At its inception in 1967, the Folklife Festival was conceived as an act of cultural democracy, a vehicle for cultural conversation, and a means of cultural conservation. Held on the National Mall around the Fourth of July, it provided an important forum where Americans and others could explain, express, demonstrate, and perform their cultural traditions. "Back home," the Festival would encourage traditions within practitioners' communities; stimulate cultural research and documentation efforts; boost sales of crafts, music, and food; lead to public recognition by government leaders and the media; increase tourism and economic development; and inspire educational programs in schools. The 2007 Festival continued in that mold, with three programs and the Ralph Rinzler Memorial Concert, dedicated to longtime collaborator Bess Lomax Hawes.
The Roots of Virginia Culture program helped mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. For the nation that subsequently emerged, Jamestown set in motion relationships among Native Americans, English, and Africans. They interacted through war, slavery, and strife, as well as through a growing economy and an unfolding democracy to define, in large measure, American culture and traditions. Musicians, artisans, cooks, boat builders, farmers, archaeologists, and genealogists from Virginia (including its Native communities), England (mainly Kent County), Senegal and Mali came to the 2007 Festival to demonstrate root traditions, cultural parallels, and the ways their expressions and those of later immigrants formed a dynamic American heritage. The work of many scholars and colleagues on three continents enabled the Festival to tell that story, including Jamestown 2007, the Kent County Council, and the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, who supported and guided the program.
Among early immigrants to Virginia were Scots and Irish from Ireland - people who contributed mightily to the new nation. The second program, Northern Ireland at the Smithsonian, focused on the cultural life of those "back home." The 2007 Festival program came at a very important time in the history of the island region. In the months preceding the Festival, leaders of the two major parties, Unionist (Protestant) and Republican (Catholic) had just agreed to form a self-government to help surmount "The Troubles" that had long plagued the region. Music, crafts, occupational traditions, and culinary arts were flourishing. Cultural expressions, often means of resistance and conflict, increasingly came to foster understanding, reconciliation, and the economy. This was particularly evident in a massive arts effort, "Rediscover Northern Ireland," which sought to acquaint Americans with the region. Numerous scholars, cultural organizations (led by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure and the Northern Ireland Arts Council), and civic-minded corporate sponsors came together to design and fund the program, as well as its Washington presence at the Festival. Such public-private partnerships, increased American tourism, and economic investment should help to promote reconciliation and stability.
Similar sensibilities inspired Mekong River: Connecting Cultures, which brought together musicians, artisans, cooks, and other cultural exemplars from Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. The program followed the 3,000-mile river from its highland origins on the Tibetan Plateau through Yunnan Province of China to the delta of southern Vietnam. Many Americans are familiar with the region because of war. But beyond the conflicts are rich, interrelated cultures. Although national identities are important and persistent, ethnic communities are distributed across national boundaries. Occupational and artisanal traditions, such as fishing, farming, and weaving, transcend citizenship. Religious beliefs have inspired a wide variety of performance and celebratory expressions. This is a politically, economically, and culturally dynamic area whose future is increasingly tied to global concerns. Millions of Americans from the region make their home in the United States - in the nation's capital, in Virginia, in Maryland, and in many other states. Americans and other visitors to the Festival were able to learn more about this important region thanks to the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Yunnan Province, China; the Rockefeller, Ford, Luce, and McKnight foundations; and institutional colleagues such as Thailand's Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre, Vietnam's Museum of Ethnology, Cambodia's Amrita Performing Arts, China Yunnan International Culture Exchange Center, and Connecticut College.
The 2007 Festival took place for two five-day weeks (June 27-July 1 and July 4-8) between Madison Drive and Jefferson Drive and between 7th Street and 14th Street, south of the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of Natural History.