Let Freedom sing

Morgan Hill Freedom Fest turns to the American legacy of music to celebrate Independence Day

RED, WHITE AND BLUE The Morgan Hill Freedom Fest returns July 3-4 with a full schedule of activities. File photo

For the record, the Declaration of Independence was not drafted and signed in Morgan Hill. George Washington never slept here.

But, judging by the scope, ambition and tradition of Morgan Hill’s annual Independence Day celebration, it’s hard to blame anyone for thinking otherwise.

Morgan Hill Freedom Fest is the Fourth of July celebration for those who live by the dictum, “Go big or go home.” The festival takes place over the course of two days—July 3 and 4—and features no less than six separate events. It takes four months of planning, requires close to 500 volunteers, attracts about 70,000 attendees and dates back to the Ulysses S. Grant administration, more than 140 years.

The festival begins, fittingly, with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the opening performance of the opening event, the Patriotic Sing. That’s followed by the Family Music Fest, the early morning Freedom Run, the Freedom Fest Cruise & Car Show, the beloved parade and, of course, the big finale, Fireworks on the Green at the Outdoors Sports Center, just east of Highway 101.

“It’s fairly consistent with what we’ve done in the past,” said Freedom Fest president Jeff Dixon. “But we always try to expand it and make it better. For example, this year, we’ve added a second headliner act to the fireworks show.”

Give it another 140 years and the party might go on for a week.

The theme for the Freedom Fest this year is “Sing the Songs of America.” Music has for decades been a fundamental part of the festival, thanks to the opening Patriotic Sing, this year beginning at 6pm on Wednesday, July 3, at the Downtown Amphitheatre. The Sing brings on stage about 120 of Morgan Hill’s schoolchildren, ages 5-12, for a vocal concert of patriotic and uplifting songs.

The driving force behind the Sing is Karen Crane, a music teacher at El Toro Elementary School who was recently named the Chamber of Commerce’s Woman of the Year. Crane is in her 31st year as the director of the Patriotic Sing, which means she’s now working with the children of many of her child singers from the early days.

“I fell into a really great place in my life,” she said. “It’s been an absolute joy year after year.”

Audiences who attend the Sing are going to hear many of the old familiar songs they expect to hear: ”America the Beautiful,” “This Land is Your Land” and “God Bless America.” But, Crane said, she always wants to mix it up with new or unfamiliar songs that fit with the patriotic theme.

“I always try to bring in three new songs every year,” she said.

Included in the songbook this year will be “A Million Dreams” from the film musical The Greatest Showman, a song celebrating jazz called “Jazz Is On its Way,” and a medley from the Civil War that features “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

The kids will be busy throughout the festival. After the Patriotic Sing, they perform at the Family Music Fest, sing from their own float in the July Fourth Parade, and come back for a fourth time for the fireworks display.

The kids come together from the area’s public and private schools, and the group also welcomes home-schoolers in a program that has no auditions and no fees (though Crane does ask parents to buy a T-shirt for their youngster to make them look sharp for the parade).

The singers also perform at Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day observances, and this year, they also worked with the South Bay chapter of Blue Star Moms, an organization for families of active servicemen and -women. The kids helped put together donations and care packages for deployed troops overseas.

If continuity in leadership is the byword at the Patriotic Sing, change is in the air for the parade. After 24 years leading the parade, Bob and Maureen Hunt are handing over the production duties to new parade chair Matthew Stein.

Stein has been a Freedom Fest volunteer for years on the medical-services side. He comes to the job of parade chair with an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude.

“We try to operate from lessons learned,” he said. “We take the things that worked really well and do those again.”

This year, the Freedom Fest Parade will look much like it has in years past. The route has not changed—covering a large block of downtown Morgan Hill, northbound on Monterey Road, a left up West Main Avenue, a turn on Peak Avenue and back down West Dunne Avenue.

“This is one of the oldest parades in the country,” Stein said, “and one of the largest in the state. We have documented proof it goes back 143 years, but we’re pretty sure it goes back even further than that.”

The parade leans heavy on a traditional aesthetic, namely brass and horses, with several marching bands and equestrian units. Along with dancing troupes, floats, classic cars, VIPs and other attractions, the parade numbers just under a hundred entries and comes in at around 90 minutes to see it all.

“The part we try to change every year,” Stein said, “is to build the excitement of the parade itself. We try to bring in something new every year, whether it’s a marching band or an equestrian team. I think we’re one of the few parades that brings in large marching bands now.”

The parade starts at 10am and will likely be done by noon, which gives Fourth of July revelers plenty of time until the fireworks commence at dusk.

However exciting the fireworks are, the parade continues to be a big attraction, Dixon said.

“The earliest we’ve seen someone put a chair out on Peak Avenue [to reserve a space along the parade route] is May 27,” he said.

This year, during a chat with a group at the Morgan Hill Library during the first week of June, Dixon looked for those first telltale signs that the parade was getting closer.

“I made a point to tell everybody, ‘Hey, we don’t have any chairs out yet. We’re a little bit behind this year.’”

By Father’s Day weekend, however, the chairs were out along Peak Avenue. Many of them.

Morgan Hill Freedom Fest

• Patriotic Sing: Wednesday, July 3, 6pm

• Family Music Fest: July 3, 7pm

• Freedom Run: July 4, starting time 8am

• Parade: July 4, 10am

• Fireworks on the Green: July 4. Gates open at 4pm. Fireworks at about 9:30pm.

• Details: www.morganhillfreedomfest.com

Wallace Baine

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About Wallace Baine
Wallace Baine is a staff writer for New SV Media with extensive experience covering community arts in the region.