Things to Do

7 Things We’re Excited to Do at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Do the do-si-do, learn how to forage, and hear a celestial soundscape.

Photograph courtesy of Phillip Lee/Smithsonian Institution.

The ever-popular Smithsonian Folklife Festival—an annual celebration of culture and heritage—returns to the Mall this week, from June 29 to July 4, and next week, from July 6 to July 9.

While last year explored the United Arab Emirates and languages from around the world, this year’s festival is showcasing religious arts throughout the U.S. as well as the cultural landscape of the Ozarks, a region that stretches across portions of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Illinois.

As usual, the festival has a ridiculously packed schedule of free programs hosted by musicians, dancers, artisans, cooks, and storytellers (you can find a festival map here). Here are seven activities we’re excited to to check out:

Grab your partner and square dance

Photograph courtesy of Stephen Kolb/Smithsonian Institution.

Do the “do-si-do” at one of the festival’s two community square dances. The Ozark Highballers, an Arkansas-based old-time band, will play as Colorado square dance caller Bob Zuellig directs dancers through a sequence of steps. While there, mingle with members of the DC and Baltimore square dance communities, or brush up on your skills beforehand at one of several square dance workshops. (Those who prefer to sit this one out can also view a unique square and Marshallese dance performance.)


Forage in the garden

Bo Brown, a wilderness expert and author of Foraging the Ozarks, will host several foraging workshops inside the festival’s teaching garden, where you’ll find native plants, trees, vegetables, and “weeds” of the Ozarks. Learn the how and whys of foraging and the ethics of wild harvesting, and follow Brown through the garden as he shows you what’s ready for harvest right now, as well as how to identify sumac. Other foraging experts will lead separate workshops inside the garden, highlighting what else is in bloom right now and helping aspiring foragers identify sassafras and spice bush.


Taste the Ozarks

As usual, the festival’s kitchen will be dishing out flavors that correspond to this year’s theme. Explore the tastes of the Ozarks by ordering a pulled pork sandwich served with Missouri-style barbecue sauce, fried chicken with country gravy, or a beans and greens plate served with cornbread. Finish it off with a giant molasses cookie or vanilla soft serve topped with Missouri black walnuts. The Ozark Beer Co. will also be on site selling a selection of craft brews.


Learn how to build a mountain-biking trail

Missourian and dirt biker Seth Gebel, who’s known for making gnarly paths on his YouTube channel Backyard Trail Builds, has built a wooden mountain biking ramp on the Mall with expert biker Mike Schulz. Watch the two ride the structure during one of several mountain biking demonstrations or learn the carpentry and dirt-shaping techniques needed to build your own backyard trail with Gebel and Derek Hunter, another Ozark trail builder.


Hear lots of fiddling and guitar picking

DC-native Jake Blount will perform at this year’s festival. Photograph courtesy of Tadin Brego/Smithsonian Institution.

There’ll be no shortage of bluegrass and folk musicians on site throughout the festival’s two weeks. Hear from the Sylamore Special, a five-piece, award-winning bluegrass group; Carolina Mendoza, a folk singer known as the “voice of the mountain”; Sad Daddy, an Arkansas roots group that combines blues, folk, jazz, and other genres; Willi Carlisle, an Ozark folksinger whose lyrics touch on queerness, class, and water rights; and many, many more performances.


Listen to religious soundscapes

A diverse sampling of concerts will demonstrate the ways sound becomes sacred in religions throughout the country. Admire the poetics and oration of Black Christian preaching styles or listen to the Native Hawaiian chanting and drumming of traditional hula dancers. Discover the liturgical tradition of shape-note singing with the Arkansas-based Brockwell Gospel Music School or “bathe” in the sound of DC’s Threshold Singers, who often soothe the dying (or those who are at the “thresholds of life”) with song.

Throughout the festival, venture to the garden stage, where an ongoing “Celestial Stories” soundscape still connect visitors to the night sky. Designed by sound studies scholar Diana Chester, the soundscape generates musical tones using data points of stars in the sky. The desired outcome? An auditory (rather than visual) representation of the night sky. Woven throughout the music will be spiritual and religious stories tied to constellations.


See how moonshine gets made

Stop by the festival’s distilling tent where you can watch Arkansas natives Nick Nichols and Matthew Sloan demonstrate the process of making moonshine, a practice that’s deeply rooted in Ozark history and tradition.

Jessica Ruf
Assistant Editor