Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Totemic T-Shirts: The Middletown Folk Festival

Where Proust had his madeleine, I have the Middletown Folk Festival t-shirt.

For nearly two decades (the whole of the 70s and a few years on either side) my parents produced a two-day folk festival that was held in a park in my hometown of Middletown New Jersey. To say this was a big deal would be an exponential understatement. Looking back it's amazing just how big of a deal this was, how much it dominated our lives and our calendar and our sense of who we were and what we did, but at the time we were simply swimming and it was the water we knew.

I could write at great length about the festival in its many aspects, but right now I just want to talk about the t-shirts.

What inspired this was a Facebook friend request I got this week from somebody I went through school with, who lived nearby. We didn't really run with the same crowd in high school, and my recollection is that he hung out more with my brother than with me, but he was always a good guy and he sent me a very nice catch-up note which I was pleased to get. In the note he reminded me of the folk festival and his memories of Dan Smith's harmonica playing and he wrote, "I still have my Middletown Folk Festival T-shirt somewhere in the closet. I bet it does not fit me very well though anymore."

That was the Proustian moment. In a bag in a box in the back of a closet I have a dozen or so Middletown Folk Festival t-shirts, each in a different color (we made them in a different color each year). The t-shirts are very simple: Solid color with the festival logo, which was a line-drawing my father made based on a photograph of the head and arms and instrument of a man playing the fife, surrounded by a circle. My brothers and I all had full wardrobes of these shirts, and we all wore them all the time.

None of the shirts would fit me at all these days, and they are pretty much worn to rags anyway, but every time I go through my things I unpack the shirts and debate what to do and then I just put them right back. I know that I accumulate lots of stuff and develop attachments to things like ties and dinnerware, but honestly there's nothing else I can think of that I would find as impossible to get rid of as these shirts.

This was my private secret until one day my friend Adele told me something similar. For the last several years of the festival, Adele was in charge of the t-shirts. She had her table to sell them and she set up camp and she conscripted her family and friends and the rest of us didn't have to worry about them. She had the same story as me: She has old ratty festival t-shirts that belonged to her and her husband and every time she clears things out she looks at the shirts and then packs them away again.

And then I got this note from Ned Houston with the identical story. I am amazed and I am touched and I feel a lot less crazy.

The shirts are literally rags. But they evoke a time and a feeling and an era and a weekend out of time that we all lived every year during a key period of our lives. Clutter experts would tell me that the t-shirts are not the memories and I should just let them go, and people who live spare lives would take a photo and scan it and throw out the t-shirts, I would probably go into a state of mourning if I did either of those things.
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