A moving moment that year came when McCutcheon, Tom Chapin, and others, with Linda Tilton signing, led the crowd in the grandstand in a rousing rendition of, "The Great Storm Is Over." Everyone in the crowd that night needed a chance to come together, without the bitterness of politics and hate, and sing as one voice.
WICHITA, Kan. - It's in the air along about the middle of August. Even though we're still in the heat of summer, and this particular summer has been brutally hot, an undercurrent signals sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the Walnut Valley Festival, which has taken place in Winfield, thirty-five miles south of Wichita, on the third weekend in September for the past thirty-nine years. This coming Sept. 14-18, forty years of bluegrass will once again fill the Winfield air and double the population of the town for one weekend.
To the Winfield natives and those of us who have attended for most of those years, the Festival is just known as "Bluegrass," as in, "Are you going to Bluegrass this year?" Or people will ask, "Will I see you at Winfield this year?" We know what they mean and, yes, I will be there.
When I moved to Winfield in 1974 to take a teaching job, I knew nothing about the Walnut Valley Festival. The Festival started in 1967 as a folk festival on the campus of Southwestern College, according to Wikipedia. By the time I got involved in the festival in 1976, it had moved to the fairgrounds and was drawing a huge crowd.
My involvement came about as a convergence of events, including finding myself single again and meeting a woman who became one of my long-time best friends at a singles gathering. I had gone to the gathering thinking I might meet a guy to go out with. I met "the other" Diane instead, and we got together for coffee the following Saturday. I found out she was also newly divorced and had two sons close to the same age as my three boys.
An outgoing woman, Diane knew practically everyone in Winfield and she became my entrée into a certain level of single mother social life there. We had a great time together, and still do. Diane worked for the Festival and asked me if I would like a job there. All I had to do was work a certain number of hours and my ticket would be paid for. Even though I had never attended the Festival, I was excited about joining the throngs of music-lovers.
Over the years, such performers as Bryan Bowers, The Dixie Chicks, Alison Krause and Union Station, Cherish the Ladies, Bela Fleck, John McCutcheon, Tom Chapin, Mark O'Connor, The Wilders, Doc Watson, Tommy Emmanuel, Beppi Gambetti, Crow Johnson, Nashville Grass, Misty River -- just about everybody in the bluegrass and folk music world -- have made their way to Winfield in September.
For my job that first year, I was stationed at the main gate. There I met people as they drove in, got their names, ran to the main trailer to get their arm bands, ran back to the cars to put the arm bands on, and handed them programs. Even though I was young then and in pretty good shape, by the time I put in two four-hour shifts of running back and forth, I was almost too exhausted to enjoy the music. But with Diane and a few other friends by my side, and some Festival food and drink, including fresh-squeezed lemonade, homemade ice cream, and a funnel cake or two, I was ready to get into the spirit of things. Friday and Saturday nights were the big nights for us. We stayed in front of the main stage until 1 or 2 p.m., right up to the end. No matter what the final acts were those nights, the big names often came out on the stage to join in. Sometimes, we would get out in the open spaces by the stage and dance in the dust.
As time went by, I moved to the drive-in reentry gate, then to the inside reentry gates. These jobs both involved checking for alcohol and looking into people's bags, purses, and ice chests. This kind of policing was never pleasant for me, so it was a relief when I got reassigned to the information booth.
I loved working in the information booth. Besides telling people where to go and handing out other tidbits of information, information booth staff sell Festival merchandise and keep track of the musicians' schedules. Information booth workers are responsible for handing out the coveted guitar picks. The distribution time for these picks is decided by the information booth supervisor and it was always a mystery to me how she made the determination. I do know word spreads quickly and as soon as the first few picks go out the booth window, people surround the window holding their hands out. I was able to pocket a pick or two for my guitar-playing son and a work colleague who also played the guitar.
One of the joys of staffing the information booth was seeing old friends and former Winfield High students. I taught journalism for nine years there and lived in Winfield for ten years before I moved to Wichita, so I had a lot of students and many friends that I saw and still see only during that weekend in September. it was music to my ears to hear someone say, "Hi, Mrs. Wahto. Remember me?"
I always get two questions when people find out I go to Winfield. The first one is, "Do you play an instrument?" No, I don't. Well, to be accurate, I took piano lessons for a couple of years, but I never developed much skill. I once sang in church choirs and community theater musicals, but my voice is no longer what it once was. I do love music, though, and I particularly like the live bluegrass music that permeates the Festival.
The other question is, "Do you camp?" The answer is an emphatic "no." After one mosquito-infested camping experience in Michigan, my idea of camping has more to do with a room, a bed, a shower, and a coffeepot than it does with braving the out of doors. However, many bluegrassers do camp and quite a few of them never make it into the fairgrounds, making their own music at their campsites. A whole world separate from the inner fairgrounds exists outside the gates in the west camping RV area and the Pecan Grove, which is reserved for rough camping.
After I moved to Wichita, I stayed with my friend Diane during the Festival. Now that Diane is living in Andover, I will stay with another friend while I'm there.
Many Winfield experiences stand out, but the year that will remain forever in my memory is the Festival that took place the week after 9/11. Everyone wondered if Bob Redford, the man who has overseen the festival since 1971, would cancel. At that time, performers were already experiencing difficulties getting to their performances because of canceled flights. It was a relief when we workers were alerted that the show would go on.
I was still working at the information booth then and it was crucial that we keep people updated on changing schedules. Nickel Creek had to cancel. John McCutcheon drove all night to get there for his first show after his flight was canceled. In fact, before the weekend was over, all but a few of the performers were able to get there and the attendance was among the largest ever.
A moving moment that year came when McCutcheon, Tom Chapin, and others, with Linda Tilton signing, led the crowd in the grandstand in a rousing rendition of, "The Great Storm Is Over." Everyone in the crowd that night needed a chance to come together, without the bitterness of politics and hate, and sing as one voice. Over the years, this is what Winfield in September has meant to me.
I now work at the crafts booth, which is staffed mostly by women of a certain age. My friends and I no longer stay until the last show. Last year, I came back home Saturday afternoon because I was so wiped out from the heat, the dust, and the smoke from the campfires. I still love Winfield, however, and the memories that go along with it. If you show up there, come by the crafts booth under the grandstand and say "Hi."