year marks the 50th anniversary for the trails and the 45th anniversary for the historic festival, which welcomes more than 250,000 people annually, 50,000 from outside Knoxville. The festival is said to earn $10 to $13 million for the local economy each year.
Still, some argue that the festival has become too widespread, that events loosely tied to Knoxville are too easily sanctioned as part of the festival; after all, there are separate celebrations in Oak Ridge, Maryville, Fountain City, Farragut, Market Square and Holston Hills, each with dozens of events.
"We celebrate well in this area, and we do arts and culture well," says Creekmore. "Dogwood Arts Festival is a wonderful panoply of nature and arts, of what's available in Knoxville.
"I take a great deal of pride in that. I get out and drive these trails, and I think mother's probably sitting with me in the passenger seat saying, 'You know, you need to tell them to turn their lights on.'"
The Dogwood Arts Festival runs April 8-24.
The Fat Lady Sings
In its fourth year, Rossini Festival planners don't fret that this year will mark the festival's first go round without help from the Dogwood Arts Festival. That is, other years had the two festivals run simultaneously—with Dogwood Arts held over on Market Square, while Rossini waged on Gay Street.
Knoxville Opera's Chyna Brackeen says that though Rossini's aromatic food often lured Dogwood Arts folks to Gay Street, she's not worried about a decreased turnout. In fact, planners expect 40,000 people this year. After all, 35,000 showed up last year, 25,000 the year before that, and 6,000 the first year.
This phenomenon all started with Francis Graffeo's stint as maestro for Central City, Colo.'s opera company. Graffeo, Knoxville Opera's general director, fell in love with the summer festival held there; people spilt out of the operas onto the streets in a profusion of conversation and color and food. Graffeo wanted Knoxville, and its opera scene, to experience a similar Italian street fair. After he brainstormed in passing to Knoxville Opera board member Sandra Monroe Trout, she called him and told him she wanted to stand behind his idea as a founding sponsor.
"It snowballed from there," says Brackeen. "We were just hoping for anyone to show up."
The festival was named for prolific composer Gioacchino Rossini because Brackeen says, "We didn't think we'd ever run out of operas to perform." Each year one of Rossini's operas is performed at the festival.
This year's festival showcases three operas—one full length, and two one-acts. Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment premieres in the Tennessee Theatre, while the Bijou houses Rossini's The Marriage Bill and Robert Ward's adaptation of an Edith Wharton short story "Roman Fever." Each year the operas have sold out, and Brackeen says remaining tickets are very limited.
Though the opera serves as crust of the festival, its filling is the vibrant street fair that will be held Saturday, April 9 up and down the closed-off Gay Street.
"It's very, very colorful. We have red, white and green—the colors of the Italian flag—everywhere. People are shoulder to shoulder, but everyone's really happy about it," says Brackeen. "It's really amazing how much people adore this festival."
Interestingly enough, 115 years ago, Knoxville threw a similar shindig called the June Festival. Held primarily downtown, this modest city's fest attracted some of the biggest names in opera and classical music (Emma Juch, Adele Aus der Ohe, Jules Perotti, Victor Herbert and Giuseppi Campanari). Bellowing voices boomed from Gay Street and Elmwood Park, later renamed Chilhowee Park. And, many of these reputable artists performed songs by Rossini, who created some of the world's most-performed operas before his death in 1868.
In 1889, The Knoxville Journal declared the opera-infused June Festival a success, saying that it was "nothing commonplace, nothing ordinary; everything was exquisitely beautiful and superlatively grand." And so should the Rossini Festival be.
Shuttin' Down the Old City
Ben Altom's one of those fellows who bounds up life's steps like it's no sweat. But he's also a guy you don't have to fumble around to be happy for; he absolutely deserves it. He's so lively and nice that he convinces the most disinterested of people to get revved about ska music. He'd likely convince your Bacharach-lovin' granny to come out and shake her withered rump at his ska festival. He could probably even get Osama and George to cut a rug together.
Though the 22-year-old Altom single-handedly instigated and assembled Knoxville's Ska Weekend, he remains unflinchingly humble about his many accomplishments. About last year's festival, he says, "We survived the whole day, but when that last band started playing, I looked around Market Square and thought, 'Man, I don't know how in the world I did this. I pulled it off.'"
