Participants say the Cannon River in Northfield will see its first big folk event this year.
Amy Boxrud grew up with grandparents who listened to Finnish records every afternoon and went out dancing to Finnish-American bands a couple nights a week.
It wasn't until she was 30 years old that Boxrud picked up a fiddle. But she credits this early exposure as one of the main reasons she joined up with a Scandinavian folk group at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.
"That's my heritage," the Northfield resident said. "So to me, it feels more authentic than playing American bluegrass."
When Boxrud moved south to a place with a sleepy-town motto, "Cows, Colleges, and Contentment," she worried she would lose that connection to a rich music scene. Soon, however, another Northfield resident announced that she planned to start a Scandinavian folk jam.
That was twelve years ago. Boxrud and the others still gather every Monday evening for "Nordic Roots" sessions at the Contented Cow in downtown Northfield, where they play traditional songs such as hambos, or schottisches, or more modern Scandinavian compositions.
The group is among those lined up for the first ever Cannon River Roots Festival, on Saturday — a riverfront event, taking advantage of Northfield's pretty surroundings, that is projected as an annual thing.
Ann Mosey, executive director of the Northfield Arts Guild, said that organizers hope to replicate the success of the Vintage Band Festival, a recent addition to Northfield. Now in its fourth year, the festival features more than 100 bands from all over the world and draws over 15,000 people to town.
The vintage festival makes using of the riverfront green space and has Civil War bands "volleying" songs back and forth across the river. Similarly, this week's roots festival will be held in the downtown Bridge Square area, and spectators are encouraged to bring blankets and chairs to spread out in the lawn between the square and the river.
Mosey said that organizers hope to keep the roots festival going in upcoming years, but to do so, they will have to find a way to keep it a free event, either by securing additional grants (a National Endowment for the Arts grant helped fund this one) or getting donations from businesses.
"The city of Northfield doesn't have an outside venue that is conducive to having tickets yet," said Mosey. "We need an outdoor venue where we can sell tickets."
Mosey said community members have recently tossed around ideas, such as a floating outdoor performance space on the Cannon River or a venue at the old rodeo grounds.
Hutenanny is a group of rotating players on instruments such as a Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, a 1930s mandolin, a harpeleik (a Norwegian chorded zither), even a tin whistle.
The name is an old country word for a folk music party. Their weekly venue is a dark and cozy place that has the feel of a traditional English pub, with kids goofing off and eating popcorn in the booths, watching their parents perform.
"Nobody's a professional here," said Mark Heiman, a fiddle player who graduated from Carleton in the early '90s and now works in the college's IT department. "We never know who's going to be here on a given night."
Who exactly from the group will be performing this week?
"We're not going to know until we get on stage how many people we have," Heiman said. "It's a little tricky being an open session and having a performing arm."
But according to Heiman, that's the beauty of it.
"We don't want to be organized," he said. "We have avoided structure and hierarchy. There's no set list. No one's in charge of picking the tunes."
There are plenty to choose from, and Heiman keeps a library of songs on the group's website. He said that there tends to be a lot of variation in traditional Scandinavian folk music because songs were written and passed down in isolated pockets.
"This particular town," he said, "on this particular fjord."
Lots of jam
Northfield has a surprisingly high number of jam sessions of niche music for a town of 20,000. Heiman could name four offhand -Irish, gypsy jazz, old-time, Scandinavian folk — going on various days of the week.
"It's a small town, filled with creative people," said Martha Larson.
By day, she is manager of Campus Energy and Sustainability at Carleton College; by night, cellist and vocalist of Ile du Berceau, an ensemble that will also play the upcoming festival.
"The town has a lot of creative people who are dedicated to Northfield. That's kind of the magic."
Larson's group, named after "Cradle Island," the locale in Samois-sur-Seine that hosts the annual Django Reinhardt Music Festival, works gypsy jazz, Croatian sounds, traditional French musettes and swing into their sets. It, too, varies in size, anywhere from a duo — she and guitar player Sam Miltich — to a sextet.
"The rest of the gang kind of rotates regularly," she said.
Larson was schooled in Chicago gypsy jazz scene, where she observed professionals "willing to cultivate not only a listening culture but a culture of participation and playing," she said.
That means the more experienced players pass on their knowledge to the newbies. Two years ago, she tried to cultivate that kind of experience when she started the gypsy jam sessions, which have been drawing 15 to 20 players and about 50 spectators at any one time.
Live music has always done well in Northfield. But according to Mosey, there has been more of a push to bring in outside acts and organize larger music festivals. There is also talk, she said, of organizing a rock and jazz festival.
They wanted the roots festival, she said, to be both acoustic and as broad a cultural range as possible. In addition to gypsy jazz and Nordic folk, they will have folk and bluegrass (Chance Meetings, Alabaster Falls, Grammy-winning bluegrass picker Clay Hess) and Irish and Scottish band Ross & MacKenzie. The Powdermilk Biscuit Band, which played regularly on early shows of "Prairie Home Companion," will do a reunion show on the festival stage.
Organizers hope the festival replicates the success of a recent concert series, the 411 acoustic series, which started three years ago and has brought musicians such as Eilen Jewell, John Gorka, Pieta Brown and the Pines to their intimate Northfield Arts Guild Theater. The grant that helped fund the 411 series also helped to fund the roots festival.
During the day, there will be a jam session at the nearby Northfield Arts Guild with Mark Kreitzer. There will also be a picking workshop with pickers such as Clay Hess, who won a Grammy for his work with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.
For Hutenanny, who generally commit only to yearly appearances at the Nordic Ball in St. Paul, the Nisswa Stamman, and the fall festival at Valley Grove Church in Nerstrand, the festival is a chance to play a big crowd close to home.
"We've got lots of other small events," said Heiman, "[but] there's not been big folk event like this before."
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.