Mere yards from the iconic Mushroom Fountain at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, on the outskirts of Planet Roo, sits the air-conditioned tent known as the Bonnaroo Works Fund Community Center. It’s fairly inconspicuous, and for good reason. Bonnaroo is a music festival, after all, and while a very small percentage of each ticket price for Bonnaroo goes into the Fund, most festival goers may not know it exists or even what it does. The Community Center is a no-commitment, take-a-break way for music fans to learn about the Fund and contribute more intentionally by bidding on hundreds of one-of-a-kind items, included signed guitars, posters and concert photos.
For JC Barber, who’s run the Center for years, the auction has come a long way. It’s now conducted completely digitally through a smartphone app. “It went from a flea market-type event, where people were arguing over signed guitars at the end of the auction, to something more organized, said Barber on Friday during the Festival. “Some people, especially the older fans who’ve been coming to the Festival for years, come in every year to see what’s available to place their bids on.”
The impact of the Community Center, too, has grown.
“If you’re in the entertainment business, especially,” says Barber, “I think you want to be a benefit to the world, not a detriment, and I think the Center and the Fund is an important aspect of the festival. It’s a way of involving fans. We hope that being here on the edge of Planet Roo introduces young people to what we’re doing and the idea of philanthropy.”
This year, the Community Center, in additional to a slew of new auction items, and signed records and posters by Bonnaroo Works Fund Ambassador Margo Price, included a partnership and activation with the Les Paul Foundation. The Foundation, created by Les Paul in 1995 and funded after his death in 2009, focuses on issues that were important to the legendary guitarist, inventor and innovator in his lifetime, namely music education and hearing impairment issues such as tinnitus.
In its second year working with Bonnaroo, the Les Paul Foundation brought T-shirts and other Foundation-emblazoned items to sell, while hoping to educate a younger audience about Les Paul’s legacy and goals of the Foundation.
“It made sense from a variety of points of view,” said Les Paul Foundation Executive Director Michael Braunstein about the Foundation’s partnership with Bonnaroo. “One, this is an audience that really doesn’t know Les. To expand on Les’s history and why he’s so important, we have to introduce him to a different audience. Second, The Bonnaroo Works Fund is a great philanthropic organization that cares about music education, which is mostly the focus of our Foundation.”
The Les Paul Foundation’s work at Bonnaroo isn’t the first time its reached into Middle Tennessee to share its mission. In the spring of 2016, it brought an interactive exhibit, “Les Paul’s Big Sound Experiment” to Middle Tennessee State University, one of 30-plus stops for the exhibit’s national tour. Beverly Keel, chair of MTSU’s Department of Recording Industry, said of the exhibit at the time that it “will bring (the students’) educational foundation to life … and inspire them to achieve great things themselves.”
“It’s again about bringing Les to the public,” says Braunstein. “Les is truly historic. He changed everything. The way people live on forever is that they get taught in schools. We provide grants to universities and high schools, and wherever we go, we ask that he be put in the curriculum. There’s never a problem with that. Everyone says, “Of course, he makes sense to be in the curriculum. For us, that’s the brass ring. When I’m not here, and those that knew Les are gone, who’s talking about him? It’s important that historic figures and people who did things like Les are remembered and taught. That’s one of the foundations’ ancillary goals.”
One of the additional benefits of working with the Bonnaroo Works Fund, and one that has proven beneficial for both organizations, is the Foundation’s bestowal of its Les Paul Spirit Award during the Festival. Presented annually “to an individual who exemplifies the spirit of the late, great Les Paul through innovation, engineering, technology and/or music,” Bonnaroo gives the Foundation access to worthy artists. The award ceremony gives the Bonnaroo Works Fund an opportunity to host a fundraising dinner for its own initiative. Last year, the award was given to Grateful Dead founding member, Bob Weir. This year, at the Bonnaroo Works Fund Eats & Greets event on Friday night, on what would have been Paul’s 102nd birthday, it was given to U2 guitarist, The Edge, prior to U2’s main stage performance later that night.
In presenting the award to The Edge, Braunstein not only praised the guitarist’s “uncommon versatility” and “distinct personal and original style,” he pointed to his philanthropy.
“These are connected spirits,” said Braunstein of Paul and The Edge. “While not a criteria for the award, The Edge also shares with Les the desire and the responsibility to help others. Les created the Les Paul Foundation to provide funding to put music education back in schools; The Edge is the co-founder of Music Rising, which provided funding for restoring the New Orleans music community after Hurricane Katrina and continues with funding for music education and other philanthropic endeavors.”
“I didn’t hesitate for a split second (to accept the award), because Les Paul is without a doubt, a man after my own heart,” said The Edge in his acceptance speech to the intimate crowd of a couple of hundred patrons and members of the press in the VIP tent. “He had spirit of invention and inquisitiveness … he was always after that sound that had never been heard before. These are words that could have come out of my mouth. I know I owe a great debt of gratitude, not only for his contributions for music but in terms of his contributions to the technology. I use the guitars that Les designed; the effects that he invented. I want to honor him tonight and say a great thank you to the Les Paul Foundation for continuing his work.”
Watch The Edge’s full acceptance speech below: