Summer solstice was traditionally a time of revelry as the end of planting and the beginning of summer were celebrated. As the summer crops ripen, the fruit of the labor of planting is celebrated in various ways, especially the harvest of staple crops.
The grain and hay harvests in late July and early August is a period of intense activity for farmers. Before industrialization this work needed to be done by hand and for Europeans and European Americans these harvests brought communities together as people helped their neighbors bring in these staple crops. For small farmers this tradition of mutual support often continues today. In celebration of getting the hay and grain in, first loaves of bread were made and new beer was brewed. The feast day on August 1 or 2 is variously named Lammas, Loaf Mass Day, feast of first fruits, and Lughnasadh (in Gaelic). This old holiday is still kept in some communities in various ways today.
The first harvest of green corn is celebrated by Native American communities at the various times it becomes ripe locally through the summer. In some native cultures, beans and squash, companion plants often grown with the corn, are also celebrated. But corn is essential in its fully ripened dry form, as a staple grain that can be stored long periods for use during the winter. Here is the Omaha Green Corn Dance Song performed at the 1983 Omaha powwow in Macy, Nebraska, and recorded by Carl Fleischhauer as part of the American Folklife Center documentation of the powwow.
Many newer traditions of summer celebrations have roots in older ones. These include celebrations of community in ethnic heritage festivals and celebrations involving musical talent and other arts, as well as many celebrations related to foods of the abundant summer. Often these traditions combine in various ways. The American Folklife Center field research projects have taken opportunities to document some of these summer festivals.
Whether you have a campfire, a grill, an outdoor fireplace, or a large fire pit, barbecue is a summer tradition across America with many variations. The original barbacoa was a Native American tradition of the Caribbean that was adapted by African slaves and their descendants. In time it spread to many cultures. The Paradise Valley Folklife Project Collection (1978-1982), part of which can be found online as “Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945-82,” documents pit barbecues and grill barbecues in the west. The collection includes Les Stewart’s film “96 Ranch Rodeo and Barbecue” (September 1951), and documents a harvest celebration on the Ninety-Six Ranch with ranch owner Les Stewart’s narration, recorded on July 7, 1982, by Margaret Purser and Carl Fleischhauer. Although the 1951 barbecue took place at the beginning of autumn, the fieldwork team also documented a large community barbecue that kicked off the summer season on on June 18, 1978 (with photos online). Barbecue is limited only by the weather. So while it is often a summer tradition, there is no reason not to start early and continue late with this favorite way to cook outdoors.
The rodeo in this film is an example of another traditional celebration that often occurs during the summer. Rodeos bring communities together for competitive events that originated to celebrate the various work skills needed to keep ranches in business. There are also some events, like riding bulls, that test the ranch workers’ skills in ways that are never seen on a ranch. Buckaroos in Paradise has documentation of community rodeos in 1978, with photographs of many events. In addition there is documentation of Crow Indian and Blackfeet rodeos in the Montana Folklife Survey Collection collected in 1979.
Summer is often a time for Music Festivals, particularly those held outdoors. The earliest of the African American folk music festivals were the Fort Valley Music Festivals, held at Fort Valley State College, Fort Valley, Geogria, in the spring or summer beginning in 1941. Folklorist John Work III with colleagues Lewis Wade Jones and Willis James undertook a project to record this experiment. Find the recordings they made in the online presentation “Now What A Time”:Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley Music Festivals, 1938 to 1943. As it happened, the development of the festival coincided with the entry of the United States into World War II. In the summer of 1943 Willis James recorded this remarkable song, “What a Time,” or “Pearl Harbor.” It is sung in the style of a toast. Toasts were a precursor to rap music, nearly always sung by men, often in humorous praise of someone, sometimes risqué. This is a serious toast telling the history of the United States experiences with the war. It is sung by a Gospel group, with a woman singing lead vocals. It is an extraordinary variation on the genre for extraordinary times.
The Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project collection includes photographs of behind-the-scenes events at the Old Time Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Virginia. Although there is fiddle music from the region in this collection, there are no recordings of the festival. There are recordings of the festival among American Folklife Center Collections, for listening in the Folklife Reading Room.
