Pennsylvania music, arts celebrated in new festival
Pennsylvania’s contribution to music and the arts and a celebration of the military combine to highlight a new free Memorial Day weekend festival in Allentown.
The Great Pennsylvania Music & Arts Celebration will offer nearly 100 performances of Commonwealth-based music over four days as well as recognizing veterans when it debuts May 26-28 at the Allentown Fairgrounds, 17th and Liberty streets, Allentown. All performances are free and there is no admission charge. Hours are 10 a.m.-10 p.m. May 26 and 27, and 10 a.m.-8 p.m. May 28.
The celebration inside and outside the Agri-Plex also takes place on the former grounds of Camp Crane, the World War I training ground for the Ambulance Corps from 1917 to 1919.
“That was a very important part of Allentown history,” says festival Executive Director Siobhan “Sam” Bennett. “This takes place on the footprint of the original Camp Crane and it is also the 100th anniversary of [the conclusion of] World War I.”
The new festival, sponsored by Pennsylvania’s Music Preservation Society, takes over the space where Mayfair was held, until it was canceled last year. Now Cedar Crest College is reviving Mayfair at its campus down the street and Bennett says the two festivals will complement each other.
“This is really a great opportunity to position Allentown as the go-to place for Memorial Day [weekend],” she says.
The new festival had its roots when Lehigh Valley native and Grammy-nominated polka king Alex Meixner became concerned about dwindling interest in the traditional music of the polka.
“He felt there was a lack of understanding about Pennsylvania’s very important contribution to music and art,” Bennett says.
In 2015, Meixner co-founded the Music Preservation Society to focus on telling the story of Pennsylvania’s part in the history of music. The festival is the organization’s first event.
The festival aims to highlight Pennsylvania’s music heritage, including polka, folk, rock and Latin. There also is a strong component of marching band and military music.
“Allentown is known as ‘Band City USA,’” Bennett says. “We have the Allentown Band, the nation’s oldest civilian military band and other local bands.”
Festival headliners are 1950s’ rock ‘n’ rollers Bill Haley Jr. and The Comets, local percussionist and composer Hector Rosado with Steel Avenue Salsa, and Meixner.
There are five performance stages, or “schtells,” featuring a range of music that includes Pennsylvania-German and polka bands, as well as rock, pop, folk, jazz, funk, Latin, bluegrass, gospel, R&B and Celtic. In addition, the Allentown Band, Municipal Band and Pioneer Band will perform.
Bennett says one of the performance stages or schtells is dedicated to emerging artists.
“For music to be preserved, you need young musicians,” she says.
The schtell will host an “American Idol”-style juried competition, as well as Lehigh Valley Music Award winners and School of Rock graduates.
Among the offerings from juried artisans in the Agri-Plex is Pennsylvania art from hex signs to quilts.
Patrick Donmeyer, Director of Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center in Kutztown, will talk about the Pennsylvania art form of hex signs. Eric Claypool, hex sign painter and son of the legendary Johnny Claypoole, will help people create their own hex signs.
Visitors also can take part in a community project to paint large hex signs.
“People forget Lehigh County is the beating heart of Pennsylvania-Dutch heartland,” Bennett says. “There is a unique Lehigh County hex sign design called ‘Blumme’ that features flower petals.”
She says Pennsylvania-Dutch culture will be well-represented with roving polka accordionists, polka dancing and a show in which Pennsylvania-Dutch dancers and Irish step-dancers join forces.
Bennett says the festival also “celebrates Pennsylvania though the lens of arriving cultures, including the Irish, Easter Europeans, Syrians and Latinos” through music and ethnic foods, including pierogies, German sausages, tabbouleh and tacos.
The festival will feature beers from Shangy’s, Emmaus.
“Pennsylvania is the number one craft beer state and we have the oldest brewery in the country with Yeungling,” Bennett says. “Beer is very much a part of our history.”
Next year, Bennett says the festival will include wine since Pennsylvania is the fourth-largest wine producer in the United States.
Bennett says one-third of the festival will be devoted to veterans’ programming as befits the Memorial Day weekend.
She says 50 veterans organizations will be represented. There will be re-enactments from the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I, World War II; a presentation by the Puerto Rican 65th Infantry Regiment Headquarters, “The Borinqueneers”; a military history series, and information about the contributions of African-American soldiers from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War to today.
Nathan Kline, a World War II Normandy bombardier and French Legion of Honor medal recipient, will be a featured speaker.
There will be children’s activities, which include making cards to send to deployed troops.
Mack Trucks, which built World War I ambulances, will display restored vehicles.
“We are very excited to bring this celebration to the public,” Bennett says. “We are telling the story of the Commonwealth’s music and art through the lens of its arriving cultures, from the historic Pennsylvania-Dutch to today’s Latinos.”