Folklife / Bikelife

Urban cyclist

Urban cyclist at the Festival

Last weekend we had a beautiful Saturday: Sunny, warm –> hot but with dry air and a bit of a breeze.  We went downtown to take advantage of the Corcoran Gallery’s free-admission summer Saturdays, and then walked the several blocks to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the mall in front of the museums.  This year the Peace Corps, Rhythm and Blues, and Colombia (no free samples of its best-known export) were the featured topics.

After a morning of museums and the walk there, we were focused on doing a once-over and deciding what was worth coming back for.  Among our discoveries was that Doo-Wop is a form of Rhythm and Blues–we expected Paul Anthony to come out after one set and do a WETA fund-raising appeal–and that the indigenous peoples of Colombia have amazingly vibrant music, dance, and handcrafts.  But we also witnessed the fact that bicycles have a lot to do with folklife and the Folklife Festival.

In basic or emerging economies the bicycle is not only a mode of transportation but an energy source.  Europeans developed the bike during the age of colonialism and empire-building, and it was soon introduced to the tribal societies of Africa, Asia, and South America.  Chinua Achebe worked the bicycle in to his fictional


Bike wheel / spinning wheel

narrative of the British colonization of the lower Niger in West Africa, the novella Things Fall Apart.  In that book one of the early British arrivals rides a bike into the local village.  He leaves the bike leaning against a tree.  The villagers, thinking the bike is some kind of weird domesticated animal, tie it up to the tree so it won’t run off.

But today in Colombia, an old bicycle wheel serves very nicely as the large end of a spinning wheel.  And the Peace Corps has found a way to customize bicycle power as an “Appropriate Technology” for rural communities.  Different attachments to the gears of a bike’s drive train can do domestic tasks, like the shelling of corn, efficiently and effectively.  Where electricity is not available, human power works.  And one of the principal reasons why bicycles are so compelling, and so little changed in their basic design and mechanical principles after well over 100 years, is that they began life as one of the most efficient and easy transformers of human energy into mechanical advantage.

On another whole level, bicycles provide one of the major methods by which people travel to, and move through, the Folklife Festival.  Their ubiquitous presence there reflects their growing use throughout

corn sheller

"Appropriate Technology" (note corn sheller behind front wheel)

DC and its suburbs, and indeed DC is now recognized as a city that aspires to be bicycle friendly.  Not that we’re like Portland, OR, yet.  Too many Type-A personalities behind the wheel and behind the handlebars.  Aggression and confrontation are too familiar a part of the DC bike/street scene.  But there are now Bikeshare stands all over the city, offering registered members the opportunity for instant bike rentals.  The bikes are heavy-duty, one-gear (“fixies”), and manageable; we saw several at the Festival on Saturday.  Of course many riders came on their own bikes of all shapes and styles, from the upright urban riders in street clothes to the “cyclistes” with their fancy gear and elegant road bikes, some from suburbs 20 or 30 miles away.

And bicycles are also reflected in the emergence of the Pedicab phenomenon.  These cycle-powered rickshaw-like vehicles pick up tourists and transport them around the Federal City, the drivers serving as narrators and tour guides.  they don’t slow down traffic much–it’s already about as slow as you can get–but they are currently unregulated,


Pedicab on Constitution Avenue

and you know how folks in this town love to regulate anything and everything.  So the National Park Service (which administers the Federal park areas in the city) is being uncooperative.  And that’s a shame, because the pedicabs add a very positive ambience to the tourist scene in general, and the Folklife Festival in particular.

I blush to admit that when we were through with our tour on Saturday we hopped into the Audi and (sigh) drove home.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s