Courtesy of Thabisa Rich

The sound of children’s laughter blended with the strumming of an acoustic guitar as Lara Herscovitch and her band, The Highway Philosophers, took to the stage at the 30th annual CT Folk Fest and Green Expo. 

Vibrant colors — tie-dye shirts, light-up bracelets, jewelry stands and woven picnic blankets — littered the green grass of New Haven’s Edgerton Park last Saturday, mixing with large and diverse crowds of families, students and music lovers. The CT Folk Fest provides performance opportunities for emerging members of the folk music scene as well as established artists. 

Lara Herscovitch has been a professional musician for 20 years, and CT Folk, the organization that coordinates the festival, gave her one of her first opportunities to stand in front of a crowd. Over the past two decades, she has frequented the festival as a complementary act or as a performer on the second stage, but this year was her first as a musician on the main stage. 

“Standing up there, I felt myself reflecting back on my career and realizing how far I have come,” Herscovitch said. “What is beautiful about folk is that if it were a house, all its doors would be open, and CT Folk proves to me and all the people here that no matter what, you are welcome in that house.” 

Alongside two stages featuring local and national folk music acts, CT Folk also welcomed sustainability-focused artisan vendors and non-profit advocacy organizations as part of their commitment to environmentalism through their “Green Expo.” The decision to connect folk music to progressive causes is intentional, according to CT Folk President Thabisa Rich. She said that the storytelling power of folk music can advance social justice causes and galvanize those who care about the environment.

Organizations including the Urban Resources Initiative, Gather New Haven and Sea Grant CT offered programming in the festival’s “New Haven Green Tent” between music acts. The Green Kids Zone, just a short distance from the main stage, extended this commitment to even the festival’s youngest audience members, engaging them through games and interactive workshops. 

According to James van Pelt DIV ’03, who founded the festival, CT Folk Fest has been underestimated since its founding in 1989. The event was originally conceived to raise money for the Farmington Rail-to-Trail Association and the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, placing environmentalism at the core of its mission. 

The Rail-to-Trail Association initially declined the money because they thought the festival would not be able to come together in six months. The organizers ultimately raised $10,000 that year. 

Threats of storms in the forecast Saturday almost forced the festival to downsize, but the storms seemed to be held at bay by what organizer Thabisa Rich called the “power of our music community.” According to Rich, close to 2,000 people attended the event to watch 12 performances throughout the day. 

The festival is staffed by CT Folk board members and volunteers. It runs on audience donations and sponsor funds. While CT Folk Fest is a free event, attendees are encouraged to donate $20 to support the festival’s annual return. 

A quick glance at CT Folk’s lineup showed acts ranging from the bluesy country of Maria Muldaur & Her Red Hot Bluesiana Band to the soulful roots of Memphis-based headliner Southern Avenue. 

“This festival proves that folk is not definable,” Herscovitch said. “If you ask 100 people here what folk music means to them, you will get 100 different answers, and I think that’s a beautiful thing. In fact, I think that’s the whole point.” 

Audience members including Becca Thierault echoed Herscovitch’s sentiment. For her, folk is more than just a genre of music — it also serves as a mode of artistic inspiration. 

Thierault also photographed the event as an affiliate of CT Folk and said she was heavily influenced by the music and performances around her. 

“Folk music inspires me to create my own forms of art and to photograph,” Thierault said. “I can capture the emotions of another artist’s performance and how their souls have touched others.” 

For Noah Wall, leader of mainstage act The Barefoot Movement, the most important part of festivals like the CT Folk Fest is how they nourish community connection. 

Wall spoke specifically about the impact of seeing audience members react and respond to performances.

“When you’re up on stage, you see kids dancing, you see people feeling the music,” Wall said. “Live performances like the ones at the CT Folk Fest show that there’s something special about sharing a moment like that with a bunch of people, all in the same place.” 

CT Folk Fest and Green Expo will bring the power of live folk music back to New Haven in the fall of 2024.