Thirty years of island magic

Folk fest is the perfect antidote to the Stampede

There’s something fascinating about kids at folk fest: They don’t whine. At all — at least not that I’ve seen. Every time I see a child at Prince’s Island Park during the last week of July the kids are either laughing dancing or playing with balls or some such things. There’s none of that horrific whining you see in malls. It’s astounding.

What is this magical event that placates otherwise unruly humans? There are two possibilities: Either the folk fest has a calming effect on people or the festival attracts a balanced type of person thus creating a calming atmosphere. Regardless for four summer days the heart of our city is transformed into an island commune where strangers young and old end up sharing real estate (in the form of nylon tarps) and nobody worries about their stuff getting stolen.

“I always describe it as a grown-up summer camp” says Talia Potter the festival’s volunteer co-ordinator. “You go for four days and you have really strong intense relationships and friendships with people in those four days but you might not see them any other time of the year. It’s not a community that you have to be engaged with all of the time but you are somehow connected to it all of the time.”

In a way folk fest is the perfect antidote to the plague of the Calgary Stampede. The Stampede represents the city at its materialistic worst 10 days of excess and gaudy western garb — really 10 days of Calgary trying to be something it’s not. It smacks of hollowness and predictability. Then the sham comes to a merciful end and within weeks folk fest arrives redeeming our city and restoring our hope in humanity. “It’s a totally different vibe” says Potter.

Unlike Stampede folk fest is about authenticity about people being themselves. “It’s people getting together and sort of dropping all of their preconceptions about what life is what music should be what things are and just going there and being willing to be open to discovery and sharing” says longtime festival-goer Ald. Brian Pincott. “It’s quite something.”

Festival director Kerry Clarke struggles to describe the atmosphere at folk fest; you have to experience it yourself to understand it she says. “There’s an incredibly good vibe at the festival that I don’t think can be attributed to any single person or an artist.”

A mix of young and old is key. “The expanding definition of folk has meant that our audience has kind of expanded along with that” says Clarke. “There are two-year-olds running around and 70-year-olds and everything in between. There’s just something about mixing people up like that that makes it different than being at an event that has maybe a more focused demographic.”

Folk fest is obviously about music but at the same time folk fest is more than music. Folk fest is sleeping in line outside the festival gates after the last mainstage show Friday night. Folk fest is running with tarpies to stake out a prime spot in front of the stage the following morning. Folk fest is seeing a little girl throw a beach ball at an old man and then laugh. All of these experiences somehow are just as meaningful as sitting and taking in the music itself.

“There’s a certain culture around it that isn’t just about folk music” says Clarke. “It’s about the event itself and how people experience it and what their rituals are. And I think in some ways the festival creates new rituals for people.”

And yet the music is everything and holds all the other elements together. We sit on the grass get sore backs and listen falling in love with bands we’ve never heard of before. We wander from workshop to workshop perhaps complaining about one band before catching a rare moment of musical grace that leaves us speechless or maybe in tears. We are frequently surprised in the best ways possible.

Which brings us back to kids and folk fest. This may sound sentimental but on the island we all become children again — awake curious exploring discovering. There’s a simple purity and innocence to life on folk fest weekend. There’s no sense of rush or hurry (aside from the tarpie run which can be brutal). If you miss a session you wanted to see you let it go; if you catch something unexpected you’re thankful.

Everyone holds things loosely and inevitably it makes you wonder: Why can’t our city be like this all year? Folk fest is a glimpse of Calgary as it should be as it could be — inclusive and welcoming open to surprises. We don’t have that city yet but until we build it we’ll gladly settle for four days in July.