Hats off to the Blues

Hats off to the Blues
June 30, 2009
David Burke
Quad-City Times

Karen McFarland is a woman who wears many different hats. Figuratively and literally. Figuratively, she's the vice president-secretary of the Mississippi Valley Blues Society and co-chair - along with Blues Society president Bob Covemaker - of the entertainment committee for the IH Mississippi Valley Blues Festival. This weekend marks the event's 25th year.

Literally, the 59-year-old has a collection of 50 different hats. She's almost never in public without one, and it's become her trademark. (Even her e-mail address includes "SoManyBonnets.")

"It's kind of become a signature," McFarland said. "It's also a lot of pressure because if I don't buy a new hat for the festival, I've got to make sure it's not the same hat I wore last year to the festival."

The Davenport woman has been a part of the Blues Society since she moved to the Quad-Cities with her then-husband in 1987.

"When I moved out here from Maryland, this was definitely the scene, the Blues Society," she said.

She's also a rock music fan - having been at Woodstock 40 years ago this August - but has always felt an affinity toward the blues.

"I like the way it speaks the truth," she said. "I like the groove, I like the music."

McFarland has been a part of the Blues Festival every year since 1988, volunteering in many different capacities.

"It's very much like a family," she said. "We put so much work in getting this festival together throughout the year, it's just become second nature."

The past year has been one of the more difficult, she said. Mississippi River flooding forced the 2008 festival from its traditional home in LeClaire Park into the streets of downtown Davenport and inside the Adler Theatre.

Although the accommodations were wonderful, she said, musicians and fans alike missed the riverside ambience. Attendance was down and so was the funding for this year's Blues Fest.

"People think we're a cash cow," she said. "But the only way we can do next year's festival is to make money from this year's festival."

Thanks to grants from the Riverboat Development Authority, Scott County Regional Authority and Illinois Arts Council, as well as selling $1,000 "silver anniversary club" memberships to 10 patrons and hosting a series of fundraising concerts, the money was gathered.

"It always bothers me when people think we have a lot of money," she said. "We don't."

Weather has never completely canceled a Blues Fest, McFarland said, and she is crossing her fingers for this year.

"If we don't get a lot of people out to the festival or the weather's bad, it could be in jeopardy for next year," she added. "We just barely made it this year."

Laura Ernzen, the IH Mississippi Valley Credit Union marketing manager, calls McFarland a "walking blues encyclopedia," a title that McFarland disputes.

"I feel like I know a lot. I don't know if I'm a walking encyclopedia," she said. "I like doing the research, and I know a lot because I've been around for so long."

Ernzen said that when a blues song is mentioned, for example, McFarland generally can rattle off the names of all the artists who have done different versions of it.

McFarland is also a representative to the national Blues Foundation, which meets in Memphis. Ernzen said she was an appropriate choice.

"I think she brings a tremendous amount of passion for a cause," Ernzen added. "She has been a longtime supporter, a longtime fan of the blues."

McFarland taught English, writing, literature and film at Scott Community College for 18 years and now teaches online composition, literature and film classes for Ashford University in Clinton, Iowa.

She's not sure how she began wearing hats, although a Christmas present from her former mother-in-law may have made it her style.

"If you've got a hat, you've got to wear it," she said. "I started wearing them to teach, and when that happened, the students knew I was sick if I didn't have a hat on."

McFarland estimates she has 50 hats in her collection, and her bedroom is a fortress of hat boxes and hat stands.

"It's become expected now," she said. "Everybody expects me to have a hat, so I rarely go out without one."

She has pictures of many of the male Blues Festival performers wearing her hats in backstage photo shoots and recalls one - Bernard Allison - who even wore one of her bonnets onstage.

"It's a way to be recognized, but it takes a lot of courage to wear some of these," she said. "There are some really magnificent hats."
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