30 Years of making memories, Calgary Herald, July 18
BY HEATH MCCOY, MIKE BELL AND ERIC VOLMERS
Thirty years ago when the Calgary Folk Music Festival made its first appearance, the very suggestion that this undertaking might become one of the city's premier summer events would have seemed like a happy hippy pipe dream.
Born as the Travelling Folk Festival and Goodtime Medicine Show-- part of a 22-venue folk tour of Alberta to celebrate the province's 75th anniversary-- the inaugural folk fest in 1980 featured 30 folk singers and over three days it attracted about 7,000 people.
These days, over four days, the event typically draws about 50,000 to Prince's Island Park. As for the attractions, this year alone the festival is bringing in over 60 acts from 13 countries. And while the musical menu is still folk-rooted, that number includes sounds as diverse as alternative rock, hip-hop, blues, country and world music.
It's been an up and down journey, with financial struggles, weather woes and the odd battle with City Hall along the way, but wading through it all the Calgary Folk Music Festival has become something even those happy hippies never envisioned.
We caught up with a few of the festival's movers and shakers from over the years and they shared their fondest folk fest moments.
Les Siemieniuk (Festival Manager)
In 1985, the Calgary Folk Festival's run of unbelievably bad weather continued unabated and would-be folkies found themselves swaying back and forth as snow fell on the festival grounds.
Kate Wolf, a Californiabased folksinger-songwriter who had performed at the Calgary Folk Music Festival three years earlier, decided to return to her hotel after a performance and invited some new friends back with her. Sitting in the weight room of her hotel, she began playing the song The Streets of Calgary, a tune she had just written based on her experiences in the city.
"It was a miserable weekend, but that was incredible," says festival manager les siemieniuk, who was a CBC producer at the time. "She was going to be flying out on the Monday afternoon. So I told her we should get into the studio so I could record this song about Calgary. We did it on Monday morning. It was a beautiful recording. She died the following fall."
Wolf had been suffering from leukemia, although she had been keeping her illness quiet. While she had a relatively short career, her songs had a big impact on the folk world and have been covered by Lucinda Williams, Dave Alvin, Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris among others.
Her impromptu session in the CBC studios resulted in the only recorded version of Streets of Calgary. It was eventually included on her 1987 posthumous album, The Wind Blows Wild.
Kerry Clarke (Festival's Artistic Director)
Having been booking acts for the festival for the past 16 years, Clarke is a superb source for stories when it comes to the musicians who've been a part of it.
Some are printable and some are--for reasons relating to legalities or common decency, or a combination of the two--not so much.
(If you see her around, ask her to regale you with the feminine hygiene tales of Macy Gray's band members, or the bizarre story of how Alvin Youngblood Hart settled a score on a downtown city street.)
The one relatable story that springs to mind immediately was the experience of booking and working with influential American poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron in 1999, which she still considers something of a coup.
True to his erratic reputation, she hired Scott-Heron as a seven-piece, before getting word that he was only going to bring a pair of musicians with him, only to have him show up at the festival alone.
Over the course of the next couple of days, Clarke managed to enlist local drummer Peter Moller and bassist David Woodhead to perform with the artist.
"They arranged to practise with him 30 minutes before they took the stage and it turns out he just told them stories for half an hour," Clarke says. "And then they went onstage and one of them watched his right hand and one of them watched his left hand."
The performance, she says, was one of her favourites, having been a fan of Scott-Heron's for a long time.
"It was pretty amazing to have Gil there," she says. "And I think it's the last time he's ever played in Canada, for various reasons --mostly drug-related."
Tom Phillips (Musician)
Calgarian Tom Phillips has brought his Men of Constant Sorrow to the folk festival stage at least four times since the early 1990s, participating in a number of its workshops in the process.
A one-time board member of the festival, Phillips says it's given him a chance to spread his wings creatively with some of his heroes. He backed up Gillian Welch and traded songs with Corb Lund, Robbie Fulks and Kathleen Edwards. He traded "off-colour" jokes with Steve Earle and the Holmes Brothers while en route back to the hotel. In 1998, he bonded with Texas songwriter Alejandro Escovedo, who will also be appearing at the festival this year, over a mutual love of Hank Williams.
"I was playing with Alejandro Escovedo on a side stage and all the power went out," Phillips said. "So we jumped off the stage and played acoustically. We played Hank Williams until the power came back on."
(Festival Producer from 1996 to 2005)
The producer of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival came on board to help the Calgary folk fest at a time when it was struggling to survive. The year before he stepped in, the festival had lost $100,000, a crisis situation that might have sunk the ship. Wickham began applying what he calls the "concert mentality" to the Calgary festival, focusing on bringing in headlining acts to draw major crowds. This marked a turning point for the festival where it began to become a premier event of the Calgary summer for more than just folkies.
Looking back, two moments stand out for Wickham as indicators that he had helped set the Calgary folk fest on a winning course.
