After organizing concerts in a Ridgefield park for the last two decades, Barbara Manners found herself in a rare yet enviable situation last month: Up on the big screen, in front of hundreds of Danish festival-goers.

“They flashed a photo of me on the big screen, I couldn’t believe it ... I still don’t know how I even got invited,” Manners recalled.

The moment was brief for CHIRP’s founder but it still highlighted the craziness of her journey to the Tønder Festival, an annual folk music festival that has run in Tønder, Denmark, during the last weekend of August since 1975.

“It’s one of the largest music festivals in all of Europe, definitely one of the largest in Scandinavia,” Manners said. “It really was a lovely festival. ... I couldn’t say no to this opportunity.”

And to think, her stay in Denmark almost didn’t happen.

On Wednesday, Aug. 21, Manners was stuck on the tarmac at Newark airport.

“I was on the plane for three hours with no water, no air,” she said. “I didn’t think we were going to make it. The festival started Thursday.”

Her plane eventually departed and arrived in Copenhagen on Thursday. Manners immediately hopped on a five-hour train to the festival which takes place in the southern part of the country — two miles across from the German border.

“It was a long trip for what turned out to be a pretty short time at the festival,” she said. “I was there all day Friday and Saturday and had to leave by noon on Sunday.”

Ice cream and trains

Manners said all the traveling made her appreciate the Danish train system — the largest in Scandinavia.

“The trains run like clockwork,” she said. “And they’re pristine, too.”

She also appreciated how clean the bathrooms were kept at Tønder.

“Cleanest porta potties of any festival I’ve ever been to,” she said. “I don’t understand why we can’t have that in America.”

The only disappointment?

“There was only one ice cream vendor at the entire festival,” said Manners, who also serves on the town’s Board of Selectmen. “30 to 40 beer sellers, all sorts of food — Mexican, German, Scandinavian, but just one person selling ice cream. I found that very strange.”

Folk music in 2019

Manners said that like many festivals she’s attended — including the Rhythm and Root Festival in Rhode Island which she traveled to over Labor Day weekend — her experience in Denmark showed her that folk music has changed since she started following it in the 1960s.

“Folk music today is everything,” she said. “The term is very broad now. It’s not just Phil Ochs and Pete Seeger.”

She said the music at Tønder ranged from bluegrass to roots to Americana.

“There’s been so many different influences over the years,” she said. “... The festival was the same as Philadelphia and Newport. Neither are folk as we’ve known it. ... It’s music from everywhere.”

Similar yet different.

Tønder Festival had 90 acts on seven stages over the course of four days.

“Some were instrumental only, which was interesting,” Manners recalled. “I’d love to have them but my audience mostly likes acts that have vocals. That’s who I usually try to find and book.”

Her favorite part were two all-Danish showcases — eight selected bands each playing 30-minute similar sets spread across two days.

“That was terrific. They were all mind-blowingly good,” she said. “It was too bad that I can’t afford to book any of those acts. They’re all too big.”

“One had eight performers and four dancers,” added Manners, who often houses the bands that perform in Ballard Park at her home in Ridgefield.

“Unless these Danish bands were in the United States, it would be hard for any small festival like CHIRP to book them.”

Feedback

Manners was one of 43 music “delegates” invited to Tønder to network with other festival organizers and music journalists to observe some select Scandinavian artists, as well as enjoy the festival and give its organizers suggestions that might benefit them in the future.

“We represented pretty much all disciplines,” Manners said. “Some were music magazine editors, some were promoters, others were festival organizers.”

All of their journeys were paid by the Danish government through a grant that supports the arts.

“They pay the way so we can explore the artists and give our feedback ... this is a government that cares about the arts and is ready to invest in them,” Manners said.

Among her group were people from Canada, England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Poland, Belgium, and Germany.

“I was only one of five Americans,” Manners said. “...What was really amazing is that some of the people there knew about Ballard Park and the CHIRP series.”

The experience went against almost everything she’s learned as a festival-goer in the United States.

“They wanted suggestions from us on how to improve their festival and how to showcase their people. It was all very fascinating,” she said. “Nobody has ever asked for my input on how to improve their festival. ... Typically, when I’m a guest at a festival, it’s as a courtesy. It’s not usually for giving input. I’m given access most of the time to talk to artists and make connections. That’s how the independent music scene works — it’s all about more bookings.

“Denmark is exceptional in that regard,” Manners added. “They really cared for our input ... We didn’t have to book any of their artists but they asked us to attend those two showcases. The rest of the time we had for ourselves to see whatever acts we wanted to see.”

Back to Copenhagen

The trip to Denmark allowed Manners to return to a city she visited as a teenager.

“I spent three days in Copenhagen while backpacking in Europe in my late teens,” said Manners. “That was a half century ago, and I never got outside of the city. ...

“Denmark is a beautiful country,” she continued. “It wasn’t until this trip that I got to discover some of the natural beauty the country possess. Remember, I was on the train for five hours. I had a lot of time to look at the landscapes.”

She also had some time in Copenhagen before flying back home to Ridgefield.

“It’s a very modern city,” Manners said. “They have every type of cuisine imaginable. It’s very cosmopolitan and diverse. But, at the same time, they do a lot to preserve their old buildings, which are some of the main tourist attractions.”

In addition to the bathrooms at the festival, the dedication to the arts and the train system, Manners was impressed that the country had WiFi everywhere — at the festival, on the trains, and walking around city parks.

“Why don’t we have these things? It’s really amazing all that they have there and how efficient it all runs.”