Paul Ashe is the Director of the National Bell Festival (aka BellFest) which can be found online at Bells.org. The National Bell Festival is the annual New Year’s Day celebration in Washington, D.C. On the first day of the year, bells in towers across the nation ring out together and unite communities around listening parties, eclectic events, and special programming.
BellFest works throughout the year to restore bells and towers across D.C. to their former thundering glory. Sentinels in bronze, the bells toll a history of our nation: the jubilation of independence, the pain of war, the sacredness of community, and the resounding hope of tomorrow.
Mike: Paul, tell me how BellFest came about? How long has it been in existence and what is its purpose?
Paul: Our first National Bell Festival was New Year’s Day 2020. I started the festival as a way to keep alive that feeling of community togetherness and collaboration of yore. When you think of quaint old villages, where everyone looked out for each other, a bell tower was always at its center. If the bell were ringing, the people would gather and discuss the news of the day. Whether fire or invasion, a wedding or celebration, the people would plan a path forward together.
We could use a bit more of that community spirit today. Now, as we literally ring in the New Year, we gather people together to celebrate the start of something new, to meet a neighbor or a new friend, and to listen to the cascade of melodies from above. It’s a wonderful moment that also allows us to shed light on the amazing musicians and artistry of bells.
Mike: Tell me about the domain name Bells.org. How did you acquire the name. Can you share what the organization paid for the name?
Paul: We purchased the domain name from a private seller a few years back for…rather more than I had wanted to spend. But I recognized the value of having an easy to remember, easy to spell, and easy to associate domain name. How often does a domain like that become available, especially as a .com or .org? I knew we had to make it happen.
Mike: I’ve seen some of the images of old, historical bells on your website. They are beautiful. Do they even make bells like that anymore?
Paul: They do! Just far less in number. Sadly, the ancient craft of bell making is practiced by fewer and fewer, as economic conditions force bell foundries into closure all over the world. But there are a few that remain and they continue to produce bells that are beautiful in both tone and appearance.
Part of our mission is to restore historic bells and bell towers, so we get up close and personal with snapshots of history every day. In America, you can find bells that are older than our country – some cast by Paul Revere himself! In Europe, it’s not uncommon to find bells that are 300, 400, or even 500 years old, still swinging and ringing in their towers. There’s a history that hangs above us and we love sharing those stories with the world.
Mike: A dot org name is very fitting for a not-for-profit organization. The fact that it is a keyword domain that matches your cause is fantastic. How has the name been a help to you as opposed to, say, NationalBellFestival.org?
Paul: We own that domain, too! And a few others that make sense for protecting our brand and organization. Bells.org works for us because we’re more than a New Year’s Day festival. We work throughout the year on exciting bell restoration and new bell commissioning projects. We also go adventuring into bell towers – where some of the best views of any city can be had.
A big part of our day-to-day activities is education, helping to tell the story of why bells are the heartbeat of communities, how an instrument of bells (the carillon) is played, how the art of change ringing is practiced, how bells are made, the history behind individual bells, and so much more. We’re a resource for all things bell…and Bells.org makes that apparent!
Mike: Where does your funding typically come from to allow you to help others restore their bells?
Paul: Our funding comes entirely from private donors and corporate sponsorships. Some people give because they want to support a specific project, like restoring a bell at their local church. Others give to support the free community events, activities, and programming of the festival. Still others give because they have a special memory of hearing bells ringing, whether as a child reminding them of home, or as a visitor to a beautiful town in Italy or France. Bells have a remarkable ability to connect us aurally to a specific time and place.
Mike: Can you share the traffic numbers that the site receives on a monthly basis?
Paul: We are very fortunate to receive a monthly grant from Google that enables us to advertise across their network and boost visitors to our site. That allows us to punch far above our weight for such a young organization. If people are looking up information on bells, odds are we’ll be one of the first results, and that’s amazing.
When the festival rolls around, our numbers spike dramatically. Last year, we rang across four continents on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. That’s a lot of eyeballs on our work. All our programming is free and open to the public, so we reach a very wide audience across every demographic.
Mike: If someone would like to get involved with BellFest, what should they do?
Paul: Give us a ring! We always love meeting new people and talking about bells. Our website provides easy ways to get in touch, but there are a number of ways to get involved. Whether volunteering to support an event at the festival, organizing a listening party at a local bell tower, helping us record facts and images of bells in your neighborhood, campaigning with us to protect or restore a threatened bell or tower…the list goes on.
Of course, donations are what makes our world go around. We could not reach as many people, save as many bells, or commission as many new bells without a few dollars in the bank. Consider a contribution to keep the bells ringing!