Juneteenth, a celebration of African American Emancipation, occurs on June 19th and is now a National Holiday. It occurs near the summer solstice and so can kick off the season of outdoor celebrations. Barbecues and picnics with family, friends, and neighbors are a common way to mark the day. Learn more about “Juneteenth” in this blog in Folklife Today.
A shared festival found across the United States is the 4th of July. Typically celebrated with parades, fireworks, and barbecues, some communities may add events such as craft fairs and outdoor contests to the festivities.
Reunions and Ethnic Festivals
Summer is a great time for family reunions. These often include outdoor feasts, games, and other activities that bring people together. Some may be paired with other events as well. From August 4 to 7, 2005, a team of ethnographers from the Library of Congress was accorded the rare opportunity to attend and document an African American family reunion that had been celebrated annually for a hundred years. Started by formerly enslaved Americans Wesley Mauney, John Wesley Roberts, and Eli Borders Roberts in 1906, the Roberts, Borders, Mauney, Howell, Briggs and Related Families reunion reached its century mark with the one hundredth reunion in 2005. The reunion was held in Charlotte and Shelby, North Carolina, and drew approximately 500 family members to its various events. The Library of Congress team, which included the late Librarian of Congress James H. Billington and three staff members from the American Folklife Center, attended four days of reunion events, conducted interviews, and gathered photographic, audio, and video documentation for the AFC Archive. The collection is not online, but you can read about it in this pdf article, and find the collection record at this link
Ethnic heritage festivals are often held in the summer. Though they may occur at any time of year when the weather allows for parades and outdoor activities. They carry with them messages about the history of a group. Pride, connection, achievements, and painful history may be dealt with through celebration and reconnection with community. Such festivals can be an important revitalizing force as people come together to immerse themselves in their heritage.
The summer Puerto Rican festival documented in the Lowell Folklife Project Collection includes cuatro music, a parade, and the crowning of a festival princess. Listen to this recording of cuatro player Johnny Albino and his band performing at the festival:
The Maine Acadian Festival is held at the same time as many family reunions in Northern Maine, when families of the diaspora caused when the French were expelled from Eastern Canada in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries spit families and created new French-speaking communities in the United States and Canada. Parades, talks on Acadian history, music, food, and traditional arts are all part of the experience (see the image at the top of this blog). The events of the Maine Acadian Festival held in late June, 1991 can be found in the Maine Acadian Folklife Project Collection.
The Japanese Obon Festival (also Bon Festival) is a celebration of the dead, particularly honoring those who died in the past year. Those who recently died are said to come nearer the earth at this time and then move on to the next phase of their journey. The Obon Festival is mainly an event marking the end of mourning as the lives of people who have died are celebrated, the spirits of the dead are welcomed with dances and parades, and, as night falls, lanterns are lit to guide them on their path. Different communities select the date for the Obon Festival in different ways, but it usually occurs on a date between mid-July and early September. Events held in various communities also vary. The Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project collection includes documentation of the Obon Festival in a Japanese Community in Los Angeles, California, on July 17, 1982.
Powwows are major summer events that include a lot of the elements discussed above. They are family reunions and celebration of families and communities. They celebrate the cultural heritage of Native Americans, particularly the host group. They celebrate the summer harvest. They reach out to the surrounding community to strengthen relationships and educate non-Indians about the richness of their culture. There are often many events within the event such as contests, craft fairs, and “give-aways” where people gift items to others as a gesture of good will. The opening of the event includes a flag ceremony with a color guard of veterans followed by a parade of participants. Several examples are available online to explore. Omaha Indian Music is a collection that includes documentation of the 1983 Omaha harvest celebration and powwow. The Montana Folklife Survey Collection includes documentation of the Crow Fair and the Arlee powwow on the Flathead Indian Reservation. The Crow Fair includes a parade on horseback, a rodeo, and a side expedition to pick juneberries.
Do you have special summer events that recur every year in your family or community? Perhaps it is the first barbecue, a pool party, a clam bake, or a community picnic. Today, as in days gone by, we find ways to celebrate the bounty of summer.