OUR ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO THE BOROUGH OF KINGS
COURIER LIFE, NOVEMBER 19–25, 2021 39
BY KIRSTYN BRENDLEN
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 cofounder,
retrofi tted 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 defi nition 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 sacrifi ced 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 fi rst 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.”
take aim at Folk
canal banjo toss
A contestant gives her best shot during Brooklyn Folk Festival’s annual Banjo Toss on Sunday, Nov. 14. Photo by Caroline Ourso