Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What Does Family Friendly Mean? - Essay

The essay below was carried on the Welcome Page of the California Bluegrass Association on Monday and will be included in the festival booklet of the Father's Day Festival at Grass Valley this weekend. I'm flattered that they thought it captured the spirit they seek to embody in this well-known festival. As usual, I look forward to your comments.

Some people give Milton Harkey and Doyle Lawson credit for creating the “family friendly” bluegrass festival out of the chaos of festivals in the 1970's. As nearly as I can tell, the first recognizable multi-day bluegrass festival held in Fincastle, VA over Labor Day weekend in 1965 was a glorious event attracting bluegrass fanatics from as far away as New York to attend. Phil Zimmerman has written an account of his memory of Fincastle which catches the spirit of the event. My sense is that the attendees were a multi-generational group of local Appalachian country people, members of the burgeoning folk/bluegrass community who were making music in Washington Square in New York, practically all the extant bluegrass bands available in 1965, and some people who were on the cusp of forging the counter-culture that would grow and flourish into the 70's. They fit together in this new environment and had a wonderful weekend, which those who were there remember vividly. Somehow, over the next twenty years, festivals increased in numbers and bluegrass bands did, too. The bands were, like the original Fincastle attendees, composed of country people and city billies making, reproducing, and creating a rich musical culture.

The audiences were increasingly influenced by the times and a growing youth culture where so-called hippies, often smoking pot, and motorcycle groups (I hesitate to use the word “gangs”) as well as older and more settled folks warily mixed, or didn't, with each other. There were, perhaps, some incidents and violence, discouraging some people from coming to events where they felt their own safety and enjoyment were compromised as well as that of their children, who they wished to be able to run free in the country for a relaxed weekend of music. Into this environment, at least according to legend, Milton Harkey and Doyle Lawson, at the Denton FarmPark, eliminated the hippies and bikers by cleaning out the drugs and alcohol which many found objectionable. The Family festival was born.

Family Festival became a code phrase for a bluegrass festival where drugs, alcohol, and people who might be seen as “undesirables” were unwelcome. It strikes me that many who were excluded as being somehow undesirable in the seventies and eighties are now grandparents who are eminently acceptable. Visible alcohol is generally viewed as being publicly unacceptable in “family” festivals, although it's been my experience that, particularly as the evening wears on, there's plenty of alcohol being consumed, sometimes hidden in “coozies”, sometimes not hidden so much. There seems to be an assumption that seeing the consumption of alcohol is somehow bad for children. Meanwhile, although fewer and fewer people smoke at all, those who do are increasingly defensive and resentful about their habit that they resolutely light up regardless of the comfort or health of others. Finally, sound levels maintained at many events are so high that they can cause significant and permanent damage to children's ears. We recently attended an event at which the sound was so loud it was obviously painful to dogs near the stage. We saw a woman standing in front of the speakers with an infant on her chest in a baby sling. Could there be anything less child friendly than such loud noise? Can an event where children must breathe secondary smoke and have their ears assaulted by dangerous levels of sound be called “Family Friendly.” On the other hand, must promoters deprive themselves of a significant source of revenue by refusing to serve, sell, and regulate the use of beer and other alcohol in order to be called family friendly?

So what makes a festival truly family friendly? Family friendly means more than making a statement that an event is “Family Friendly.” It requires that festival organizers take positive action to make sure there are activities aimed at children and that the grounds offer a safe and welcoming setting for children. One festival we have often attended sets aside an activity area with games, arts & crafts, and supervision where parents could feel free to leave their children for several hours at a time. Another has a large sand pit (usually a beach volley ball court) where small children play for hours while their parents sitting nearby can still see the stage. We've seen pony rides and inflatable slides or bouncers at several festivals. Festivals held in large campgrounds have a huge advantage here, because they often have swimming pools or playgrounds available. Adding game rooms, basketball hoops, and a swimming pool makes a festival teen friendly, too.

Perhaps the most important elements for making a bluegrass festival family friendly revolve around learning and making music. Kids camps, staffed by willing professional musicians and volunteers serve an important goal in teaching and furthering bluegrass music. It's sad that several festivals we attend have seen their kids camps reduced in size or eliminated in the face of cost cutbacks. While this may aid in meeting the current budget, the long range consequences are fewer attendees of child rearing age and less interest in making music among elementary age and teenage children. While staffing a full-fledged kids camp can require a staff and providing a budget, it turns out to be an investment in music and in attendance. A place set aside for young people's jamming works, too. We recently attended a noted "family friendly" festival where there were lots of kids roaming the grounds, but virtually none carrying instruments.

The promoter's role in all this, besides organizing and providing for functions that make a festival family friendly is to have some courage. Because promoters are reluctant to offend paying customers, they often either don't set standards or are reluctant to enforce those standards they do set. We were at a festival where the emcee announced the “rules” in such a way as to seem to be apologizing for the fact that the promoter had established a few limits. Rules are rarely spoken of when the audience is full. We also attend festivals where security, whether volunteer or police detail, are present and evident. When standards regarding smoking, drunkenness, and rowdyism are enforced, it doesn't take long for those attending to adjust their behavior to the rules. Removing a few people from the grounds will inevitably lead to increased attendance. After all, the vast majority of people attending festivals know how to behave like adults, govern their behavior, and know how be considerate of those around them. It is clear that making a festival “Family Friendly” will result in broader attendance and increased revenues. However, being Family Friendly must always be more than a slogan.