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Old Folk: The Ark's Ann Arbor Folk Festival turns 40

Fri, 01/27/2017 - 9:01am by christopherporter

Ann Arbor Folk Festival

Leo Kottke's forehead graced the poster for the 18th edition of the Ann Arbor Folk Festival.

History is a mystery, even when you have direct access to media coverage of an event.

The first Ann Arbor Folk Festival was held June 13, 1976, headlined by John Prine and Leon Redbone. The show was hosted by the Power Center and, as always, it was to benefit The Ark, which was just 11 years old at that point and still in its original location, a house at 1421 Hill St.

Doug Fulton’s June 14, 1976, Ann Arbor News review of that first fest really only covers the early part of the evening -- newspaper print deadlines, you know -- and Prine and Redbone are mentioned with no commentary.

But Fulton did write a sentence that would reappear -- in slightly altered forms -- through much of The Ark’s existence: “The occasion was a benefit for the Ark, one of the few remaining 'coffee-houses' in the country still specializing in folk music of all kinds, and lately in financial trouble.”

In fact, The Ark could have just changed its name to Financial Trouble since the venue was constantly in jeopardy through the mid-'80s until this 1986 article declared otherwise: "The Ark No Longer Needs The Festival To Stay Afloat".

Since that first festival, and two moves later, The Ark is one of the most respected and well-oiled folk- and roots-music concert venues in the country, though the nonprofit still counts on the Ann Arbor Folk Festival for part of its operating revenue. This year’s edition, held January 27 and 28 at Hill Auditorium, has one of the festival’s biggest lineups yet, featuring headliners Kacey Musgraves and Jenny Lewis on Friday and the Indigo Girls, Margo Price, and Kiefer Sutherland (yes, him) on Saturday. (If you're somehow still undecided about going, The Ark has also compiled playlists for night one and night two of the fest.

But if the festival started in 1976, why is this weekend’s celebration its 40th, instead of the 42nd?

According to The Ark’s website, which lists lineups from every year of the festival, the event didn’t happen in 1977 or 1978. It came back in 1979 and has continued ever since. In 1982 the fest moved from the Power Center to the Michigan Theater and then in 1985 found its annual home at Hill Auditorium (save for one return to the Michigan in 2003).

The Ann Arbor News covered the festival every year -- we imagine. The library acquired the News’ archives in January 2010 and has been working on organizing and digitizing it, with updates at

Since there are many moving and missing parts to the News’ archive, we couldn’t find Folk Fest articles and photos from every year. But we did find a hodge-podge of images that might jog your memories, plus a few YouTube clips from recent years. If you want to check out the what we've archived so far from the News' Folk Fest coverage at Old News, click here. Plus, you can check The Ark's own history of the Folk Fest here.


Ann Arbor Folk Festival

Jay Ungar and David Bromberg were there from the start.


OK, this news report is not about the Folk Fest, but it does show the state of The Ark at the time.


Ann Arbor Folk Festival

Twins Sandor and Laszlo Slomovits perform as Gemini.

Ann Arbor Folk Festival

Percy "Mr. Bones" Danforth gets loose with his rhythm sticks.


Ann Arbor Folk Festival

The MC for this year was mime O.J. Anderson. We'll leave you to your nightmares now.

Ann Arbor Folk Festival

David Bromberg has performed at the Folk Fest 10 times.

Ann Arbor Folk Festival

Pretty sure Steve Goodman just saw a mime.


Ann Arbor Folk Festival

Arlo Guthrie made a surprise appearance at the 1985 Folk Fest, but he returned as the scheduled headliner this year.


Ann Arbor Folk Festival

A clipping from The Ann Arbor News.


Ann Arbor Folk Festival

Michigan bluegrass legends The RFD Boys twanged the night away.

Ann Arbor Folk Festival

Storyteller Jackie Torrence lets loose one of her captivating tales.


Ann Arbor Folk Festival

John Prine helped launch the Folk Fest in 1976 and returned to headline 13 years later.

Ann Arbor Folk Festival

It's entirely possible that this Riders in the Sky member created beautiful music with his lasso.


Ann Arbor Folk Festival

Even at 71-years-old, guitar pioneer Chet Akins brought the house down with his fierce fingerstyle playing.

Ann Arbor Folk Festival

Laura Love signing posters backstage.

Ann Arbor Folk Festival

Michael Hedges in rehearsal before the show.


Ann Arbor Folk Festival

A clipping from The Ann Arbor News.


Ann Arbor Folk Festival

Carrie Newcomer smiles at the folk(s).

Ann Arbor Folk Festival

A moody moment backstage with The Raisin Pickers.


Ann Arbor Folk Festival

An animated Anne Hills entertains Hill Auditorium.


Ann Arbor Folk Festival

We swear that's Eric Bibb under the hat.

Ann Arbor Folk Festival

David Grisman and Doc Watson rehearse before the gig -- as if these masters needed to do that.





Christopher Porter is a Library Technician and editor of Pulp.

The 40th Ann Arbor Folk Festival happens Friday, January 27, and Saturday, January 28, at Hill Auditorium. For the full lineups, times, tickets, and more information visit

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