The world of molecular biology never will know what spectacular breakthroughs were missed when Anne Saunders passed on her doctorate nearly three decades ago.
But music mavens will celebrate their good fortune on Aug. 3-5, 2018, when the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival marks its 30th anniversary in the Berkshires.
This summer ritual for thousands of music lovers — including many regulars from the Folk Project in Morris County — might have sputtered in its infancy if Saunders had not answered a plea to swap her once-a-year volunteer chores for the full-time job of artistic director.
“I would have liked to finish my PhD,” Saunders said last week, between preparations for the big weekend on Dodds Farm, the rolling expanse in Hillsdale, NY, that she and a battalion of volunteers transform into a tent city, R.V. center and mecca for ’round-the-clock music and dancing.
“But if I said no, and Falcon Ridge had died, I always would have wondered, ‘what if?'”
That what-if mushroomed from a modest, single-stage affair with a handful of performers to one of the northeast’s premier music getaways.
This weekend, 37 acts — including Tom Paxton, a Greenwich Village contemporary of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez; John Gorka, the pride of Colonia, NJ; and singer-songwriters Dar Williams and Sloan Wainwright–will star on a main stage and share stories on a workshop stage.
Another stage will cater to kids. Vendors will sell a variety of foods. Dances from contra to swing will shake a tent the size of a football field.
When the stages go dark, the campground will light up, with jam sessions by pros and amateurs at tents that are destinations unto themselves.
“I love Falcon Ridge more than I can even tell you,” said Alan Rowoth, who runs one such tent, the Big Orange Tarp. (Others worth checking out: The Pirate Camp, the Budgiedome and the Stupid Americans Camp.)
Video: Red Molly at the Budgie Dome, Falcon Ridge 2010:
Rowoth, 65, said the spirit at Falcon Ridge reminds him of his first festival, Woodstock in 1969.
“I had never been someplace where people were that warm and welcoming,” he said.
There are differences, of course. Falcon Ridge markets itself as a family outing, not a psychedelic trip.
Its crowd size is a fraction of Woodstock’s, with lots more elbow room. The portable sanitation is much better, and even includes camp showers. Almost everything is accessible for the disabled; most performances have sign language interpreters.
And with the exception of the popular Slambovian Circus of Dreams, Falcon Ridge headliners are mellower than acts at the iconic mudfest of nearly a half-century ago.
Rowoth looks forward each year to the Falcon Ridge Emerging Artists Showcase, a launching pad for folk careers.
Some 260 artists apply for 24 slots, and the audience votes for its favorite three to return the next summer. Heather Aubrey Lloyd, Ryanhood and The End of America are back from 2017.
Red Molly, a beloved roots-music trio, played the Emerging Artists Showcase in 2006.
“I can honestly say that was really the moment that broke it all open for us, bringing the band to the attention of music fans and talent buyers all over the northeast,” said former Molly member Carolann Solebello.
On Friday, she will play the Showcase again–as a 50-year-old solo artist.
“I’m excited to play alongside so many artists who are new to me, and eager to hear what they have to say with their songs. Those folks are the next 30 years of Falcon Ridge — and the folk scene at large — and I’m really optimistic that the music and the magic will continue!” said Solebello, whose 12-year-old son has been attending the festival since he was a baby.
Video: Carolann Solebello farewell to Red Molly, Falcon Ridge 2010:
Vance Gilbert, a singular talent who can wring tears of pathos and laughter from listeners in the same set, has played Falcon Ridge many times.
“It really is home,” said Gilbert, who lives near Boston. “It’s one of those festivals I would go to even if I wasn’t playing.”
The singer appreciates the excellent sound systems there, the easy layout, and mingling with fans.
Although Falcon Ridge can accommodate up to 15,000 people, “it’s still a very intimate festival,” Gilbert said, where performers can get star-struck.
He treasures a shout-out years ago from Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention fame. Thompson was signing autographs after giving “one of the greatest performances by a human being I’ve ever seen in my life,” recounted Gilbert, thrilled to rate an unsolicited “Hey, Vance!” as he strolled by.
Like Saunders, Gilbert studied biology in college. When it comes to chemistry, he considers Saunders both a genius and an enigma.
“I’m often dumbfounded by who she doesn’t hire. For years, she didn’t hire me,” Gilbert said with a laugh. “And then, she did.”
Video: Vance Gilbert plays ‘Zombie Patty-Cake,’ Falcon Ridge 2016:
TREATS, TEARS & TORNADOES
Saunders defines “folk music” loosely.
“We think of it as music for the people and by the people,” she said. “It’s not mainstream, not commercial, though usually it makes its way into the mainstream. The Beatles would be considered folk music today. By our definition, the folkiest music today is hip hop– it’s political, about issues.”
Memorable moments at Falcon Ridge are almost too numerous for Saunders to count.
She cited a day when the husband-and-wife team of Pete and Maura Kennedy, a rocking duo, surprised everyone by donning costumes to delight a kiddie crowd.
In July 2002, Falcon Ridge rallied for a shell-shocked Tracy Grammer, whose vaunted partner, Dave Carter, had died suddenly.
“We had one week to put together a tribute. There was not a dry eye in the house. It was very sad, but also uplifting. It was unforgettable,” said Saunders.
Grammer is returning this week. There also will be tributes to Falcon Ridge favorites David Glaser, Maggie Marshall and Jimmy LaFave, all recently departed.
Saunders experienced a “dream come true” three summers ago when her idol, Judy Collins, sang to conclude the festival. Overcome by heat, Collins left the stage, but returned to finish with Amazing Grace.
“She was a real trouper,” Saunders said.
Video: Judy Collins sings ‘Amazing Grace’ at Falcon Ridge, 2015:
Falcon Ridge survived a costly venue change in 2006, and double disasters in 2008.
The economy tanked. And a mini-tornado roared over the festival, touching down a few miles away. A circus-sized merchandise tent collapsed; a ticket booth splintered like a match box. Sheets of rain turned the parking area to a muddy sea.
Inside a trailer, staffers huddled around a pregnant volunteer, to shield her as best they could.
Miraculously, the only injury was to a security man whose forearm was cut by a hailstone. Yet many wondered if the festival had sustained a fatal blow.
Again, the folk community rallied. Many artists donated portions of their fees or merchandise proceeds. Patrons sent checks. Some $15,000 in contributions covered the damage, Saunders said, and the show went on in 2009– though the tempest frightened away many longtime festival-goers.
One man is returning this year for the first time since the storm, a decade ago, said Saunders, a native of Stamford, CT.
Falcon Ridge exerts such a strong pull on Saunders that she stayed even after her divorce from festival founder Howard Randall in the mid-’90s. They had married early in her tenure there, and they remain business partners.
They are creating a foundation, so Falcon Ridge will survive them. Saunders said she hopes to soldier on for another 15 years or so, and then spend her 80s seeing the world.
Maybe then, she’ll actually have time to sing along at Falcon Ridge workshops, like she once did at bluegrass festivals.
Whatever the future brings, Saunders knows two things never will grow old: Her love for folk musicians — “among the nicest people ever” — and for the people who have come to see them at Falcon Ridge for 30 summers.
“This has been a community,” she said. “A supporting, loving community.”
The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival runs from Aug. 3-5, 2018, Dodds Farm, 44 County Road 7D, Hillsdale, NY. Early-birds can start camping on Wednesday, Aug. 1, and enjoy a farmers market and pre-festival concert on Thursday, Aug. 2. A full-festival ticket with camping is $195. Single-day tickets range from $45-$55; admission is free for children 12 and under. Call 860 364-0366.