The Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance began 14 years ago in the Puryear kitchen. Jordan and Jeb Puryear had been friends with two other musicians, Richie Stearns and Shane Lamphier, since they were all kids playing together in the Bubba George String Band.
A friend recently had been diagnosed with AIDS, and that night in the kitchen the four decided to have a benefit concert at the State Theatre in Ithaca. Jordan, Jeb, and Shane were then in Donna the Buffalo, and Richie was in the Horseflies. A third band, the Anabaptists, also played. The show raised money. So they decided to raise some more.
"Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance" does not lend itself to an acronym, so most people just call it "Grassroots." As in, "So, who's at Grassroots this year?" This summer the short answer is "Los Lobos, Solas, and... ah... about 39 other bands."
The event opens on Thursday, July 22, with a reunion of Bubba George. It will be brought to a blissed-out, pleasantly exhausted close on Sunday evening with a performance by the host band, Donna the Buffalo.
Over the intervening four days on four different stages you will hear Ithaca-area roots music, African music, Native American music, Irish traditional music, zydeco and Cajun music, and, what started it all in the Ithaca area, old-time music.
I caught up to Jordan Puryear the day he was due to leave for North Carolina, where he now spends most of his time, organizing the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival outside of Chapel Hill. Puryear, his brown hair hanging down from beneath a straw hat, sat down in the shade outside the festival office in "downtown" Trumansburg and recounted the inauspicious beginning in 1991.
"The first year we had 10,000 Maniacs. It rained the first two days and, without 10,000 Maniacs playing, I don't think anyone would have come. They had some hits on the radio at the time. The Horseflies were opening for them on tour, so that was part of our connection to them. It was only three days the first year and when we were done, we all thought 'Man, that wasn't enough'."
The people of Trumansburg were initially a little dubious about the enterprise. "There was still a certain stigma attached to AIDS. And when people heard 10,000 Maniacs were coming, they thought it meant, uh, 10,000 maniacs were coming," Puryear says.
The village fairgrounds are transformed into the Grassroots Festival by an army of volunteers. Stages are built; tents are erected.
"In the beginning it was older tradesmen doing it," Puryear says. "But now most of the setup is done by local young people who have grown up with the festival as a part of their lives."
It isn't just local folks who come, though. "There're a lot of people from Rochester for some reason, more so than Syracuse. Some from Binghamton and people from all over. During the days before the festival, it's like a reunion. They only see each other this one time and they come every year."
The music at the festival is diverse, but "culturally-rooted dance music is emphasized," according to Puryear.
I'd noticed that no one too famous seems to play Grassroots. "When Rusted Root came years ago," Puryear says, "it was the first time we attracted a younger crowd and drunkenness was a problem. Young people just came pouring in like it was... a concert. They showed up an hour before [Rusted Root played] and then just left. It felt like an intrusion."
The festival has given away more than $300,000 over its 14 years. For the first five years most of the money went to AIDS research, but today it also goes towards the arts and education. Most of the money is distributed locally: Puryear cites gifts toward the renovation of the historic State Theatre and construction of the town of Ulysses' new library. An exception to the regional rule was a bequest to a program for African mothers with AIDS.
Many local restaurants set up satellite operations at Grassroots; Asian and Latin American cuisines are particularly well represented. Peter Wolfganger, a volunteer who oversees the selection of food vendors for the festival, filled me in on this year's festival.
"We do with the food what we do with the music: It's diverse and ethnically based. But we've got burgers and hot dogs somewhere. The American Legion takes care of that. We've got vegan, but," Wolfganger smiles, "we've got lots of good meat too."
In 1991 Grassroots drew about 1,500 people over three days. Now the festival attracts 15,000 over four days and is about as big as it's going to get. Puryear maintains that the spirit of the festival has remained the same. What is the spirit of Grassroots? Puryear has to think about this a little.
"Well, we're incredibly open to letting people express themselves," he paused, trying to find the words. "It's not an 'anything goes' crazy party. It's really about a connection between the music and the dancing, between the bands and the dancers. It's all about participation. People come to celebrate, to feel good."
Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance, Thursday, July 22, through Sunday, July 25, at the Trumansburg Fairgrounds, Rt. 96, Trumansburg. Four-day pass: $65 (advance), $75 (gate). Single day rates: $30 to $40. 607-387-5098, www.grassrootsfest.org