Brooklyn Folk Festival returned to St. Ann’s Church for their 13th year over the weekend, and those without much musical skill still had the chance to get their hands on an instrument at the festival’s annual banjo toss.
The festival was founded in 2008 by musician and festival director Eli Smith and the Jalopy Theatre & School of Music with the goal of capturing the energy of a folk festival you might attend in a rural area, said Lynette Wiley, Jalopy’s executive director. To that end, folk fans enjoy three days of music from all over the world, workshops, dancing, and more.
During the festival’s third year at the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition in Red Hook, Smith came up with the idea of seeing how far people could toss a banjo into the water, Wiley said. Her husband, Geoff, Jalopy’s co-founder, retrofitted a banjo they had so it was solid and waterproof, and tied a rope to it with a knot tied every foot to measure the distance of each throw.
“I think Eli is really good at absurdist thought, and it just seemed like a really funny thing to do, so we’ve just kept it up all these years,” Wiley said.
And so the toss was born, bringing a new definition to the term “banjo hitter.”
“The men’s heat winner was 69 feet and the women’s heat winner was 63 feet, if memory serves,” Wiley said. Each winner takes home a free — and, importantly, dry — banjo.
The festival also brought back a pandemic necessity — the banjo toss video game. From Nov. 8-14, players could post screenshots of their farthest virtual throws in a bid to win a real life instrument of their very own.
Even picking up the banjo is taking part in the festival’s history, as they’re still using the one Geoff reinforced all those years ago.
“We’ve had people be upset that we are hurting multiple banjos, I’m like, ‘No, no, this is one banjo that we’ve used for years and years and every year it has to be rebuilt a little bit’,” Wiley said. “But we’ve just sacrificed one banjo.”
Just one small part of the festival – and not even the most popular one — the toss has picked up national media attention over the years, and once it was picked up by the wire services, the story of the banjo toss was even picked up in Dublin.
“It is ridiculous, and it is also so much fun,” Wiley said, as to why it gets so much attention. “We had a strong environmental theme to the folk festival this year, and to be standing at the Gowanus Canal, and we have to put rubber gloves on everyone, and we’ve got hand sanitizer. My husband gets a little sick every year just from touching that water so much.”
Bringing attention to the canal’s Superfund status and ongoing cleanup is important, she said, as patrons gather at the home of the Gowanus Dredgers, a group founded to advocate for cleaning up to the contaminated water body.
This year’s festival was a little bit smaller, Wiley said, and they had to take out some of the components she loves most to make it safe for everyone attending. But that didn’t make gathering again for the first time since 2019 any less important.
“To see everyone again, to greet all of the people that were coming to this festival for all these years, to be in the space with the artists, it was so wonderful,” she said. “It felt like life was beginning again in a new way.”