Merriam-Webster defines “ballyhoo” as an extravagant, attention-getting demonstration, and that’s just what the 9th annual Ballyhoo Festival was when The Roaming Parkers attended this year.
Ballyhoo is an event of the Gulf Coast Arts Alliance, whose mission is the development and promotion of the arts on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. It is held each year in early March at the lakeside picnic area of Shelby Lake at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, Alabama. The festival features a Poarch Creek Indian powwow, arts and crafts vendors from all over the United States, regional food vendors, and a fiddle and banjo competition.
We had perfect festival weather all weekend long – cool and breezy in the mornings and sunny and 70s in the afternoon. We camped at the Gulf State Park campground on the other side of Shelby Lake and rode free “rental” bikes around the lake to the festival.
The Poarch (pronounced “porch”) Band of Creek Indians is a small reservation of Native Americans that sided with the United States in the Creek Wars against the Northern “Red Stick” Creeks in the early 1800s. Because the Poarch Creeks were so tightly intermarried with local whites, they were allowed to remain in south Alabama after the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Now they are the only federally-recognized Indian nation in Alabama.
The Poarch Band receives much of its funding through the operation of the Wind Creek Spa and Casino at Atmore Alabama as well as the fancy, family-friendly OWA Parks and Resort in Foley Alabama.
During their powwow at the Ballyhoo, they demonstrated numerous traditional dances including men’s straight, women’s jingle, and grass dance. Between dances the emcee told stories about the history of the dances and how the Poarch Band came to be given the dances that did not originate with them.
If you missed the Poarch Creek dances at the Ballyhoo and don’t want to wait until next March to see them, they hold an elaborate powwow at their Atmore reservation around Thanksgiving each year, and they would love to have you there.
The Ballyhoo Festival is primarily billed as an Arts and Crafts cultural exchange, and as such, dozens of artists gathered from as far as Wyoming and New York to display their original paintings; sculptures in wood, metal, and glass; jewelry; and textile creations.
Food vendors also brought their food trucks from all over the southeast to tempt festival-goers. There was a lot of typical Fair fare but there were also some quite unique culinary experiences to be had, like a Cajun truck dishing out red beans, rice, smoked sausage, and boudin. Another vendor brought their vintage Airstream travel trailer that had been converted and artistically painted into a tropical-themed ice cream shop.
The coup de gras of the Ballyhoo festival was the fiddle and banjo competition on the second day. This reminded me of a ton of old banjo jokes like, “What do you call a good musician at a banjo contest?” (A visitor) and “How can you tell if there’s a banjo player at your door?” (They can’t find the key, the knocking speeds up, and they don’t know when to come in.) – but it really doesn’t do much good to hit a banjo player with this sort of jibe because they’ve heard all the jokes and they always have a clever response, like “There ain’t much between me and a fool except this here banjo, is there now?”
In any case, the competition drew contestants from all over, ranging in age from “small fry” to “old timers. The fiddlers fiddled and the banjo players picked, providing the crowd with hours of enjoyment and earning the best in show various prizes ranging as high as $200. Before and after powwow performances and the fiddle and banjo contest there were professional music groups playing bluegrass and pop tunes to keep the festival atmosphere fresh.
And one of the best parts of the whole shebang is that they schedule it each year after the weather turns beautiful but before the hordes of Spring Break teenagers descend upon the Emerald Coast.
Images by DeepAI