Every year during the most luminous days of summer, the ever-popular Calgary Folk Music Festival hosts a diverse collection of musicians from every stripe on its many stages. Of these, perhaps none are, in a strictly traditional sense, folk music artists. Armed with a professional grade folk meter and a preschooler sidekick, I entered this year’s folk fest on a venture into the heart of folkness. My lofty aims were as follows:
1) Try to grasp at a contemporary characterization of folk-influenced music within the currently surging state of folk in the mainstream limelight
2) observe the periphery artists on showcase at Calgary folkfest and determine their place within the greater folk orbit
3) eat tacos from food trucks
Let’s begin the journey with the recently publicized rise of folk in pop music.
Celebrating their Album of the Year win at the 2013 Grammy’s, Marcus Mumford–he of the Mumford and Sons namesake–was asked to speak about the victory for folk music his band’s achievement represented. By this time much ink had been spilled–and many pixels, um, pixelated–in the name of The Great Folk Revival, illustrated by the noticeable surge in prominence of folk-influenced bands like The Lumineers, Fleet Foxes, Of Monsters and Men, and The Avett Brothers. Leading the charge in this apparent movement was Mumford and Sons, who made the Grammys their playground that night, and many scribes presumably stood with their pens poised to further declare the triumphant return of folk. It felt like we were at the apex of something.
So, what did Mumford himself declare on behalf folk music? “I think it’s always been around”, he shrugged, “the media likes to focus on things at certain times, and that’s good for us. That means we get to play lots of shows.”
He is probably right. In order to ascend, folk influence had to, at some point, have disappeared. Scanning through Ye Olde Archive, it’s difficult to find a time in the last few decades when there wasn’t at least a dollop of folk-influenced music in the North American public consciousness.
This, of course, begs the question: what are we using to determine what’s folk and what’s not?
Well, how folk are Mumford and Sons? No one is about to mistake them for Woodie Guthrie. What makes them folky? Is it the ballads? The acoustic instruments? The vocal harmonies? The suspenders?
After some rigorous academic research, I’ve determined that the proper definition of folk is both a nebulous and slippery one. Real-deal folk music is traditional cultural music; think British sea shanties or Inuit throat singing. What most people probably mean when they use the term folk nowadays stems from a mid-twentieth century resurgence in folk music; think war protests and the Newport festival.
From here, elements of folk have seeped into contemporary music in myriad ways, the advent of folk rock not the least among them. Snippets of folk music influence have surfaced across the gamut of mainstream sounds yadda yadda Simon and Garfunkel yadda yadda Steve Earle yadda yadda Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
…The real determining factors in folkiness are probably, and somewhat surprisingly, kind of technical. I’m going to leave that to the musicologists. Although we’re not really sure, amateur listeners like you and I basically just think “dangnabbit, I know folk when I see it. Or hear it. Or whatever.”
Enter the Calgary Folk Music festival. Like so many other folk music festivals, pushing the limits of what can be termed folk has been their artist lineup bread and staying power butter for more than 30 years.
This summer’s installment was no different. The ultra-wide swath of acts and sounds galvanized under one pseudo-genre marquee was startling, and a tremendous demonstration of how loose a definition of folk everyone is willing to accept, or overlook. This year’s festival featured LA ska/funk, Nigerian afrobeat, and Neufie indie rock–all under the umbrella of folk music.
Some stages featured a heaping spoonful of folk mingled with other influences; others, just a light dusting. Leading main stage acts such as Patty Griffin, Bruce Cockburn, Rufus Wainwright, and hometown hero Feist brought the ticket revenue conventional idea of folk-infused flavour to the festival, but I decided to take in a handful of unknown side stage acts and test them according to my own well calibrated folkiness detecting meter, to determine how much folk really does lie at the core of the festival. The scale works on a scale of 1 to 5 Joan Baez heads, with 1 Joan Baez head representing a non-discernible folk ingredient, and 5 Joan Baez heads being the folkiest folk that ever folked.
I took part in this exercise with the trusty aid of my four year-old nephew, Brady, who doesn’t take shit, and is not about to have the folk wool pulled over his eyes (at least not before bedtime).
The festival guide says they sound like: “indie rock instrumentals and vocals with violins, percussion, hand claps, xylophone, horns and a choir of other instruments.”
I think they sound like: a pretty good indie rock band with violins, percussion, hand claps, xylophone, horns and a choir of other instruments.
My 4 year-old nephew says they sound like: “It makes me feel like singing.” Not knowing the words has never stopped me either.
These guys are clearly in the category of indie rock. I’m guessing the festival organizers thought they could slip them on the bill using their insane amount of people as a gimmick: “a four-piece indie band is rock music, but a 23 piece indie band must have some kind of folk slip in there at some point, right?”.
1 Joan Baez head
The festival guide says they sound like: “drawing from Chinese mythology, manga, experimental film, Japanese Noh theatre and performance art, YT//ST is a multimedia onslaught, a sprawling art project…blend of progressive rock and scorching psychedelia.” Read that a second time. Yes. This show was off the chain.
I think they sound like: this
My 4 year-old nephew says they sound like: “It sounds crunchy.” This is astute.
Folkiness scale: This one was really tricky. To start with, the music can’t be considered anything but prog rock. The guitar shredding, double bass drum pounding, and crazyballs yelling seals it. Yet, the aesthetic of these guys has to score some folk points…or some kind of points: the singers playing bells and cymbals and doing some kind of ancient hand signaling; the traditional robes and face paint; the weird lights and sculptures; these guys were really going for it.