Altom's currently applying the final touches to his third Ska Weekend, which will kick off on April 30.
With all his effort, the youngster has generated a reputable ska music scene and recruited musicians and fans from all over the United States to come out to the Old City. "If you look on the message board on skaweekend.com, we've got kids from everywhere, Michigan, New York, Florida, that have already booked flights and hotels in Knoxville," he says.
The stout Altom, nicknamed Big Ben, is a music major at UT who got his first ska CD (The Mighty Mighty Bosstones' Let's Face It ) during his days at Powell High School. He hasn't looked back since, putting together his first band as his senior project at Powell. "I started the band, promoted the band and basically built it up to where we were making money, and I was able to graduate," he says.
In college, Altom picked up on ska rockers Reel Big Fish, and tightened and reworked his own band, dubbing it Perfect Orange. Altom then went about whittling out a much, much bigger place for ska in Knoxville.
He's created the East Coast's largest ska festival right here in Knoxville. But first Altom says he had to "train" Knoxvillians about ska." (For those who may be unfamiliar with the genre, it originates from Jamaican dance music. It was the impetus behind reggae and rocksteady, has now become somewhat intertwined with punk, and is classically drum and horn heavy.) "When we started playing, there wasn't any ska at all [in Knoxville]. I mean, we were it," Altom says. Though he readily admits that Perfect Orange was anything but perfect at first, he swears that his band "sounds really good right now."
His desire to incorporate ska in the local music scene sent Altom looking for other ska bands he might woo to Knoxville. The first "festival" was relatively tiny, held in a Powell coffee shop with the participation of seven or eight bands.
Last year's festival "blew up" into 17 bands, which alternated every 25 minutes on one stage in Market Square. Approximately 1,000 people attended the event, seeing to it that 2,400 pounds of food and $600 in donations were raised for Second Harvest Food Bank.
Altom says that this year's festival has "snowballed into a big debacle, but it's going to be fun shutting down the Old City for a day."
Indeed. Jackson Avenue will be closed off to accommodate 26 bands jamming at three stages. Each attendee is asked to bring five cans of food for admission.
"There's no way for the show to flop," says Altom. "Everything's in the cards for it to really roll. Keep your fingers crossed."
Pick Up After Yourself, Boy
Knoxville isn't exactly lauded for being an earth-conscious city. Our town is among 10 others in the nation with the worst air pollution and was also recently added to a list of the top 20 Tennessee cities with the worst water quality.
Granted, our location doesn't help; we're on the crossroads of three major interstates, and our bowl-like topography encourages pollution to puddle, figuratively speaking, right here. Also, "solid waste is an issue that we deal with a lot, since we live in an area where it's so easy and cheap to take things to the landfill, it's hard to get people to recycle," says Shara Hart, recycling coordinator for the Knox County Solid Waste department. "People just throw litter our of their cars and don't think anything about it."
That's why it's 10 times more important for Knoxville to have an annual EarthFest than most other cities. We need an education. We need to be leveled with. And with the Bush administration punching holes gratuitously through laws that protect against pollution, we have to take things into our own two hands. It's like Jewel said: Your hands are small, she knows, but they're not hers; they are your own.
Because air quality stands out as our area's biggest environmental problem, the theme of this year's festival is "Clean Air: The Pressure is On."
Seventy-five vendors have already booked tables and booths at the sixth annual EarthFest, to be held in World's Fair Park April 23. Exhibits will inform adults and children alike about recycling, composting, alternative fuel vehicles, green power, and many other topics.
But having ridiculous amounts of fun is also a priority. Modern bluegrass act Acoustic Syndicate headlines the event at 7:45 p.m. and the dreadlocked Natti Love Joys are on hand to regale you with their reggae, along with a plethora of local musicians.
At the end of the day, Knoxville's festival planners envision that each of us sinks back into our sofas and erupts with the same collective thought bubble: "My city is so much cooler than I ever imagined!" Or, "Here I am, with cat whiskers painted across my cheeks, powdered sugar spewed on my T-shirt, tipsy at only 5 p.m.!"
Or something along those lines, depending on whether the festival serves its sweet tea spiked, or not.