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Still hopeful after all these years
by Tom Sandborn
Vancouver Folk Fest at 25
The Vancouver Folk Music Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary this summer. For a long, gloriously resonant three-day weekend, aging Gulf Island hippies on an annual pilgrimage to the mainland rubbed shoulders with the tattooed, body pierced young, generic folkies, neighborhood drop-ins, bemused tourists and earnest trade union and feminist organizers.
By the end of Sunday's final concert, this motley crew had reached a record size of more than thirty-three thousand.
The silver anniversary incarnation of the Festival came complete with all the musical surprises, social contradictions and the air of utopian hope that has characterized the event ever since it first emerged from the moist green stillness of Stanley Park a quarter century ago to change the face of live music in Vancouver forever.
The anniversary brought with it the predictable array of celebratory declarations from fans, volunteers and Festival staff, most echoing in one way or another founding father Mitch Podolak's enthusiasm in the Festival program "You enter a special world. You step outside normal society for three days and enjoy a totally non-alienating experience."
The line-up of performers and workshops was, once again, a demonstration of just how vibrant and various the folk music scene is around the world, and how stunningly successful the Festival programmers had been in bringing a musical core sample of that world to Jericho.
Acts from Nunavit and the US, Quebec and Scotland, Mali and Oakland, Cuba and Vancouver all shared the Festival stages, and, as usual, most stages featured a mix of old favorites and startling musical surprises. Under the heading of old favorites, an aging but still peppery Utah Phillips delivered his unique blend of Wobbly tall tales and trade union anthems, all seasoned with his sardonic witticisms about politics and mortality. Meanwhile festival veterans Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir delivered incendiary sets drawn from gospel, blues, civil rights and traditional African sources, and newcomers B'Net Marrakech taught us all an energetic and thrilling lesson in Moroccan soul. Jane Bunnett and Alma de Santiago provided an exhilarating experience of Canadian Cuban fusion jazz that was worth the price of a day's ticket in itself.
The weekend's superb weather, music and food all combined to fulfill Mitch Podolak's promise of a totally non-alienating experience, at least for those of us with enough privilege to afford the price of a ticket. And that caveat, of course, underlines one of the painful contradictions that have haunted the Festival from the beginning. The folk music festival is often too expensive for the folk. The music, rooted in the oral traditions of slaves, peasants and indigenous peoples, the homemade pleasures of the poor and the anthems of justice struggles, exists today as an odd blend of its non-commercial past with its commodified present. Most of us inside the Festival fences are there in part because we live lives near the middle of the economy or above, a comfortable distance from the backbreaking toil and heartbreaking poverty that features in so many of the songs we sentimentally enjoy for the weekend. The presence each year along the festival fence line of growing crowds of low-rent listeners, unable to afford the cost of a ticket is an enduring reminder of the ironic distance between the festival demographic and the "folk" being celebrated by the music.
To be fair, the Festival has a long and honourable tradition of providing free tickets to groups that advocate for people living with poverty and social marginalization, but the class contradictions are still visible, at least to this jaundiced observer.
On the other hand, even if it is acknowledged that no location within a capitalist society can really be alienation free, the valiant efforts of the festival organizers to create a zone of increased justice inside the event are impressive.
One notable example came to my attention this season when I spoke with friends who attend the festival using mobility aids, and who rely on the special access provisions for the "differently abled" (special viewing areas, accessible toilets and the like). On Friday night and early Saturday these festival fans were annoyed about the reduced size of the viewing area set aside for them at the main stage, and the less convenient placement of viewing areas at the day stages. By Sunday, however, their complaints had been registered and partially dealt with. The main stage area was back to its original size, and a process to prevent similar problems next year was already initiated.
This quick and sensitive response to user complaints is a marked and pleasing contrast to the stonewalling and bureaucratic delays that often attend such complaints outside the Folk Music Festival.
So the Folk Music Festival may not be the perfect utopia that was celebrated in its anniversary brochures and auto-congratulations. How could it, or anything, be that healed while it exists in a wounded world? It is, however, a weekend of wonderful music and social experiment, and when they get something wrong at the festival, they work hard to correct it. As Forester observed of democracy and its imperfect virtues, the Folk Music Festival is deserving of at least two cheers.
The Columbia Journal
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