NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - The New Jersey Folk Festival is turning 45 and this year's celebration will bring together such divergent cultural touchstones as Native Americans of New Jersey, maritime folklore, Turkish traditions and bluegrass.
Don't expect a sad note, however, when the festival opens on April 27 at the Wood Lawn mansion on Ryders Lane even though its founder, director and driving force is stepping down.
For Angus Gillespie, an American studies professor at Rutgers University, it is time to hand over the reins to someone else.
“I have loved this job and the hard-working undergraduate students I have worked with," Gillespie said. "After 45 years, though, I am ready for new challenges."
For more than four decades, Gillespie helped students build their career skills and a respect for the folk arts as they manage all aspects of the festival from beginning to end. The festival has come a long way from its humble roots, when it had a staff of one as part of an arts campaign at Rutgers in 1975.
Gillespie has proudly watched the festival evolve into one of a few large-scale student-run events in the country.
He will continue to teach at the School of Arts and Sciences, and the festival will go on under new faculty leadership in 2020.
Gillespie has been guiding his students in careful research of New Jersey cultural groups and their traditions, like the “Pineys” and the Kalmyk community of Howell (Monmouth County), hoping to instill a respect for folklore, both traditional and revivalist. However, he says it’s the career skills they develop – event management, artist and vendor relations, and advertising and marketing – that helps bring the festival’s live music and performance, arts, crafts and food to life.
“It’s a great experience for my students when it comes time for them to enter the workforce. What 21-year-old has ‘New Jersey Folk Festival manager’ on their resume?” Gillespie said.
Shirley Cheng, a senior communications major and this year’s festival manager agrees.
Cheng said her time working on the festival has helped her secure internships in public relations, a field she hopes to enter after graduation. With the festival, she’s gained leadership skills and experience in writing press releases and conducting interviews with the media.
“People don’t know what goes into the folk festival. Our professors do extensive research three years before each folk festival, and every single part of the festival is strategically planned,” she said.
Students from all majors can take Folk Festival Management to earn three credits while gaining valuable hands-on experience – from the theme selection and research to the promotion and administration of running a festival.
Like Cheng, some students continue to work with Gillespie long after a semester ends, partly because they absorb his enthusiasm for showcasing folklore.
Lora Bottinelli, a Rutgers alumna and the executive director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts, the organization that oversees the National Folk Festival, can relate. She fondly recalls taking Gillespie’s “American Folk Song and Ballad” course as an elective after a recommendation from a friend.
“My whole career trajectory stemmed from taking this random class,” said Bottinelli.