For Folk Sakes – Why folk festivals trump just about everything

It’s 4PM on a Saturday. I’ve had enough of my hometown’s resident folk festival for the moment. I need a break. My wife and I make our way through the mediocre sized crowds and tromp through the fairgrounds of Owen Sound’s Kelso Beach Park. It’s Summerfolk weekend in Grey County, and the typical mid-afternoon lull is about to kick in while people roust themselves from a bluegrass-induced haze and go back to their VW buses or tents to regroup. The band in the beer tent was killing it, but their sound guy must have been slightly deaf – the volume knob was definitely turned up to 11 and the plastic big-top we were seated under was reverberating pitchy noise and spitting it back down at us.

Coco Love Alcorn and Jon Wong get dirty during the Sunday mroning Gospel show at the Summerfolk Festival in Owen Sound, On. Nelson Phillips photo.
Coco Love Alcorn and Jon Wong get dirty during the Sunday morning Gospel show at the Summerfolk Festival in Owen Sound, On. Nelson Phillips photo.

When we reach the front gate, a grey-bearded gent wearing a tilly hat littered in buttons, fishing tackle and turkey vulture feathers hollers at us from the ticket-checking area. “Hope you’ve had a wonderful time. Do come back, eh?”

“Dammit, I will come back,” I remember thinking. Such modesty, such sincerity, such a sweet hat.

Festivals situations vary in size, subject and greatness – but nothing is better than a classic folk festival. Summerfolk in Owen Sound, ON is the quintessential folkie experience. Samosas, tiny collapsible chairs, headbands made from willow, and the slow moving, zombie-like meander of people who haven’t felt rushed in decades. This is life as it should be – could be, if we’d realize that folk just means people. All types of people. The archetype of a folk festival, on paper, should be instated in government as a mode of progressive multiculturalism. As it exists now, Canada’s multiculturalism campaign encourages segregation in a lot of ways – the neighbourhood ideals that we find in places like the globe’s various Little Italies, Chinatowns and Bohemian centres – all represent strong ethnic and nationalist mentalities. It’s cool, but it sure as hell emphasizes the differences in human culture, there’s not a lot of collaboration and intermingling, which is what a “cultural mosaic” is supposed to spark  – it falls short there. But at a folk festival? No borders, manmade or natural, separate people from one another.

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Nelson Phillips photo
Nelson Phillips photo
Nelson Phillips photo
Nelson Phillips photo

We come back that evening to catch Quique Escamilla, Danny Michel and Buffy Saint-Marie play the same stage as the Yves Lambert Trio the night before. Right there, in a 20-metre radius lie Mexican, Anglo-Canadian, First Nations and Quebecois cultures all shaking hands, chatting, and challenging each other. In this light, folk festivals successfully re-invent the limits of the multiculturalism platform and eliminate cultural segregation. And even for a weekend, behind the fences that hold us in a tiny park in a near-northern Canadian port-town, the world needs that. Folkies open their arms to music, art and people from all walks of life, and for a weekend we get to be whatever we want to be. We get to cheer for whoever we want to cheer for, wear whatever we want to wear, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with people we’d never get the chance to meet otherwise.

Nelson Phillips photo
Nelson Phillips photo

Folk means people – literally; and nothing is better than seeing the worlds people get together to see a few bands and drink some beer. Nothin’.

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