Music for a troubled time: Arcadia Folk Festival works to be a model for environmentally sustainable music events

  • Bonny Light Horseman, a folk trio formed a few years ago by Josh Kaufman, left, Eric D. Johnson and Anaïs Mitchell, headlines the Arcadia Folk Festival. CONTRIBUITEDSPACEBOMB GROUP

  • California-based singer/songwriter Sunny War will play at the Arcadia Folk Festival. Photo by Florencia P. Marano

  • The Massachusetts string band Twisted Pine, known for its instrumental chops and unconventional approach to bluegrass music, comes to the Arcadia Folk Festival. Photo by Blake Hannahson

  • Reaching for the top: Singer-songwriter Ali McGuirk brings her soul-flavored tunes to the Arcadia Folk Festival on Sept. 17; her first album with Signature Sounds will be out soon. Photo by Ben Collins

  • Brett Dennen, who’s had several hits sings on the Adult Alternative (AAA) radio chart, last year released a new album appropriate for our time: “See the World.” Photo courtesy Signature Sounds

  • Northampton’s Heather Maloney, who released her first live record this summer, comes to the Arcadia Folk Festival. Photo by Carly Rae

  • Members of the all-women group Ladama perform at the 2021 Arcadia Folk Festival. Photo by Sabato Visconti/Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 9/9/2022 1:02:15 PM

If ever there was an appropriate year for a music festival designed to raise awareness of environmental issues such as climate change, 2022 is it.

After months of weather-related disasters all across the globe, the Arcadia Folk Festival, which takes place Sept. 17 in Easthampton, aims not only to bring people together to hear a variety of acoustic music but to serve as a model for how a festival — an event that typically generates mounds of trash and uses gobs of energy — can be run along sustainable lines.

The festival, a co-production of Signature Sounds and Mass Audubon now in its fourth year, will be staged at Mass Audubon’s Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. As in past years, the lineup features a mix of regional musicians and those from further afield, as well as a range of environmental education and nature activities, including craft projects for children.

Highlighting this year’s festival is a newish folk group, Bonny Light Horseman, whose eponymous first album was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2020. Members Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson and Josh Kaufman have all had success on their own, most notably Mitchell, a Vermont native who turned her 2010 album “Hadestown” into an award-winning musical of the same name. Mitchell, who also played at the 2019 Arcadia Festival, won a Tony award that year for best original score.

For his part, Kaufman, a multi-instrumentalist, has played with musicians including Taylor Swift, Josh Ritter and Bob Weir and produced albums with some of them. Johnson, another multi-instrumentalist, is a singer-songwriter and the founder of the folk-rock band Fruit Bats.

Bonny Light Horseman’s music, a mix of arrangements of traditional British folk as well as some originals, “is hauntingly beautiful,” says Peter Hamelin, live music director for Signature Sounds and the producer of the Arcadia Festival. “Their album really helped me get through that first year of the pandemic.”

Also part of the lineup this year are local heroes Cloudbelly, Kimaya Diggs, Heather Maloney and Carrie Ferguson, along with a number of other artists with Signature Sounds connections: the multi-faceted New England string band Twisted Pine, up-and-coming soul singer Ali McGuirk, and California-based singer-songwriter Sunny War.

McQuirk will shortly release her first album with Signature, “Til It’s Gone,” and Maloney released her first live record earlier this summer with the label, “No Shortcuts | Live at the Academy,” a disc recorded at Northampton’s Academy of Music a few years ago. And Bonny Light Horseman will release their second album in October.

“We’re catching some of these artists at an exciting time in their careers,” Hamelin said.

Hamelin also says the festival likes to feature musicians who share concerns about climate change and other environmental issues and try to find ways to lessen their own impact on the environment. “We like to work with artists who appreciate what we’re trying to do with the festival, and I think we’ve been pretty successful with that,” he said.

Music and sustainability

Jonah Keane, Connecticut River Valley Sanctuaries director for Mass Audubon, notes that the Arcadia Festival “is not just an opportunity to hear some great music in a beautiful setting, it’s also a way of showing that we can put on an event like this in a sustainable way.”

For instance, power for the sound system comes from solar arrays on site that Arcadia uses for generating electricity for its own buildings and programs. If bad weather limits how much electricity can be taken from those panels, Keane notes, power can be drawn from other renewable sources via the Green Energy Consumers Alliance.

Solar power has been a component of past Arcadia Folk Festivals, but this year some other green components have been added to reduce the event’s footprint further — and to respond to the larger issues driving climate change.

For instance, food vendors this year are selling only plant-based products, Keane says, a recognition that meat production is a big producer of the greenhouse gases behind climate change.

“We’re not trying to say you have to say goodbye to meat or cheese,” he said. “We just want to provide an example of things that can be done on a basic level to reduce our emissions.”

In addition, to make the festival a “zero-waste” event, food vendors will serve their products with compostable or reusable utensils and dishware, and no bottled water or prepacked food will be sold. Tap water will be available, and attendees are advised to bring their own water bottles — and to pack out whatever trash they might generate, like hikers in a wilderness area.

Keane says the wildlife sanctuary and Signature Sounds are also encouraging people to bicycle to the festival if they can (Arcadia is located close by the Manhan Rail Trail), in part by providing a free valet service from the festival parking area to the music stages about a half-mile away. About 200 attendees biked to last year’s festival, Keane said, and organizers hope to raise that number to 300 this year.

The festival debuted in 2018 in part to recognize Arcadia’s 75th anniversary and to draw attention to the work it does year-round as a wildlife preserve and environmental education center. Hamelin says it wasn’t clear then if the festival would become a yearly event, but its popularity has since convinced Signature Sounds “that we’ve really hit a chord with this — we want it to continue.”

The festival has also served as an important fundraiser for the Arcadia Sanctuary. Last year’s festival drew 1,500 people and raised $25,000 for the center, Hamelin noted, “and this year we’re hoping to push that to $35,000.”

Attendees are encouraged to hike the sanctuary’s trails, and this year there will be another inducement to do that. In addition to the two main stages at the event, a third, smaller one has been added in the woods along one trail, and the performers and the schedule there will be announced at the beginning of the festival.

One other thing: The 2022 Arcadia Festival is passing the torch a bit to a younger generation of musicians. One of the performers is 10-year-old Louie Phipps of Northampton, a singer and songwriter who plays ukulele and guitar. In early 2021, Phipps released an album that, with the help of his father, he recorded with contributions from an array of professional players here in the Valley and elsewhere.

Phipps, a fifth grader at Northampton’s Bridge Street School, will perform at Arcadia with support from Valley musicians Anand Nayak and J.J. O’Connell.

“Louie’s the real deal,” said Hamelin. “I think he’s got a great musical future ahead of him.”

For more information on the Arcadia Folk Festival, visit arcadiafolkfest.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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