They asked me to write a few words about the Walnut Valley Festival on its 40th anniversary, I guess because of the matter of perspective. Long life gets you, if nothing else, a bit of a sweep in your view of things. So I definitely got sweep: I was here at the first festival, and also at thirty-some of the intervening ones. One of the accomplishments of this festival is that in some ways it is always the same; it’s no accident that thousands of people return every year, plan their lives and holidays around it, their kids grow up coming here. Every year they camp around the same friends from last year, share food, jam and pick and sing, and it goes a long way beyond an event to be like family, a culture of families, and those things never vary.
On the other hand, some things vary; it’s been hot and it’s been cold, wet and dry, and occasionally interrupted by storms. The musicians and the interactions vary too: every year there is some event that just happens, beyond the ken of careful planning or organizing. Once, in 2001, history intervened, but the music and the spirit and the Winfield family survived.
In the very early days there was a Saturday night guitar panel made up of Doc and Norman and me, and then the following year Doc and Norman and Tony and me. The temperature dipped to about 40, the players’ hands were so cold you couldn’t feel the pick as you traded tunes, and as Doc blazed through a solo, snorting steam in the cold air like a great Elk I once saw in Wyoming on a frosty morning, that Winfield audience, very late on a very cold damp Kansas night, went, simply, beserk.
But, speaking of a sweeping perspective, I can take the Winfield view even farther back than that. I started playing the guitar in 1952; it was a year when if you bought your kid an instrument, there was about a 99% chance it would be an accordion. Nobody much bought their kid a guitar in 1952. But my folks blessedly did. So the really long view is: in my lifetime I have witnessed the steel-string guitar rise from deep obscurity in 1952 to be the centerpiece of the Walnut Valley festival, itself still thriving and growing after 40 years. The steel-string guitar has become the universal instrument of the world, and the Bob Redford’s Walnut Valley Festival has been its major event.
Now, 60 years later, every time I drive into Winfield the fairgrounds are always jammed, the thousand campers are in place, the campfire smoke is on the air and I’m late for stage 2. It’s like Brigadoon; at the appointed time, the Walnut Valley Festival leaps to life, and 30,000 people are ready to listen to, believe it or not, guitar music. Listen closely… you might just hear the voice of God humming a little tune down behind the strings.