Suzi and I have been attending the Winnipeg Folk Festival since 1976. It has provided refreshment to us in different ways depending on where we were in life. The first festivals came when we were struggling to get and keep KAXE on the air. The festival spirit helped lift us up, give us new ideas on how to keep a northwoods arts and cultural organization going. When we were aid workers, especially coming back from conflict areas where folk culture was used to promote the worst type of nationalism the festival allowed us to reclaim folk culture. We watched groups from ethnicities which were in conflict where we worked jam together, swapping licks, like they had done for centuries. We always left refreshed with a glimpse of the type of world we were hoping our work would foster. We also came away each year with new discoveries.
This 40th Winnipeg Folk Festival was an odd one for me. I usually enjoy setting out to discover new types of music from different parts of the world with new performers and new song writers. It was a place to stretch my comfort zone in comfort. This year was different, or my attitude was different. As well as exciting new acts the festival brought together many of the “old folkies” who we’ve enjoyed over the past 4 decades. I heard people I had not heard for 25 years. One group, “Stringband” got together again especially for the festival. Others returnees had “retired” or gone on to other careers. It was good to hear them again. It was also nice to see some old festival friends who had been coming to the festival for decades finally get on stage. I was feeling a little guilty for not stretching my horizons too much this year, not challenging myself too much when Kevin said “At any festival that ends in a zero you have license to be comfortable and engage in a little nostalgia.” So I did.
One joy of this year’s festival was that there was much more jamming than at past recent festivals. Chris, the Artistic Director, programmed workshops well this year, so that jamming together just seemed to come naturally. Too often in recent festivals workshops have been consecutive performances. This year the festival has two new workshop stages — in the shady woods. The extra stages spread out the crowd allowing me to enjoy intimate performances.
This year the festival also had other new facilities including a new central “sculpture” which looked kind of like a corporate totem that was trying to look alternative, or perhaps a hippie totem trying to look corporate. It provided a central point for people to meet, surrounded on one side by a redesigned food area and on another by the Handmade Village crafts fair.
The festival has retained certain vibe of peace and cooperation that’s not been lost over the years. Folks help each other. They engage in random acts of kindness. A man walks through the audience during the performances blowing masses of bubbles to the delight of everyone, especially the kids. Watching a performance through a veil of bubbles is joyful whimsy. Dancers have spray bottles and produce a mist to cool off other dancers. One man has, for years, brought a large sprayer and releases a fine mist over audiences at some of the states with little or no shade. I always appreciate his cooling presence. I was concerned this year because of my knees. I have some trouble getting off the ground. Kevin said, “come on, Pop, it’s the Winnipeg Folk Festival.” The first time I seemed a little shaky getting up after a performance the hands of 8 strangers reached out to give me a boost. Every summer at Bird’s Hill Park we create a community that reflects the kind of community we all want to live in, filled with beauty, passion, and kindness. As we left the venue on Sunday night the Aurora came out to the north, an arc across the sky over the parking lot. I left the festival refreshed and relaxed.