"The first thing that comes to mind is the first day we ever sold out, (hitting) our capacity of 8,000. . . . I just remember saying to people, 'It's closed. It's sold out.' And they were saying, 'But I just want one ticket.' . . . They just couldn't believe the Calgary Folk Music Festival was sold out."
Wickham also remembers coming across a scalper outside the festival grounds one evening when Ani DiFranco was playing. "We don't like scalping, but this was a sign that the (folk festival) had become a good event to be at," Wickham says.
Another happy memory for the veteran festival producer? He fondly remembers the day former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne played at the festival and decided to go for a bike ride around Calgary. "Off he cycled through the crowd," says Wickham. "People didn't even notice him because he looked like a 45-year-old businessman. Offstage, he doesn't look quirky at all."
James Keelaghan (Musician)
Calgary-born folksinger James Keelaghan has performed at the Calgary folk festival at least eight times, starting in 1985, and was even a board member when the festival was reborn after a string of weather-related disasters derailed it in the late 1980s.
So the veteran singer-songwriter is an old hand at the festival's famous workshops. In 1999, he shared the stage with Gil Scott-Heron.
"He's a big hero of mine, but certainly not anybody who you would think of as being an acoustic or folk act," says Keelaghan. "He was on a stage, and I'm pretty sure it was myself, Lennie Gallant and Niamh Parsons. I think the rough theme was working folks or something. Lennie did a song about miners and Niamh did a song about miners and I did Hillcrest Mine. Gil Scott-Heron did a song about black miners in West Virginia. I didn't know that Gil Scott-Heron had any songs about miners in West Virginia. He started playing this tune and it was so amazing that you had people from these different backgrounds that sit on a workshop stage and go towards a common goal. For me, those are my best memories from the folk festival."
Oscar Lopez (Musician)
The veteran of many a Calgary folk fest, Oscar Lopez's most cherished festival moment is the one he experienced after a long layoff. Struck with a near paralyzing depression in the early part of this decade, Lopez became a recluse for close to four years.
When he finally began to dig himself out of the dark hole in which he was buried, one particular moment at the Calgary Folk Music Festival gave him the strength he needed to get the job done.
In 2004, the band Spirit of the West was performing at the festival and, as one of the songs they were set to perform, Come Back Oscar, was inspired by Lopez's struggle, they asked Lopez to perform the tune with them.
"They did that song and dedicated it to me," Lopez says. "They invited me to play with them . . . and I joined them. . . . I was shaking like a leaf. I was so nervous. It was just after my depression. I was trying to repair myself and I was trying to come back. . . .
"How can I forget that? I remember trying not to cry. It was an amazing time and an amazing experience."
(Chairman of the Executive Board of Directors)
Like James Keelaghan and Kerry Clarke, Chiclo, the newly elected folk festival chairman, points to Gil Scott-Heron's appearance in 1999 as providing his favourite fest memory. And also similar to many memories involving the event, the weather plays an important part--and a positive one.
"He started and the rain was coming down," Chiclo remembers about that particularly soggy day. "But just as he got going, the skies opened up and the warm sun hit the Island, which ignited the audience.
"The soul legend had Mother Nature on his side that afternoon."
Jann Arden (Musician)
For Jann Arden, her favourite festival moment came the year she got to sing in a workshop with one of her greatest idols, Janis Ian, whose 1975 Grammy Award-winning song At Seventeen had touched her so deeply growing up.
"That's one of the first songs I ever learned on the guitar," Arden says. "She was playing it and she asked if I wanted to sing it with her. After singing a song about 4,000 times, you'd think you'd know it. But she was mouthing the words and showing me where to come in. It was very surreal . . . one of those moments where fantasy and reality cross paths."
Les siemieniuk, general manager of the festival, once recalled the moment in an interview with the Herald, noting that Arden had tears in her eyes after she got offstage with Ian. That's something Arden doesn't deny. "I'm not a hugely teary person," she says. "I was more shocked than anything else and kind of floating. It wasn't about crying and being upset. It was elation."
Years later, in 2007, Arden recorded her own version of At Seventeen on her Uncover Me album, which she released as a hit single. Arden says she had her record company Universal Canada send Ian a plaque with the message: "After 30 years you've got a top 10 song again."
"She was quite touched by that," Arden says.
Kenna Burima (Boot Camp organizer)
For Kenna Burima, who's been involved with the event for the past four years in a couple of different capacities, her favourite part about the folk fest is one perhaps many people can relate to and one that speaks to the rich, 30-year tradition of the festival. It's an ongoing familial one--a beautiful one that will bring a tear to the eye of even he with the most hardened of hearts.
"On Sunday night every year," Burima says, "I will find my entire family-- four siblings, parents, cousins, uncles--in the beer gardens and I'll ask them who they've seen and every year they say, 'We haven't left the beer gardens. We haven't seen anything.' "
At this point, it would probably be redundant to point out the Burima clan is from Saskatchewan.
"Yes, yes it does make sense," she laughs.
"But folk festival is their Christmas. It's like four days where they all get together, and they drink and they party. So it's like Christmas without the Jesus Christ."