About ten feet to my left, beside the squatting pine, Kevin Smith is hippie dancing. Well, not quite Kevin Smith, but a pudgy guy with a bad goatee and a long ponytail down his back, dressed in black cargo shorts, a yellow button down and a bolero hat: the kind of guy who rents you videos or chartered your high school D&D club. He’s flailing his arms around and jumping side to side as Alex Cuba and Calexico jam on the stage in front of us. You know what kind of dancing I mean.
Welcome to the 33rd annual Vancouver Folk Music Festival, where it is proven year in and year out that white people cannot dance.
The first Folk Fest I attended was in 2003. Like countless other first-time Folkies in their teens and early twenties, I lived in a big, run-down house in Point Grey, where my friends and I dreaded each other’s hair, hosted all-night dance parties and wore skirts over our pants. We all saved up to buy weekend passes to the Festival. Michael Franti came into the audience and gave us hugs. We only wore shoes when it was time to use the Porta Potty. We swam topless. Ani DiFranco played, and after the lanterns led us out of the park, we stayed out dancing at the beach-side drum circles for hours. It was perfect.
I went other summers, but eventually the music started to sound the same. I left town and then came back, and festivals like Music Waste were where the interesting work was happening, where the city was being re-calibrated. But this year I went back.
The Festival itself was lovely. Every volunteer was smiling, whether he or she was overseeing the bike lockup, pouring beer or making sure people put their garbage in the right container. The whole park was thick with a loopy feeling of contentment. Within an hour of arriving on site I was carrying my shoes around while I walked barefoot. Musical performances were consistently strong: on Friday the Avett Brothers had the crowd dancing to their appealing bluegrass pop. They were followed by Calexico, whose generous, textured set sounded over a setting sun and then over the hand-made lanterns that wended their way through the park.
The main stage isn’t used during the day, but the acres of park are full of empty Festival homesteads, squares of blankets and tarps punctuated by beach bags and coolers or men prone in the heat of day. The action is on the workshop stages, where musicians were billed together in short programs. Canadian acts Timber Timbre and the Deep Dark Woods were standouts.
This year the crowd consisted largely of young people who—like me in university—want to be part of a bigger movement, as well as older people who remember when they felt like they wanted to be part of something bigger.
I don’t want be unrealistic about what went on in the heyday of folk music, or idealize Baez and Dylan playing together at the March on Washington. But the thing is, it’s a collective ideal: folk music was music of the people and for the people, and it was the most precise tool for changing minds by changing hearts.
Folk music is the soundtrack to those bigger things, be they peace, be they love, be they community. It has, for as long as it’s been around, occupied a space between activism and escapism. It is, by definition, the music of the people. Along the way it’s picked up a political charge: think the Civil Rights movement, think protest music in the ‘60s, think Haight-Ashbury and San Francisco free love. The music wasn’t isolated to gated festivals.
Despite the kilometers of fencing around the Festival, the unmistakable spirit of change, shared politics and community is still alive and well in 2010, despite—or maybe because of—the comfort and easy privilege of us attendees. But as the years passed in my life, I grew up to recognize that the Vancouver Folk Music Festival was only one small part of a much larger puzzle. Change is hard, because when it’s real, it’s the result of a great deal of time, compromise and struggle. Maybe the Festival reminds us of what we’re working for—or maybe it’s simply an escape.
And that it does well. The Folk Festival is a diverse, accessible and gated oasis. Geographically, nothing changes year to year: everything from the coffee cart and the yam fry shack, to the weird hat table and the people doing Tai Chi on the pathway stay in the same place. Each year the organizers book an international roster of gifted and eclectic musicians—yet the music weaves into the consistency of the feel. The sameness is part of the draw, of course—like Christmas for suburban families, veteran folkies affectionately infuse their Folk Festival pilgrimage with a great deal of tradition. People come every year and they expect the same experience. It stays the same while you change.
As Saturday sunset crept on and Sarah Harmer started up on the main stage, I remembered myself so many years ago, and thought about everything that has changed since then. Her set was long and energetic and included older hits like “Basement Apartment” and “Pendulums,” and songs from her well-reviewed new album, Oh Little Fire. Harmer is one of the most lovely and charismatic artists in Canada, and despite the size of the crowd, her show felt intimate. Just like when I was 20, I was surrounded by my friends and everything felt right.
A bit later the lanterns came out and we got back on our bikes to head home. I’m told that Sunday was lovely too. Then it ends. Then, the smiling volunteers and the fence guys and the portable toilet guys and the stage guys, who were probably not smiling, took it all down and away. Just like that, the better world was gone. The students went back to their ramshackle Kitsilano houses and the aged hippies went back to Kerrisdale or North Van. If you ask them, they will tell you that the Folk Fest was wonderful, because it was. And then life went on much as it always did.