Folk Harbour lives up to its name

Rose Cousins wows mainstage

A United Nations World Heritage site, Old Town Lunenburg is a grid of brightly painted clapboard on the edge of a huge hill overlooking working shipyards, and the famous harbour that launched the Bluenose.

With all that tradition as its context, it’s little wonder Lunenburg’s Folk Harbour Festival lives up to its name.

“Folk” is a little more defined at Lunenburg than at many contemporary festivals. The word doesn’t just refer to singer-songwriters (although they are represented there too, this year by the likes of David Myles, Rose Cousins and John Wort Hannam, to name just a few).

Many of Folk Harbour’s acts take a very traditional, folklorist approach to their craft.  Festival mainstay Jeff Davis has traveled from the Appalachian US for each of the festival’s 26 years, and the festival’s website notes that he “embodies what the Folk Harbour Society is all about – preserving and sharing the living roots of the instruments, songs, and stories of the people.”

This year Davis was joined by Californian Debra Cowan and English story-song specialist Brian Peters, each of whom delivered straight performances of collected songs, along with information on where and from whom they gathered the songs, and where other variations could be found.

A slightly different take on tradition was delivered by Sheesham and Lotus and Son, who found a happy home for their old-timey numbers at Folk Harbour, and the Good Right Arm Stringband, among many other groups with old-fashioned leanings.

Acts with a contemporary sound were well represented too; Madison Violet, The Moonshine Ramblers, and Kim Wempe to name just a few, but it’s a traditional inclination that sustains the intense listening environment at Lunenburg’s festival.

Mainstage is in a big white tent (necessary for the unpredictable weather of Nova Scotia’s South Shore), and beyond the merchandise tent and a few food vendors, there’s little else to distract from the music. This is not a festival concerned with artisans, holistic living or tie-dying, and as for a beer tent – it’s practically unthinkable. Folk Harbour is about music.

At mainstage events, the knowledgeable and experienced crowd arrives early with their seat cushions for the plastic chairs and sits quietly and thoroughly engaged through five hours music. There is a noticeable respect given to performers: during performances, there’s very little talking or moving around.

The Folk Harbour crowd goes to listen.  It’s obvious that this kind of focus develops trust between audience and musicians, who take advantage of the rare quality of the listeners.

Jenny Whiteley stepped away from her country guitar and sang a traditional-style ballada capella, before taking an even bolder step, presenting her partner Joey Wright to play a beautiful solo instrumental mandolin piece. These are not typical festival mainstage choices everywhere, but at Folk Harbour they were warmly welcomed.

In a town where side stages are churches, perhaps it’s no surprise that the Gospel workshop, (led this year by Kim and Reggie Harris) is the highlight of the festival. At least two dozen acts testified with a single song each, in a dizzying sequence before an overflow audience at mainstage on Sunday morning. The crowd went wild for every one of them.

Besides “folk”, the other defining aspect of this festival is also in its title. Lunenburg is a town that has fully embraced its festival, just as it embraces the local body of water. From townspeople acting as volunteers and billets, to downtown parking dramas, to church basement suppers, to the wharf stage. That’s right, in this harbour town there’s a stage on a working wharf.

Roots Music Canada's David Newland in the Bandstand

Within sight of the Wharf Stage, the Bluenose II is undergoing a dramatic reconstruction, while the Sea Shepherd vessel, the Farley Mowat, was tied to a nearby pier for the duration of the weekend. A small schooner was moored directly behind the stage during Rose Cousins‘ performance one afternoon.

From the mic, Cousins called over to some folks on a neighbouring yach, jokingly asking to see their festival wristbands— which they proudly held up.

The Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival lives up to its name:  traditional music performed with a folklorist’s bent, for patient audiences with an ear for authenticity. Between the wharf, the bandstand, the churches and the big tent, there’s a church hall that holds chowder dinners. At $8.00 per bowl, who can resist? A little tradition never hurt anyone.

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