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Folk Fest Organizer: We Couldn’t Do It Without U

University Helps City Stage Annual Folk Bash

UMass Lowell Image

Student volunteers are an integral part of the Lowell Folk Festival, the city’s biggest annual event.

By David Perry

Over the years, the university’s students, alumni and faculty have become woven into the fabric of Lowell’s biggest annual event, the three-day Lowell Folk Festival.

The Lowell Folk Festival, the nation’s largest free folk festival, celebrates its 29th year July 24 through 26 throughout the downtown.

Since its inception, UMass Lowell has been a sponsor of the festival, which draws crowds estimated at more than 100,000 to the downtown every July.
“The university has been, and continues to be, one of the festival’s biggest allies,” says Craig Gates, executive director of the Lowell Festival Foundation. “I can’t imagine it happening without UMass Lowell.”

The university is a presence at the festival at every turn, from introducing acts on stage to crafting the sound mix, to, in the case of WUML-FM (91.5 FM), broadcasting the event live. The Cultural Organization of Lowell (COOL) has a street team of twentysomething bloggers covering the festival online and through Twitter, including music business graduate Ben Raymond and Sam DeAngelo, a Lowell native and UMass Lowell pastry chef.
The university will host a booth at the Boarding House Park stage with volunteers, including students, staff, faculty, student-athletes and members of Learning in Retirement Association. 

“I’ve always considered it an important symbol of the university’s commitment to the city and to maintaining a high quality of life in the community,” says Paul Marion, director of community relations for the university. “The Lowell Folk Festival speaks well for the city.”

The curious and familiar alike stop at the booth to chat about class offerings and snag some of the free swag, says Marion. But it’s an increasingly important gesture as the university and city continue to build a reputation as a college town.

Patty Coffey, assistant director of the community relations office and coordinator of the university’s Lowell Folk Fest volunteers, says those who stop by the booth include fans of Rowdy the River Hawk, alumni who share their backgrounds, potential students, community partners, faculty, students and staff, residents and neighbors from Lowell, and media looking for interviews.

Alex Case, associate professor of the Music Department, says a UMass Lowell Sound Recording Technology student will be working every stage of the festival at one point or another.

Alan Williams, associate professor and coordinator of the Music Business program, is a veteran stage presenter, giving background and introducing festival acts from stages.

Student-run WUML is the only FM station to broadcast the festival as it happens, stationed at Boarding House Park.

“We’ve got a staff of 12, all volunteers, and we’ve been meeting in advance of the festival for a long time,” says Matt Denaro, the station’s general manager. “We’re there all weekend. So we’ve been talking about what merchandise to bring, going over pre-production and bios of the performers.”

The station upgraded from an analog phone line to a digital setup, vastly improving the quality of the broadcast, says Denaro, who says he would love to see a festival stage “somewhere on East Campus.”

“This is important to us, and it is important for the city,” he adds. “It shows the city to people from outside Lowell, and it shows how well we can put together successful events. You come into town, businesses are open, there’s a thriving Lowell, and so many restaurants do amazingly well. It’s something great. It’s the best of Lowell, over three days … and they keep asking us back.”

Gates said the university’s Inn & Conference Center serves as a residence and home base for the festival’s performers, staff and tech crew, “and the students and staff who work there are nothing short of wonderful. They’re there pretty much for a week and it’s our biggest ally in giving folks a positive impression of Lowell. The ICC goes out of its way to treat these folks like celebrities.” 

Gates says it’s never a surprise when students volunteer to help with the festival. 

“Every year it happens,” he says. “Last year, it was a group of girls from one of the sororities who volunteered to work the bucket brigade.”