Arts & Life

An ideal time to pretend

“I was just at Locos Por Juana, where three bands were having a great time jamming together. Why can’t the world be like that?” Glen, an occupational therapist and longtime Winnipeg Folk Fest volunteer, said.

This sentiment is not unique at Folk Fest, but it’s also not trivial or needless to say. It’s important. And for five days in July, it’s very important, harmony is.

This is their time. The alienated. Misunderstood. This is where they have confidence, where they belong and where they best understand the world for what it is and could/should be. The world is not tolerant at Folk Fest, it’s blind to difference, period.

Too romantic? Perhaps. But that’s only because it’s the Tuesday after the Festival.

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Mitch Podolak, Colin Gorrie, and Ava Kobrinsky started the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1974 to celebrate the City’s centennial. Folk Fest is 40 now, and it shares acclaim as one of North America’s largest folk music festivals with Edmonton and Vancouver. Winnipeg’s attracted a cumulative total of 57,034 paid festival goers this year, and continues to be an influence to similar events in Canada and the U.S.

The festival can no longer be typecast as folk, a strategic move upsetting some but appeasing more. Its changed, some say “evolved,” over the years. The now-permanent food kiosks are attractive, and their offerings diverse. Food for the thousands of volunteers and performers is prepared by Bistro 7 ¼’s Alexander Svenne and Danielle Carignan Svenne. The menu reads unlike most outdoor, five-day festivals. And the same positivity threading through the festival grounds is visible in Danielle and Alex’s kitchen.

The Folk Festival has very little to do with music; bands and performances functioning as tracks on a high-level soundtrack to what the Festival is really about. This is not to diminish the stand-alone talent of Serena Ryder, The Avett Brothers, City & Colour, and the many others, known and unknown.


He couldn’t be more than 25. He’s walking alone. His clothes are dirty, comfortable, and his backpack is heavy. He’s peering at us, the audience. He gets it. There is an element of being human that he is understanding better than anyone else at this moment. Weight will kill it after the festival. But not until Wednesday. And then it’s only 357 days until the next one begins.

What are we to do with this, these pockets of non-prejudice? How do we reconcile Folk Fest against the world between Folk Fests? Simplify it and brush it off, I imagine.

It’s for the family, the lifers, the lost, the hippies, the conservatives, everyone. It’s giving licence to those burdened with prejudice and quick judgment towards others to drop it, and accept this guy as someone who is experiencing something important. What consumes him wants to do the same in you. Resist? Maybe. But you’ll have a terrible time if you do. This is what Folk Fest is all about.


Gerry, Glen, Tim, and Karen joined me on a picnic table in the beer tent. I was sitting alone, going through some photos.

Gerry was the first to arrive, a friendly man wearing a green, mesh Grizzly Canadian Lager hat. He was grabbing a quick drink while his wife held down the fort somewhere on the grass in front of the main stage.

He was ready to wax poetic about Folk Fest; just needed the right cue.

“Is it alright if we sit here,” said the same Glen, whose living in harmony quote opened this piece. His friends, Karen, and Tim sat down, as well.

“Why can’t the world be like that?” was Gerry’s cue:

“I agree,” he said. “I’ve been going for 10 years. I’m 71 now and I regret not having started attending sooner in life. I was into old country, but after my boss at CN nearly made me go, I loved it. I love the atmosphere.”

This is the Folk Festival’s challenge: To attend it is to love it. But to get naysayers to attend a festival that has a reputation for being full of hippies is difficult. Behind prejudice is usually a healthy dose of fear; fear of the unknown and unfamiliar. Not uncommon. This fear may stay with you to the park’s entrance, into the parking lot, and along the path to the festival grounds. But, rest assured, once you sit down and listen to Matt the Electrician sing from the heart, or Lake Street Dive sing Jackson 5’s I Want You Back, that fear or whatever it was will fade, no matter how many drug users and other threats to your sheen you think you see.

There are drug users at Folk Fest, truth be told. They are dismissible, usually. But there’s a critical mass of them in and around the festival large enough to demand recognition. This is a would-be hurdle for those easily threatened by difference, or those who pour lots of energy into protecting a way of life.

“I would like to interview someone who is trippin’ balls.”

“How about this guy? He’s high.”

Sure enough. He was. But he was too high to be interested in talking with me.

Some who had experienced the Festival while high, but no longer feel the need, recalled a time when the now 40-year-old festival was a lot smaller.

“I saw Bruce Cockburn on mushrooms. It was great. I didn’t see a lot of shows, but I had a great time.”

His friend joined:

“I did. I would see shows, but I would get properly high after.”

The first-time festival goer may experience this person, drug user, as someone perhaps wearing a skirt; perhaps playing an instrument; perhaps dancing; perhaps playing with sticks; perhaps having the time of his or her life; perhaps not. This is the threat.

The eventual weight of maturity and becoming an adult is to blame, in part, for our attitudes towards these things.

The band are amazing, because they really are, but also because they came to this festival in Birds Hill Park, Manitoba to sing and perform for us. The effect is magic, cumulatively, and a series of great concerts, specifically.


Toban Dyck is a writer/editor/farmer. Follow him @tobandyck.

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