Around these parts, Mother’s Day means more than breakfast in bed or a bouquet for mom. It means get your dancing shoes on and be ready to make a May crown – it’s Folk Fest time!
This is the 22nd Annual Gays Mills Folk Festival of Music and Dance, so perhaps you’ve been to it before and have some idea of what to expect. If not, here’s what you can expect.
Folk Fest kicks off each year on Friday night with a square dance in the Gays Mills Community Building on Main Street. So on Friday, May 9, callers Tim Jenkins and Sue Hulsether will lead dancers of all ages and experience levels though circles, squares, contras and reels to the music of the Folk Fest String Band.
On Saturday, May 10, organizers have lined up three acts for the evening concert—the Norskedalen Trio, Marc and Brandi Janssen, and Jack Klatt and the Cat Swingers.
The Norskedalen Trio hails from the Westby area. The trio’s fiddler and main vocalist Tilford ‘Tip’ Bagstad grew up in the valley that is still his home. His wife of over 50 years, Eleanor, plays the piano. She was born and raised near Rockford. Completing the trio is Lois Olson, originally of Whitehall, playing accordion and providing some vocals.
The band offers up a variety of “old-time, new-time, country, and Scandinavian music,” said Tip. And when he says old-time music, he doesn’t mean just music from the early part of the century, he is referring to the polkas and schottisches that came over with their Norwegian immigrant ancestors.
They like to mix it up a bit, changing what they play according to their audience. Their repertoire of 300+ songs are meant for dancing and it’s not uncommon for Ole and Lena jokes to sneak into a performance.
All three have been playing music for many years, though Lois joined the trio only four years ago. She is the third accordion player the group has had, losing one to declining health and a second when she relocated after joining the ministry.
Tip first picked up the fiddle in 1982. He taught himself by ear, learning by listening to tapes made of old-time fiddlers at fiddling contests throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Within two years, he was bringing home awards of his own.
Both Eleanor and Lois learned piano, when they were young. Lois picked up the accordion, when her youngest child was still small over 40 years ago.
They play regularly at Norskedalen Nature and Heritage Center in Coon Valley, which Tip and Eleanor have been involved with since its inception. They also play for area nursing homes, senior centers, and the LaCrosse Visitors Center.
The group was one of six chosen to perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. to celebrate the sesquicentennial of Wisconsin in 1998.
“Rick Marsh from the Wisconsin Fine Arts Board came to Norskedalen when a bus group was there, it happened to be a group of about 60 Watkins salespeople,” Tip recalled. “When we got all said and done, he was out in the hallway dancing with them. He said, ‘I’m not the judge but I think you may want to pack your suitcase to go to Washington D.C.’”
They were recorded by Smithsonian Folkways for the project and selected from over 100 groups as representing an identifiable traditional community and producing work of high quality, representing their community’s cultural aesthetic values.
The trip also included an appearance on the Michael Feldman show, which was moved to the nation’s capitol and broadcast from the Museum of Natural History for the festival.
The three maintain a connection to the music of the area and fellow musicians. They played not long ago at the nursing home where fellow local musician Ethel Lerum is staying.
“We play a couple of tunes her dad used to play,” Tip said. The songs date back to the 1920s and her father’s signature piece, the ‘Faye Allen Waltz’.”
When asked what to expect at the folk fest, the three laughed, saying it was still too early for a set list.
“We’ll have some of the old ones,’” said Eleanor.
“Some of the Norwegian schottisches, some waltze, and maybe some yodeling or two,” added Tip.
The three were asked to play a bit for the Saturday afternoon dance party, but they choose to pass.
“Depending on the weather, if we played in the afternoon, we might not be in too good of shape for playing in the evening,” Tip said, citing age as a cause for slowing down a bit.
For those who enjoy the trio at Folk Fest and want to hear more, they can catch them the following weekend at the Syttende Mai kickoff breakfast and afternoon old-time music show in Westby.
Following the Norskedalen Trio are Marc and Brandi Janssen. The Iowa City, Iowa based duo offer up old time fiddle tunes, clawhammer banjo, mandolin and vocal harmonies. Their music is inspired by the rural traditions of community music and storytelling.
Headlining the evening concert is Jack Klatt and the Cat Swingers. The Minneapolis-based Klatt’s music has been described as “glorious blues, rags, jazz and hokum from bygone times,” “throwback country blues,” and “retro-barroom blues and folk-picking.”
Daytime events at The Gays Mills Folk Fest are free and take place in the park down by the Kickapoo River.
On Saturday, starting at noon you can bring your instruments and voice and take a turn performing on the Open Stage in the Lions Park Shelter. Open stage runs until 3 p.m. when a fiddle bee takes it’s place, followed by a Polka Party with a live band.
Meanwhile, over at Tent 1, from noon until 1 p.m., you can make May crowns with Mia Sondreal. The May crowns are a favorite of kids and adults alike!
After the May crowns, Ben and Jullee Agar take over the space to teach clogging. The dance style, which originated in the British Isles and their North Sea neighbors, has been practiced in the U.S. since the 1700s and has many regional variations having incorporated influences from other immigrant groups.
Maypole dancing follows clogging. Another old folk tradition, the dancers weave between each other holding a colored ribbon attached to the top of the pole. When the dance ends, the ribbons are woven around the pole top-to-bottom.
A square dance follows from 3 to 4 p.m.
The final group of activities takes place in Tent 2 and is entirely instructional.
Will Kilkeary teaches bones from noon until 1 p.m. While the percussive instruments can be literally made of bone, more commonly they are shaped wooden sticks held on either side of the index finger.
Marc and Brandi Janssen will teach old time instrumental playing from 1 to 2 p.m. and duet singing from 2 to 3 p.m.
Jack Klatt will finish off the Tent 2 events with a finger picking-style guitar workshop.
Wrapping up the festival, as always, is the Sunday morning Gospel Sing, down by the Kickapoo River at 11 a.m.
Prices for the Folk Fest evening activities are $20/person, $45/family for the whole weekend. For more information, check out our website at www.gaysmillsfolkfest.org or call 608-606-4809 or 608-735-4031.