When we first started going to the Winnipeg Folk Festival it was a way to get away from everything and spend several days in Birds’ Hill Provincial Park 40 KM north of the city. There were no phones. Even when I started carrying laptops and mobile phones the Winnipeg Folk Festival remained a black hole for communications, for a while. I liked it that way. There was no internet and no cell service. After a few years cell service came to the site and a year or so ago there was wi-fi in the media area. This year the festival contracted to have fiber optic cable run to the site. There was promise of wi-fi throughout the site and good cell coverage everywhere. The fiber cable failed but there was still communications for those who really wanted it. The festival provided a telephone charging station for festival goers. One couple had what looked like an iPad. It was a solar panel. They set it up between them during a workshop and charged two phones. Having wi-fi is good for reporters because now they can report on the final acts from the site for their newspaper deadlines, but I miss being out of touch. I suppose I still could be if I only had the discipline but I just HAVE to share that prairie sunset.
There are some other advantages to modern communications at the folk festival. The Winnipeg Folk Fest app on my iPhone was useful. On Saturday a big thunder storm came rolling in. The alerts on the app warned us in advance. (I loved the storm. There is something both frightening and satisfying about a loud prairie thunderstorm.) During the storm it told us that one stage was out of commission because of water covering the cables from the sound board to the stage. After the storm it told us when workshops resumed.
On Sunday Joan Baez switched to an earlier time. We had gone into Oak Bank, Manitoba for a dry dinner (it had been cold and raining.) Because I got an alert I was able to get back to the site to catch Baez’ set. And an iPhone is easier to carry around than a program. The app served as my program. But modern communications is insidious. I found myself posting pics from concerts when I could get on line (the failed fiber cable made it hard sometimes.) Being in touch changes the nature of the festival somehow. I did have the discipline not to check email during the festival and while I posted I tried really hard not to look at anyone else’s Facebook posts for the 5 days of the festival. But I can no longer claim that I am out of touch with the world while in Birds’ Hill Park north of the city.
The “folk process” has depended on radio for as long as radio has been around. John Hammond told the audience about how he learned to love the blues as a kid in New York by listening to the skip signal from a 50,000 watt AM station out of Memphis. I can say the same thing for myself, blues from Memphis, bluegrass from Wheeling and country from Nashville and Calgary. New York had such parochial radio compared with what my long wire caught from the night sky. Broadcasting is a way of sowing seeds and for me and many of the urban musicians in the 60’s folk revival the seeds took. Rua Macmillan, a fine Scottish fiddler, says he learned from a player who had been a gillie (sort of a park ranger) in one of the big national parks in Scotland. Every night he took a radio and his fiddle to the highest mountain (Macmillan says it was more like a big hill) in the park to listen to Irish FM radio and play along with their fiddlers.
The festival allowed me to listen to many old favorites, John Hammond, Joan Baez, Buffy St. Marie, Bonnie Raitt, and Ani DiFranco, plus make new discoveries. Buffy sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider” during one rainstorm and, behold, out came the sun, briefly. Watching a full moon rise behind a hot Bonnie Raitt set was thrilling and singing “Imagine” along with Joan Baez — priceless.
And introducing grandson Liam to the festival was probably the best of all. Of course there is more for kids than music, for instance a large sand pile and some imaginative playground apparatus.
There is also “Bubble Man” who delights the festival by spreading bubbles around the whole site, and there are almost always beach balls soaring over the audience field, but with all this stimulation Liam also responds to the music. We walked into the festival and the Wood Brothers were on one of the workshop stages. Liam couldn’t see the band but heard them and cried “the Wood Cutters!” Close enough. I hadn’t realized he’d picked up on the names of bands.
During the finale we were on stage, singing the ending songs, “Wild Mountain Thyme,” “Amazing Grace” and “Mary Ellen Carter”; looking out over the field of other folkies. Participating in the festival is an act of renewal, almost as good as pulling in distant radio stations through the static on an old Sears Silvertone radio attached to a 40 foot long wire.
I am preparing a second post from Winnipeg, just pictures. Please keep checking back.