3 Joan Baez heads
The festival guide says they sound like: “ethereal, almost-not-there guitar, subtle percussion and fleeting drones and breaths of piano frame the soundtrack to a million gloomy Sundays in a way that’s somehow simultaneously soothing, haunting and insistent.”
I think they sound like: what you hear in your head when you are looking out the window of a passenger train as you traverse the countryside of a strange land, homesick as hell.
My 4 year-old nephew says they sound like: “This makes me want to sleep.” Or that.
Folkiness scale: They played a Bob Dylan cover. This should probably be mandatory for all artists at any folk festival if they want any street cred whatsoever. More, they played a relatively obscure Dylan song, which skyrockets them to the forefront of the folkiness scale.
4 Joan Baez heads
The festival guide says she sounds like: “a deft songwriter with a sultry style, singing sophisticated retro-chic songs with more than a hint of coquettish sass.”
I think she sounds like: this kind of music makes me want to have a tumbler of brandy in front of me in a dimly lit, oak-trimmed den. I’m not going to touch the brandy, though, obviously. Who drinks brandy?
My 4 year-old nephew says she sounds like: “Sounds like Christmas.” I like where his head’s at, but trust me, our family Christmases really don’t have that kind of panache.
Folkiness scale: Listen, I love Jill Barber. She knows what she’s doing and she kills it. She tugs on your heartstrings and then ties them in a nice little bow just when you start to feel the pangs. But it’s jazz, simple as that.
1 Joan Baez head
The festival guide says he sounds: “slightly creepy.”
I think he sounds: Super duper creepy.
My 4 year-old nephew says he sounds: “It’s like an owl. A frozen owl.” AKA really really creepy.
Folkiness scale: Disqualified on account of creepiness. For real.
The festival guide says he sounds like: “emotive songs of the common man carry with them a wholesome, nostalgic vision of rural Alberta and beyond.”
My 4 year-old nephew says he sounds like: “Sounds like the ocean.” I guess he didn’t quite get the rural Alberta part.
I think he sounds like: Earnest, touching songwriting and warm, straight-ahead finger picking. The kind you always hope to hear when some guy brings out his guitar around a campfire but you never do.
Folkiness scale: The dude had a violin accompanist and called it a fiddle. He sang songs about British ports, Canadian logging towns, creeks, whiskey, and even a murder ballad. He told a story about playing a show for drunken farmers at a rural northern Alberta Legion. The folkiness meter is sparking and smoking from folk overload.
4.5 Joan Baez heads
The festival guide says she sounds like: “a promising, critically acclaimed foray into indie-folk with honeyed vibrato, baroque femininity and sweetly minimal arrangements”.
I think she sounds like: my future ex-wife.
My 4 year-old nephew says she sounds like: “this makes me want to do this (logrolls on the ground with his tongue out for about half a minute)”. Hey, express yourself, man.
Folkiness scale: the folkiness induced by her xylophone and autoharp was unfortunately nullified by the unfolkiness of her vocoder synth kazoo microphone thing.
2 Joan Baez heads. It’s a shame the crowd for her set were such a bummer, because she was really bringing the good stuff.
Tribe Called Red
The festival guide says they sound like: “aboriginal powwow vocals and drumming with high-energy electronica for a multi-millennia spanning sound that compels you to join the frenetic party.”
My 4 year-old nephew says they sound like: “I hear drums, and weird talking.” Nailed it.
I think they sound like: Drums, and weird talking.
Folkiness scale: The socio-political consciousness of these guys in addition to the fact that they are remixing old recordings of aboriginal chants put them at the top of the folkiness scale immediately. Having dancers do traditional dancing in traditional dress puts them over the top. The fusion of reggae elements and, dare I say, dubstep-esque features bring them down a peg or two.
3 Joan Baez heads The show they put on was bananas. Where does stage diving fit on the folkiness scale?
Andrew Bird and the Hands of Glory (yes, he was a mainstage headliner, but I want to talk about his whistling so bad)
The festival guide says he sounds like: “an old-timey tincture of roots, gospel and bluegrass.”
My 4 year-old nephew says they sound like: “This sounds like the Elmo movie.” I’m really not sure where he’s coming from with that one.
I think he sounds like: an eccentric, authentic creative type, letting it all hang out. Also his keyboard player looked like one of the guys from The National.
Folkiness scale: There’s a lot going on here. He and his backing band have impeccable four part harmonies. Folk points. He wears an incredible cravat. Folk points. He plays guitar AND the violin. Folk points. He sometimes holds his violin horizontally in front of him to strum it like a mandolin. Double folk points. He sometimes plays his violin through a spinning double horn speaker (!). Triple folk points. He sometimes plays using a loop pedal to layer his parts. Folk demerits. He can whistle like a mofo. Megatime folk points. THIS DUDE CAN WHISTLE. I can’t stress the whistling skills enough. If whistling was Mariokart 64, he would permanently have a star, a thunderbolt, and about 25 red shells. Seriously.
5 Joan Baez heads
So, what have I learned? Whatever the fate of Mumford and Sons and their suddenly spotlighted ilk, it remains unlikely that folk will stray far from the realm of mainstream music, without showing influence in some major artists in some way. Along this same vein, folk festivals like that of Calgary’s will continue to thrive as, even with the constantly changing landscape of the music, its trends, and its industry, aspects of folk will continue to subsist in many forms and aspects, albeit to varying degrees. In this way, the bottom line of the Calgary Folk Music Festival experience may be that nobody at the festival seems to mind that there are so many different interpretations of what folk music may be or how it may sound. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.
Written by Contributor: Brett Fillmore