The Winnipeg Folk Festival is an annual compass point for our family, an annual highlight. This year was the 44th festival. We’ve been to 38.
We go to connect with friends and introduce our grandkids to the joys of a multicultural festival, just as we did with our own kids. We also go to discover new acts, and sometimes get a nostalgic kick.
There’s the ambience of the site with wandering minstrels, stilt walkers, an itinerant brass band, the vocalist singing into a bull horn, flower mandalas laid out on the grass, kids doing organized and unorganized active things on the grass, arts and crafts booths, the bubble man spreading joy and bubbles around the site — and food. There are two foods I must have every year at the festival, “elephant ears” a form of whole wheat fry bread, and Ukrainian pierogis. It wouldn’t be Winnipeg without killer pierogis.
Beyond the ambience, catching up with friends and sharing it all with family, the highlights were a killer set by Brandi Carlile, watching the field in Shady Grove dance to the Scottish Band RURA, and The Suitcase Junket, a one man band who has an open tuned guitar into which he sings causing the strings to resonate. Then he breaks into Tuvan throat singing, with its own vocal chord overtones. I can’t describe it, you have to hear it.
Each year I have a folk festival moment, where musicians from different traditions discover each other on the stage and create something completely new. For me that moment was a stage where Chali 2una and the House of Vibe met Desi Subculture and DJ Shub. The set mixed hip hop and rap with Punjabi rhythms and Native American protest. There was also hoop dancing. Chali said something like “I never met these people but together…” All I could say was “wow.”
Each year I get a couple of hits from the past. This year it was Bruce Cockburn. He’s still writing new songs. I like them. But when he pulled out a song from the 80’s, “Rocket Launcher,” a song about military attacks on refugees in Central America, my heart stopped. The song meant l lot to me when I was a Central American Peace Activist in the 80s, but since then I’ve worked with refugees in places like Kosovo, South Sudan and Syrians in Turkey. In his Friday performance that song had a punch it’s not had before. When I first heard it I was a pacifist. After working with civilian victims of the military actions I’ve changed that position, and at the end of the song I found myself shouting “If I had a rocket launcher some son of a bitch would die.” I am not proud, but there it is.
The other nostalgic touchpoint was Peter Yarrow of Peter Paul and Mary in a workshop of protest songs and, the next day, in a solo concert. I loved singing and swaying to “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” But I really enjoyed the newer songs by younger artists “The World is Watching America While America’s Watching TV.” At the end of the Yarrow concert the tech crew of young volunteers spontaneously started singing “We Shall Overcome.”
The final act of the festival was Bare Naked Ladies. Near the end they sang “If I had a Million Dollars.” The field of thousands sang along. Then the band did a medley including the Sinatra hit “New York New York.” The crowd threw their hands in the air, fingers in the “V” symbol, and swayed. It was a bizarre but joyful way to wind up the festival.
When the “Ladies” left the stage the platform filled quickly with performers and volunteers for the finale, “Mary Ellen Carter,” “Wild Mountain Thyme” and “Amazing Grace,” They sang facing a fading sunset and we sang back. The festival was over and we still had enough light to pick up our tarps and chairs and head to the car.