Published in City Newspaper (Rochester) July 21, 2004

Out Standing in Their Field

by Bill Chaisson

"Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance" does not lend itself to an acronym, so most people just called it "Grassroots".  As in, "So, who's at Grassroots this year?" This summer the short answer is "Los Lobos, Solas and ... ah ... about 58 other bands." The event opens on Thursday, July 22nd, with a reunion of the Bubba George String Band and will be brought to a blissed-out, pleasantly exhausted close on Sunday evening with a performance by the host band, Donna the Buffalo. Over the intervening four days on four different stages you will hear Ithaca-area roots music, African music, Native American music, Irish traditional music, zydeco and Cajun music, and, what started it all in the Ithaca area, old-time music.

Grassroots began fourteen years ago in the Puryear kitchen. Jordan and Jeb Puryear had been friends with Richie Stearns and Shane Lamphier since they were kids, playing together in Bubba George. A friend of theirs recently had been diagnosed with AIDS and that night in the kitchen they decided to have a benefit concert at the State Theatre in Ithaca. Jordan, Jeb and Shane were in Donna the Buffalo, and Richie was in the Horseflies. A third band, the Anabaptists, also played. The show raised money.  So they decided to raise some more.

I caught up to Jordan Puryear the day he was due to leave for North Carolina, where he now spends most of his time, organizing the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival outside of Chapel Hill. Puryear, his brown hair hanging down from beneath a straw hat, sat down in the shade outside the festival office in 'downtown' Trumansburg and recounted the inauspicious beginning in 1991.

"The first year we had 10,000 Maniacs. It rained the first two days and, without 10,000 Maniacs playing, I don't think anyone would have come. They had some hits on the radio at the time. The Horseflies were opening for them on tour, so that was part of our connection to them. It was only three days the first year and when we were done, we all thought 'Man, that wasnít enough'."

The people of Trumansburg were initially a little dubious about the enterprise. "There was still a certain stigma attached to AIDS. And when people heard 10,000 Maniacs were coming, they thought it meant, uh, 10,000 maniacs were coming. But," Puryear says, shaking his head, "Jeb gets along with everyone. He likes everyone and pretty much everyone likes him. He built the bridge."

The village fairgrounds are transformed into the Grassroots Festival by an army of volunteers. Stages are built, tents are erected. With a touch of awe in

his voice Puryear says, "In the beginning it was older tradesmen doing it, but now most of the set-up is done by local young people who have grown up with the festival as a part of their lives." Not just local folks though. "Thereís a lot of people from Rochester for some reason.  More so than Syracuse. Some from Binghamton and people from all over. During the days before the festival, it's like a reunion. They only see each other this one time and they come every year."

The music at the festival is diverse, but "culturally-rooted dance music is emphasized" according to Puryear. I'd noticed that no one too famous seems to play Grassroots. "When Rusted Root came years ago, it was the first time we attracted a younger crowd and drunkenness was a problem. Young people just came pouring in like it was ... a concert. They showed up an hour before [Rusted Root played] and then just left. It felt like an intrusion."

The festival has given away more than $300,000 over its 14-year existence. For the first five years it was mostly to AIDS research, but it has broadened to include the arts and education. Most of the money is distributed locally; Puryear cites gifts toward the renovation of the historic State Theatre and construction of the town of Ulysses' new library. An exception to the regional rule was a bequest to a program for African mothers with AIDS.

Many local restaurants set up satellite operations at Grassroots; Asian and Latin American cuisines are particularly well represented. Peter Wolfanger, a volunteer who oversees the selection of food vendors for the festival, filled me in on this year's festival. "We do with the food what we do with the music: it's diverse and ethnically based. But we've got burgers and hot dogs somewhere. The American Legion takes care of that. We've got vegan, but," Wolfanger smiles, "we've got lots of good meat too."

In 1991 Grassroots drew about 1500 people over three days. Now the festival attracts 15,000 over four days and is about as big as it's going to get. Puryear maintains that the spirit of the festival has remained the same. What is the spirit of Grassroots? Puryear has to think about this a little. "Well, weíre incredibly open to letting people express themselves ... not an 'anything goes' crazy party ... but a connection between the music and the dancing.  Between the bands and the dancers. It's all about participation. People come to celebrate, to feel good."

Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance happens Thursday, July 22 through Sunday, July 25 at the Trumansburg Fairgrounds, Rt. 96, Trumansburg. Four-day pass: $65 (advance), $75 (gate).  Single day rates: $30-$40. 607-387-5098 or see

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Last revised:  May 3, 2005