Meet Kevin Dunwoody, consummate community volunteer.
Consider his years as the music director of Randolph’s popular New World Festival, and a simile may pop to mind.
He’s like a chef, you could say, the one who reaches boldly for the cayenne or Tabasco to spice things up, in this case his annual musical stew.
Dunwoody over the years has added dashes of hot Cajun and Zydeco to the blend of French-Canadian and Celtic flavors, the hallmarks of the town’s end-of-summer bash.
Or how about a sports metaphor? Though slight of build and age 55, Dunwoody could be viewed as the football lineman, one who plays a key but largely unheralded role.
Quite simply, he often goes unnoticed.
“He phoned up and asked would I come and do ‘that waulking-of-the-cloth thing,’” reports Norman Kennedy, of Marshfield, the internationally known Scottish weaver, storyteller and singer.
“But to tell you the truth, I can’t quite (picture) his face,” confesses Kennedy. He’s not sure he ever actually met Dunwoody.
For the record, Kennedy said “yes” and will celebrate the traditional Scottish methods of cloth shrinking, complete with chant, at the festival’s 20th anniversary on Sunday, Sept. 2.
Mark Greenberg, the musician, radio host and expert on traditional folk music, will be at the festival too, for his fourth year as emcee at one of the venues, yet he can’t place Dunwoody either.
He can place the festival, though: “It offers a great opportunity to hear related kinds of music, mostly from the British Isles and Canada, but also a mix of other traditional styles of music and even newer and more experimental things.”
The New World Festival, which features some 20 bands and individual performers, attracts hundreds of visitors to Randolph’s downtown each year. It began in 1993 in part to boost the town spirits after a rash of fires that over the course of a few years damaged or destroyed chunks of the historic downtown. Dunwoody and his wife, Marie, lost their business in one of the blazes and felt the impact personally.
“We had owned a bookstore for eight years and were hit by fire No. 2 (three total), and it was just time to let it go,” says Dunwoody, who had carpentry as a vocation to fall back upon and music (he plays bodhran and harmonica) as an avocation to further embrace. He now handles all music aspects of the festival, and the planning occupies him 12 months a year, and nearly full time in August.
Dunwoody grew up in New Jersey near the Pine Barrens, where he hung out in the family’s finished basement, as D.J. and amateur music promoter. “Our basement was the place for the parties,” he says.
He met Marie, who co-directs the festival’s children’s program, while in college. The two moved north to escape the malls and burgeoning residential development, eventually settling in Brookfield just next door to Randolph.
The festival got its start in July of ‘93 when Dunwoody and a handful of others, all traditional-music devotees, met in a Randolph restaurant, the August Lion, and sketched plans for the first fest three months later, on Columbus Day Weekend.
As it turned out that October weekend was a poor choice. It snowed, and portable heaters were needed in the dance tent. The nonprofit festival group found itself $1,000 in the red that first year.
But the enthusiasm for the event grew, proving that money wasn’t everything. The community tried it again in ’94 on the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend, and an annual tradition was hatched. The festival is now largely self-sustaining, though it gets financial help from local business sponsors and the Vermont Council on the Arts.
“We’re hoping for 2,000 festival-goers this years,” says Dunwoody. “We now see people from Boston, New York Montreal, Philadelphia and Albany who mark this on their calendar, and come each year.”
The 12-hour festival starting at noon has three basic venues: 105-year old Chandler Music Hall, a downtown landmark; the historic white steepled Bethany United Church of Christ and the food/dance tent. Food is a big draw, and over they years there’s been hot stuff, such as jambalaya, gumbo, Italian sausage, chili, chorizo and andouille. One can chow on burgers and veggie wraps and salads and soya noodles and kabobs and tamales and barbecued corn and smoothies and sweets of all shapes and sizes. Plus pies … apple, cherry chocolate, key-lime, you name it, more than 100, baked by the parishioners of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Not to mention Vermont craft brews. There also is handcrafted jewelry for sale, plus jams and sweaters and pickles and puzzles. The children’s program features face-painting, mask-making, story telling, puppeteering and singing.
But it’s the music that takes center stage, thanks to Dunwoody’s consummate skill at rummaging around to find talented musicians, sometimes relying on CDs that arrive in the mail unexpectedly, word-of-mouth and YouTube views and other forms of Internet searches. He has sources in Quebec who give him leads. He’s gone on road trips to hear and meet musicians in person.
Among the celebrated musicians and groups he’s coaxed to Vermont over the years: the late Jerry Holland, beloved fiddler and song writer from Cape Breton; the late Johnny Cunningham, the Scottish fiddler; John Doyle, Irish guitarist and singer; Barachois (now disbanded), the Acadian band from Prince Edward Island; and Dentdelion, a Quebecois band from Quebec.
No one can accuse him of forsaking Vermont’s own bands and musicians. Among the many who have performed over the years are Mango Jam and Yankee Chank, both offering up those romping Cajun and Zydeco flavors; Peter Sutherland of Middlebury, the fiddler and mandolin player, and Sarah Blair, a Montpelier fiddler.
“Music is obviously a total passion for Kevin,” says Blair. “He is always looking for people who are not necessarily well known but who are really fine players. He also seems to love groups that have special connections among themselves, like families or groups of young performers who especially like playing together.”
Dunwoody concedes he can be sheepish about asking certain musicians to play in Randolph because the venue is so small and the festival’s finances so limited. He doesn’t pay much, but “everyone just seems to cut us a financial break,” he says.
He adds that Randolph’s intimate setting seems especially popular with performers.
Dunwoody, sitting on the porch of his home, surrounded by potted and hanging plants and Buddhist prayer flags, recalls a night years back when the Montreal band, Le Volee d’ Castors, not interested in the long drive home after its performance, set up sleeping tents at the outdoor hockey rink but then began playing instruments and singing with three other bands around a gas lantern until daybreak.
“The police came down to check to see if everything was OK, saw that it was and left,” says Dunwoody.
Dunwoody has a host of tales, of near crisis, of successful attempts at pulling things off at the last minute.
Back in the early days of the festival, he had another band of young performers, also from Montreal, all lined to play. Their inexperienced manager, however, had failed to secure U.S. working papers, so they likely would have been turned back at the border.
Dunwoody, in Montreal, gathered up the band’s instruments and drove the equipment across the border unnoticed in his own car, so the band members could then, as regular U.S. tourists, enter Vermont in a second vehicle.
It was a caper he would never try or sanction today, he emphasizes. “That was before 9-11.”
Becky McMeekin, executive director at the nonprofit Chandler Center for the Arts, whose music hall benefits financially from the festival, has worked with Dunwoody for years.
Without resorting to simile or other style of comparison McMeekin says she “can’t imagine anyone” more dedicated to his community. “Kevin never looks for the spotlight,” she adds.
Dirk Van Susteren of Calais is a freelance reporter and editor.