Every second Saturday in June, Falls Church residents and visitors from across the region and beyond are treated to outstanding blues music and festivities. This year, the annual Tinner Hill Blues Festival will be no different. We have planned a special weekend to commemorate our 20th music festival. Our mission “All Blues ~ All Weekend ~ All Over Town” turns Falls Church into a Mecca for those seeking authentic blues music!
Our first festival in 1994, the brainchild of Foxes Music owner Jim Edmonds and local activist Dave Eckert, took place on the lot now slated to become The Reserve at Tinner Hill. Musical highlights of the festival were the Second Baptist and Galloway United Methodist church choirs. There were presentations about Tinner Hill, food, and vendors.
The next year, I joined the planning of the festival, which was moved to Wallace Street, where it stayed until 1999. There it grew from a gospel street festival into an event featuring blues, jazz, R&B, and African drummers. At Tinner Hill and S. Washington in an antique store, we conducted the Oral History Theater.
I incorporated the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation in 1997. Members of the Tinner and Henderson families were on the board of directors. Bob Hull helped us set out on good financial footing through his efforts at the Virginia House of Delegates. David Snyder and Gerry Connolly worked to secure funding to buy the half acre on Tinner Hill. Board members Bob Morrison and Michael Diener helped keep our finances in order. Victor Dunbar and Ronald Winters were important board members. Real estate attorney Harold Hamlette handled discussions with the City and county regarding the Tinner Hill lease agreement. Thus synergy was created to keep African American history alive in Falls Church.
Then we moved the festival to Tinner Hill, part of the traditionally African American community where the Tinner family owned land since the mid-1860s. Two homes had once been there, one belonging to Joseph Tinner where the first meeting took place of the organization that evolved into the nation’s first rural branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Here the festival began to develop an identity based on African American history. John Jackson played Tinner Hill. We presented many musical genres on the Hill including “world” music, gospel, go-go, blues, and other African American musical styles.
In 2005, Nikki Graves (later, Henderson) took the lead in festival production. Her programming experiences at Henry Ford Museum convinced her that Falls Church could become a weekend destination for music lovers. Festival goals expanded from locally embraced community festival to premier blues festival in the region with national and regional performers.
The festival moved to Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School from 2006 to 2007. We concentrated on blues performers and booked Memphis Gold. There were stilt walkers, storytellers, Double Dutch teams and even a belly dancer. But attendance suffered due to stifling heat in the parking lot and lack of shade.
Blues lover and staunch supporter of the Tinner Hill Festival Lindy Hockenberry, then vice-mayor, suggested partnering with the City and moving the festival to the large, shady Cherry Hill Park. She also suggested we make it an all-blues festival!
In 2008, the first year in the park, the economy tanked and our sponsorship base dwindled. While attendance increased, the festival still ended in the red financially. Focusing on blues, we booked the best talent we could afford. Our budget was modest, but we managed to pull it off.
The festival continued to grow. We incorporated more highly recognized blues performers and extended programming from one day in one location to three days across town. We included educational programming and other arts-related activities.
We partnered with Creative Cauldron director Laura Hull, whose award-winning productions focused on music and local black history were phenomenal additions. Tom Gittins of Art and Frame of Falls Church hosted blues-related exhibitions and artist receptions. With Judy Jensen, Mary Lynn Hickey, and Mary Knieser, we developed a dedicated group of festival volunteers.
We soon realized we couldn’t afford to put on the quality festival we wanted without charging admission. We suggested a $10 donation, which still did not cover the cost of producing the festival.
Two years ago, we began to charge admission. We obtained all necessary permits from ABC to sell beer in the park, and purchased beer from Mad Fox Brewing Company. With these revenue streams, we were able to almost break even. The Mary Riley Styles Library, Falls Church Community Center, and local businesses including Art & Frame, Clare and Don’s, Stifel & Capra, Dogwood Tavern, the State Theatre and Famous Dave’s BBQ made “blues all over town” a reality by presenting live music.
As I look back on 20 years of Tinner Hill Festivals, I cannot help but look forward. We have several innovative projects in the works at Tinner Hill. We are not simply an organization that puts on blues festivals. One goal is to generate income to fund our organization’s history projects. We are working to make Falls Church history more inclusive and bring about an accurate portrayal of the contributions of African Americans to the history of Falls Church and surrounding areas.
Edwin Henderson is president and founder of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation.