San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Proves People Want Art – and Does Right By Women

Last weekend, music lovers in San Francisco enjoyed what has become a much-anticipated annual event: the free – yes, FREE – Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park. Friday, October 2 through Sunday, October 4, 2009, more than 80 musical acts performed on 6 stages for a crowd the San Francisco Chronicle estimates at 750,000 or more. In its ninth year, HSB, which is put on by billionaire investment banker Warren Hellman, featured a stellar line-up of artists that included a large representation of women. Mavis Staples, Marianne Faithfull, Emmylou Harris, Neko Case, Gillian Welch, Dar Williams, and Aimee Mann were only some of the best-known female talents who delighted audiences over the course of the weekend.

The WomenArts staff was, of course, thrilled to see a program that featured such a large percentage of women – not always the case at large music festivals. What possibly thrilled us even more as we lounged on the grass and wandered through thick crowds of relaxed, happy people, was the fact that so many people turned out for this free event. The popularity of HSB clearly demonstrates that all types of people – from families with babies to older folks who brought their own lawn chairs to young barefoot hippies to cowboy-hat-wearing bluegrass die-hards and everyone in between – enjoy the arts and will take advantage of arts events, especially when they are free. If arts events are suffering a lack of attendance, it would appear that this is not due to a lack of interest, but to a lack of cash to pay admission fees, confirming what we’ve long suspected: Americans want and need the arts.

The unemployment rate in California is currently over 12%, which means that over one in ten people at the festival might be unemployed. It was a wonderful thing indeed to look around and see smiling faces enjoying great music, forgetting for a few hours or a few days whatever financial or material problems they face. It is essential, especially during hard times, for communities to continue coming together and celebrating the power of art to provide solace, inspire peace and camaraderie, and simply to bring us moments of joy. WomenArts salutes HSB for doing all that, and for giving women artists their place on the stage.