Falls Church, one of the oldest municipalities in the state of Virginia, has many traditions that we celebrate and participate in every year. We have the Farmers Market, the Fall Festival, the Taste of Falls Church, the Village ”Attic Treasure Sale”, the City’s Memorial Day Parade, the Fourth of July reading of the Declaration of Independence, and on and on. You can find many similar events in nearby and far away cities and towns. Falls Church also has a tradition that is unique; the Tinner Hill Blues festival. The festival takes place the second weekend in June annually. This year the festival begins on Friday, June 12 and runs through Sunday, June 14. It has grown from a one day event to a full weekend of music, art, history and culture. Our mantra is ”All Blues, All Weekend, All Over Town”.
Falls Church, Virginia also has an early civil rights tradition. In 1915, Falls Church became the home to the group that evolved into the first rural branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Part of the reason the Tinner Hill Blues Festival was started was to celebrate the courageous men and women who formed the Colored Citizen’s Protective League.
The establishment of Civil Rights in this community replaced a despicable tradition of slavery and Jim Crow with a new stellar tradition of striving for egalitarianism, liberalism and justice for all. The festival is a testament to another Falls Church tradition, i.e. participatory democracy. Festival planners, sponsors, volunteers, performers and visitors all work together in spite of any political, religious, social economic, ethnic or racial differences.
For the past 22 years there has been a Tinner Hill Festival, and it has been a Falls Church tradition. It began as a small community festival on Wallace Street, with a couple of church choirs and a smattering of local homegrown talent. The festival has gone through growing pains to become one of the best blues festivals in the region.
For the first 14 years admission to the festival was free. Most residents of the city thought that this was the way it was should be. In 2008, the festival moved to Cherry Hill Park, and featured regional and nationally recognized musicians that were considerably more expensive to book than the local choirs and homegrown talent. In order to bring in nationally known blues performers, we needed to raise more money.
The first year we expanded, we continued the local tradition of raising funds primarily from local businesses. We added a Friday night concert at the State Theater for which we charged admission and suggested donation a $5 or $10 at the daylong concert in Cherry Hill Park. After a few years of trial and error, we decided that we needed a new business model, one that would help the festival to become self-sustaining and attract people from other communities to Falls Church City.
Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation wanted to create an event that would help raise money to support the our local preservation work. We also wanted to bring in the type of talent that would give the city and the region a taste of good old fashion “Down Home Blues” which is synonymous with African American history and culture. The major goal of the festival is to make Falls Church City a weekend destination during the festival, making it an economic driver for local businesses. Over the years we have seen our festival goers from neighboring communities come and have a good time, learn about local businesses and return time and again to dine and shop in the Little City.
In 2010, we changed our business model and began charging an admission fee and selling t-shirts and hats to help meet expenses. In 2011, we applied for and received an ABC license to sell beer and wine. ABC regulations require that alcohol can only be sold and consumed in a confined area. We tried temporary fencing but eventually, through funding from one of our sponsors, cordoned off the park with chain-linked fencing. This measure allowed for a safe and secure perimeter while also allowing drinkers to drink within the confines of the park. “Blues, Brew & BBQ” includes the sale of beer from Mad Fox Brewing Company, wine from Bogati Bodega & Veramar Vineyards in Northern Virginia, BBQ, vendors, children’s activities, films, workshops, vendors and the best musicians around!
This year has presented some challenges. Rising prices and shrinking contributions left us scrambling to create new revenue streams by adding advertising space for local and nearby businesses in our festival program booklet. The Tinner Hill Blues Falls Church has become a tradition that people as close your next door neighbors and as far away as North Carolina and Pennsylvania travel here to enjoy. We invite you to come out June 12, 13 and 14 and be a part of the Falls Church Blues tradition.
Edwin B. Henderson, II is president and founder of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation.