Those who attended this year's folk festival would be hard-pressed to describe major differences from past years, despite the festival's recent transition from the National Folk Festival to Bangor's own American Folk Festival. And that, says Heather McCarthy, was precisely the point.
"One of the biggest challenges of the transition was getting the word out that the festival was going to remain the same," she says. A commitment to continuing the celebrated event, which draws more than 100,000 people annually, has given Bangor a new cultural staple-and McCarthy a rewarding career.
As executive director of the American Folk Festival, McCarthy supervises an infrastructure of 1,200 people involved in bringing music to the waterfront each August. During the festival, 775 people volunteer to do everything from hand out programs to take down staging. These volunteers are directed by 35 coordinators, who in turn report to McCarthy.
The work, she says, does not end with the festival itself September and October are "cleanup" months, used for writing reports, meeting with the press, and wrapping up festival business. "By November, we've already started meetings for the next festival," she says, "working with the city, the programming committee, and with food and craft vendors."
While the festival team is now its own entity, complete with two full-time staff members and its own board of trustees, it began as a program of the Greater Bangor Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) in 2000. At the time, McCarthy worked for the bureau as its marketing director, but when Bangor won the bid to host the National Folk Festival for three years, McCarthy began working full-time for the folk festival.
Few women can claim they are key figures in creating a $5-million economic impact for their region over three days, and McCarthy says she is proud to be working for the benefit of the Bangor region.
"Like a lot of people in Maine, I feel a strong tie to where I grew up, to my community," says McCarthy, who now lives in Hermon but was raised in Houlton. "That's what I think the festival is all about: community manifesting itself in the arts."
Before working for the Bangor CVB, McCarthy spent 15 years at the radio station Q106.5, doing everything from announcing to copywriting. Her experiences there, she says, gave her the chance "to become very vested in the community and introduced me to the entertainment industry."
McCarthy, whose home was "full of music growing up," learned at a young age to appreciate music. "My father was a radio disc jockey when he was younger," she explains. "There were LPs and eight-tracks all over the house." The festival has opened her eyes to new genres. And when she gets the chance to walk the festival grounds, her most rewarding moments are watching others experience that same discovery.
"It's wonderful seeing so many thousands of people revel in the festival-in the music, in the food, the traditional crafts-people just drinking in this event that we have created."
Whatever the future of the festival, McCarthy is proud of its current success. "I hope the festival continues to be true to the mission of sharing authentic and traditional arts with the community," she says. "However we have to do that, I hope it never strays too far from those roots."