During its first full year as an organization, 1990, Art Menius, currently Secretary of the SERFA board, served as president of Folk Alliance International, then named the North American Folk Music & Dance Alliance. With not a little rancor, for example a tug of war for Maryland, the initial board struggled with dividing the continent into regions to ensure a geographical spread of board representation.
Regional sessions began at the next Folk Alliance International Conference in Chicago during late January 1991. That summer, Jim Magill, currently a member of the SERFA board, organized the first regional Folk Alliance event at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, NC. Although only four people attended, they were Magill, Menius -- by this time employed as manager of the Folk Alliance -- board secretary Janie Wilson, and future Folk Alliance president and executive director, Phyllis Barney. A second Folk Alliance South gathering took place in rural Georgia during March 1993 in conjunction with the Folklorists in the South retreat. That reflected the tight relationship between the Folk Alliance and public sector folklorists during Menius’ time at the helm.
After these early efforts, southern organizing efforts dissipated. After its 1994 launch, Dianne Tankle and others established the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance (NERFA) conference. It quickly became the model for regional Folk Alliance events and organizations.
Southeast sessions continued at the International Conference, facilitated by people including Magill, Dennis Batson of the Mississippi Valley Folk Arts Alliance in Memphis, and publicist and artist advisor Kari Estrin.
As the end of the first decade of the 21st Century approached, only SERFA lacked a regional conference even though it has been the first region to have a meeting. Estrin, appointed SERFA president in 2002, took on organizing the region, assisted by Ben Scales and others. Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard, and Kathy Mattea provided Estrin with a lot of advice, and two small planning meetings took place.
The situation was complicated by a strained relationship between FAI and SERFA over the bylaws for SERFA, due to which FAI was holding some $1100 of SERFA funds. At the May 2005 FAI board meeting Leslie Berman reported that SERFA bylaws “could not possibly comply” with FAI regulations. None the less, that November the FAI board directed Estrin to begin planning a 2007 SERFA conference.
The minutes for the March 17, 2007 FAI board Executive Committee meeting noted:
There was a discussion at the FA Board meeting in Memphis about the need for SERFA, after five years in existence, to have their own regional convention. It didn’t seem likely at the time so a few members of SERFA planned their own “retreat” in Little Switzerland, N.C. At the same time a SERFA convention was proposed by their board and they are looking for a meeting place, hotel rates etc. with an idea to have the convention this fall. The SERFA membership has been told there are plans for a mid-October convention in Murpheesboro [sic], Tn. Subsequently a decision is being made to cancel the proposed retreat and a decision on that is expected within 48 hours.
In October 2008 the SERFA conference became a reality at Middle Tennessee State University, which has an acclaimed music industry program, in Murfreesboro. It moved to the historic Ozark Folk Center, founded by Jimmy Driftwood (writer of “Tennessee Stud” and “Battle of New Orleans”) in Mountain View, AR for 2009 and 2010. By the third conference in 2010, it was attracting more than 100 attendees and featured Si Kahn as the first keynote speaker. That year SERFA began presenting Certificates of Appreciation.
With that success, Kim Richardson succeeded Estrin as president, while Betty Friedrichsen and Christine Stay taking on producing the conference. The event moved to its current, more centralized and convenient location in Montreat, NC in May 2011. Ten years after Estrin brought SERFA back to life, the FAI board finally approved SERFA’s bylaws in April 2012. Soon thereafter the Caribbean became part of SERFA when all the regions expanded beyond the USA.
The only regional conference not held during autumn, the SERFA conference has flourished in Montreat growing steadily to 249 attendees in 2016. Estrin returned as conference producer from 2014 to 2016. Innovations in Montreat include the Founding President’s Awards (created by Estrin and first presented to the Highlander Center in 2014) and Wisdom of the Elders (2013). Such noted leaders as John McCutcheon, Peggy Seeger, and the Rounder Founders (Marian Leighton Levy, Ken Irwin, and Bill Nowlin) have keynoted at the Assembly Inn. Both FAI executive directors during this period (the late Louis Meyers and Aengus Finian) have attended there. 2016 also saw SERFA finally achieve full compliance with the FAI requirements for regionals and elected a new president, Don Baker. At the same time, management of the conference shifted to a five-person committee rather than one or two individuals.
- Art Menius, November 2016