Mariposa Folk Festival, 2011.

With all the excitement following the Canadian Folk Music Awards this past weekend, we’d like to share a piece written by Roots Music Canada’s Editor-in-Chief, David Newland, for the CFMA gala’s programme.

Imagine a place where children can run and play without fear of traffic or threats; where nature’s beauty is the perfect backdrop for the art, craft, and creativity of a community; where wellness and spirituality are nurtured, and sharing is the order of the day.

Now imagine the soundtrack: voices in harmony; the strumming of strings; drums and hands and feet making real human rhythms, the heartbeat of this time and place.

It sounds like an archetype. Is this a long-lost tribal society, perhaps, or a pipe dream of an earthly heaven?

On the contrary. Some form of this scenario plays each summer, in communities spanning the breadth of the country. The folk festival is the living manifestation of the folk music scene. And folk festivals are thriving in Canada.

As a musician, host, volunteer, and fan, I’ve had the privilege to play at, or otherwise participate in many festivals across this land. And as a member of the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals Board of Directors, I’m proud to say that many of the country’s most dynamic festivals occur across the province of Ontario.

From Mariposa in Orilla (the grand old dame of 51 years) to Trout Forest way up in the northwest; from Blue Skies, “off the map” near Kaladar Station to Summerfolk in the heart of Owen Sound, from London’s long-running Home County to the recently rejuvenated Ottawa Folk Festival, Ontario’s festivals make a huge contribution to the culture and economy of communities across the province.

The meaning of the word “folk” in the context of music is notoriously variable: is it traditional? Political? Acoustic? Original? At a folk festival, you’ll hear music that spans all of these ideas and definitions, plus blues, gospel, world, roots, and others you may not have considered: Aboriginal, spoken word, musical comedy, improvisation, jazz and more. Hick hop? Prog folk? Yes – and more.

Summerfolk Festival, 2011.

All that being the case, is ‘folk’ even a genre? Does it even have meaning we can agree on?

I think so. I think anyone who attends and enjoys any of our festivals will agree whatever else it may mean, fundamentally, “folk” means people. So the ‘folk’ in the folk festival… is you.

See you there!


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  1. avatar
    Jim Yates 6 December, 2011 at 14:25

    Sing Out! magazine had folks trying to define “Folk” for many years. It’s an endless discussion:
    “I guess all songs are folk songs…I ain’t never heard no horse sing ’em.” Lead Belly
    “If you know who wrote it, it’s not a folk song.” Michael Cooney*
    “It’s a 4 letter word that starts with F and ends with K and if you use it they won’t play your music on the radio” Catfish Willie
    *I think it was also Michael Cooney who said,”If it takes more than two trips to get your gear into the gig from the car, it ain’t folk music.”
    I recall wearing a Shelter Valley T-shirt to the Flying Cloud Folk Club and having someone tell me, “Yes, that’s a nice festival, but it’s a singer/songwriter festival, not a folk festival.”

  2. avatar
    Steve Tennant 23 December, 2011 at 15:14

    As this year closes, as far as I’m concerned David, you’ve settled this long standing question and I think your summation is right on the mark. One just has to experience the variety enjoyed by ‘the folk’ appreciating to know this is the true answer…. Thanks

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