Photo: Scott Affens

Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival Celebrates 10th Anniversary

May 4 marks DC’s 10th annual Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival, one of the city’s most iconic music showcases. However, this particular happening wasn’t formed with a singular effort to deliver more music to the District; instead, the organizers intended to draw attention to one of the city’s most unique features: Kingman Island. Nestled between the banks of the Anacostia River, the Kingman and Heritage Islands are home to wildlife and natural resources unlike any other in the city.

This year’s festival is slated to bring another talented lineup to DC, featuring prominent performers like The Dustbowl Revival, Ballroom Thieves, Hackensaw Boys, Odetta Hartman and more. As always, proceeds from the event go toward supporting stewardship of the islands, as well as educational programming.

“We wanted to drive people to the island because at the time, it seemed like no one knew it existed,” says Lee Cain, the director of Kingman and Heritage Islands for local nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation, of the festival’s beginnings. “Over the years, it’s helped us gain momentum and enhance opportunities for our hands-on education programs.”

Cain says the festival, brainchild of DC’s Ward 6 and Living Classrooms, saw only several hundred attendees its first year. Now, Kingman draws crowds up to 8,000 each spring.

“The first one was like 300 people, a band and a keg of beer,” Cain says with a chuckle. “Then a few hundred more, and a few hundred more. In 2015, it went from 1,200 people to 6,000 people. It was amazing because all these people were coming to Kingman and the Anacostia River. People discover this amazing wildlife in our backyard. [The festival] really lives up to its purpose.”

Volunteer participation has also risen steadily as more people get acquainted with the festival and its mission, says Living Classrooms Director of Communications Michelle Subbiondo. With more people helping and enjoying the annual shindig, resources have gone toward improving the island.

“The island has grown and changed along with the festival as it morphed from a dumping ground to a lush animal and plant oasis thanks to our students and volunteers,” Subbiondo says. “Now, we’re among the top festivals in DC. It’s been quite a ride, that’s for sure.”

Despite the foot traffic and vendors providing goodies for patrons, Kingman doesn’t stop maintaining its eco-friendly zero waste initiatives during the party. The campaign began in 2016 with help from the city and organizations like the Sierra Club, which helps manage waste during festivities.

“I’ve been working in this field my entire career, and trash is the one thing that people don’t like,” Cain says. “That’s one of the things that is exciting because it’s not a polarizing issue. That’s a lot of waste not going to the landfill and there’s literally no trash on the island the day after. That’s an exciting blueprint.”

With 10 years in the rearview mirror, the organizers have no plans of slowing the momentum. However, with a finite amount of space, more people may be a tough ask; but that doesn’t mean it can’t continue to thrive in other ways.

“We have a few things on the table for future years,” Subbiondo says. “Perhaps bringing in some big-name talent or introducing new genres of music, expanding the event to two days, [and] including more educational opportunities to get people really immersed in the island. Time will tell how this all unfolds, but one thing we can guarantee is that the island and community are always our first priority.”

As for this year, with the festival enjoying a pivotal anniversary, there’s no plans to deviate from the successful formula of lots of music, beer and food trucks. With that being said, Cain does expect some costumes of a very specific variety.

“It does fall on May 4, so I’m wondering if people will show up in Star Wars gear.”

Join Luke Skywalkers and Darth Vaders at the Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival on May 4 from 12-8 p.m. Tickets are $35-$100. For more information about the festival, visit www.kingmanislandbluegrass.info. For details about Living Classrooms and its mission, visit www.livingclassrooms.org.

Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival: 575 Oklahoma Ave. NE, DC; 205-799-9189; www.kingmanislandbluegrass.info