The Minnesota State Fair isn’t where I expected to have a reflective, rejuvenating, low-key experience — let alone one involving a bunch of Minnesotans decked in purple and dancing to pounding beats.
Last night the masses descended per usual upon the fairgrounds on a gorgeous, hazy Friday. The weather was cool enough to wear a sweater, though most didn’t. They didn’t want to cover up the purple jerseys, t-shirts, robes, shawls, and scarves they had brought out for the occasion: Unite In Purple, an evening-long tribute to Prince across the fairgrounds.
If I hadn’t been there for that specific reason, I might have been able to ignore the celebration. Many of the indications of Prince were small: a building lit with purple light here, a set of purple flags here. Apparently there were purple cheese curds being sold, but I didn’t see any. The Blue Moon Diner played Graffiti Bridge for hungry fairgoers in need of a place to rest their feet. Chris Thile, future host of A Prairie Home Companion and mandolin virtuoso of the Punch Brothers, performed “Sign O The Times” for a crowd at the MPR Booth.
Skaters at the 3rd Lair X Zone, some of them hardly old enough to have been born in this century, had branded t-shirts; a small crowd absent-mindedly bleacher-danced to “When Doves Cry” while the athletes rolled up and down the halfpipe. Prince was the subject of a great deal of crop art, as well as work by renegade painters and graffiti artists. A purple handkerchief was left in Paul Bunyan’s back pocket at the Eco Experience.
The centerpiece of the festivities was the dance party held in Carousel Park at the base of the Grandstand. GenerationNOW’s DJ Dudley D, a favorite of the Purple One himself, led a group of revelers that slowly grew to close to a thousand strong over the course of the evening. Prince’s signature sounds did battle with the booms and screams coming from Charlie Wilson in the Grandstand. Fairgoers were invited onstage to show off their moves. There were group selfies, group hollers, and even a massive group hug with the opening strains of “Purple Rain” at the end of Dudley’s set.
Since Prince’s death, it’s become a regular act of catharsis for Minnesotans to gather and caterwaul the joyous “ooo-ooo-oo-oo’s” at the end of “Purple Rain.” We dance together, young and old, black and white and brown, all celebrating the music and passing it on to a new generation. That’s what Linda Wirth of St. Paul told me, after the climactic fireworks over the Grandstand. “I’m just happy that my grandkids get to experience his music.”
Emmet Kowler is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota — Morris.