35 years of Calgary Folk Music Festival memories

Posted by Mike Bell on 18 July 2014

lang performs calgary folk music festival calgary
kd lang performs at the Calgary Folk Music Festival in Calgary, Alberta on July 23, 2011. Organizers, volunteers and musicians offered up their folk fest memories.

Photograph by: Leah Hennel , Calgary Herald

Time can be marked in seconds, minutes, hours, days and years.

But it can also be ticked through moments and memories.

As the Calgary Folk Music Festival gets set to celebrate its 35th anniversary this week and mix up another great, big batch of recollections with a lineup that includes Bruce Cockburn, Rufus Wainwright, The Jayhawks, Patty Griffin and the act Hydra featuring Leslie Feist, we thought it was a good time to mark the milestone by asking some of those involved to share their favourite moments and memories, musical or other.


While there are perennial mainstage favourites such as Neko Case and Sarah Harmer, I think it’s at the workshops where sparks really fly. For me it was Robyn Hitchcock and the Sadies performing a version of Pink Floyd’s Lucifer Sam at one of the afternoon workshops in 2002. The song was completely unrehearsed and spontaneous but nearly note-perfect. It was the first time they had played together and Hitchcock later recorded with the Sadies, so it was a real coming together of minds.

Frank Turner belting out an acoustic version of ABBA’s Dancing Queen in 2010 was pretty fun, too.


When Central African Republic group, Ongo Trogode, who play horns made of hollowed out trees, played in 2001, they expressed a need for bikes in their village; our volunteers independently and quickly organized a campaign to collect about 200 of them and have them sent for free.

Jann Arden covering Janis Ian’s At Seventeen on a collaborative session they were both on made Janis Ian cry.

Robyn Hitchcock singing My Wife and My Dead Wife on mainstage. He paused in the middle when it rained for a stream-of-consciousness tale and picked right back up where he was when the rain stopped five minutes later.

Paul Kelly doing an intense song about war, with impromptu backing from fellow session mates Four the Moment and Martin Tielli.


I had the good fortune to be playing with Great Uncle Bull at the 1999 festival. Kerry Clarke had booked the masterful Gil Scott-Heron to play. As great a pioneering innovator as Scott-Heron was, it was also known that just getting him to any event was a challenge.

Initially he was set to bring a large backing band but, as the festival grew closer, the size of the band diminished until finally it was just going to be Gil Scott-Heron. Kerry, thinking quickly, threw together a small outfit made up of David Woodhead on bass, who was playing with the late great Oliver Schroer, and yours truly on congas and percussion.

We got to play a few workshops before we were set to play the main stage, which was helpful because as sweet a guy as Gil was, he wasn’t into letting us know what he was going to play or how we might treat the songs. “Just follow me,” was the basic advice. We quickly adapted to placing ourselves behind and around him; I looked at his bouncing left leg to see the rhythm it was tapping out. David placed himself so he could see Gil’s left keyboard hand to ascertain the key. It went surprisingly well.

There was a moment when a rain cloud burst and I witnessed the entire audience magically turn into one seemingly huge tarp. The ultimate festival tarp! No one in the audience wanted to leave.

Backstage, we all exchanged hugs and love … it felt truly wonderful. I remember Gil saying, “I’ll catch up with you boys later, got a little treat for you.” That was the last time I ever saw Gil Scott-Heron.


It was the late, great Herald music writer James Muretich who first got me hooked on the fest. We went down in about 1989 with our partners at the time. I remember the magic starting even before we hit the island as we ran into Karl Roth playing an enchanted set out on the plaza in Eau Claire. I also recall running into Kerry Clarke that day, before she was the AD, and her mentioning that the food at Calgary was not as politically correct as the food in Edmonton. This was as James, ever the foodie, was gleefully devouring one of those sugar coated elephant ears they used to sell there. Of course he had his infamous flask of Scotch, Jonnie Walker Red that day, in his pocket.

After that, I was hooked. I remember being pregnant watching Blue Shadows while feeling my daughter Samana kick, and later dragging her all over the island as a baby and toddler. Those were the years of standing by the bouncy room in the family zone while craning your neck so as not to miss what was on Stages 1 or 2.

When I started to write for FFWD, the great memories became more than just that enchanted, blurry mix of all kinds of really cool music and island sunsets and alcohol. Being able to interview Richard Thompson, Caitlin Cary, Glen Campbell and so many others and then hear them and possibly run into them on the island was a huge thrill for me. It never wore off.

Then in 2003, Kerry called me to ask me to write a bio for Lorrie Matheson, which initiated my volunteer commitment to the fest which continues to this day.

Joining the board of directors ramped it up again in ways I hadn’t expected. Part of my role is to sit in the payroll trailer as artists are paid, and I love hearing over and over again how amazing the festival is, how well the artists are treated, how so many of them play festivals all over the world but Calgary is their favourite because we spare no detail in making them feel welcome and appreciated. And standing looking out from the side of the stage as k.d. lang played and seeing thousands of mesmerized faces is what makes driving in from Bragg Creek in a blizzard in January all worth it.


Wearing a luchador mask onstage to introduce Los Straitjackets with Owen Tobert the City’s manager at the time and another friend.

Negotiating the purchase of a Westfalia in the beer gardens.

Busting our humps to clean up the island last year after the flood with 250 of my most favourite folkie friends.

Hard to know even where to start with the music, but here’s a few: Dave Alvin, kd lang singing Hallelujah, Sunday morning gospel stages, Steve Earle, Joe Ely, Vic Chesnutt and last year’s headliner Alabama Shakes.


The festival has been part of my life in one way or another since 1982. I was 11 and my dad was involved so I started volunteering informally at that point. At 17 I got involved in the development of the new organization, at some point I served on the Board, I don’t even remember the years. I’ve been a permanent staff for three years but have done contracts off and on in the past. Even the years I lived out of the country I was always thinking of the festival and sending my wishes to everyone.

For me the memories are so different at varying points in my life.

In my grumpy mid teens, I was secretly addicted to the Tannahill Weavers whose edgy approach to trad Scottish music made me feel like a rebel to my top 40 loving peers and my trad loving parents.

In my 20s, I danced so hard to Rawlins Cross that I gave myself whiplash, watched the sun rise after every party and met people who inspire me to this day.

In my 30s, I basked in the sun listening to Ani DiFranco after returning home from two years of travelling and the bosom of my close friends.

Now here I am in my 40s with two kids. My great moments now are those on the tarp. My tarpie gang is full of old and new friends, kids of all ages and our aging parents. We love each other, we visit, we listen, we share food, we do the acrostic. We have a schedule for the tarpie run, in the weeks before we have emails flying, we sit in the same spot, we don’t have a tarp marker, we don’t need one, it’s always the same. We are a community within the festival community.


A few years back, maybe 10 or more, I was sitting with my family at Stage 2. I don’t remember who was on the stage because a squirrel stole the show.

As the set went on a squirrel started to descend from a tree top, he got about half way down the trunk before he realized there were hundreds of people sitting at the base of his tree. Whatever the squirrel had in mind was not going to happen as he imagined it would. For a couple of minutes the squirrel circled the truck, trying to figure out if there was an escape route.

As the time passed more and more audience members lost focus on the stage preferring to watch how the little furry critter was making out. Eventually the squirrel went back up the tree to assess the jumping distance to the next tree. He scampered out to the ends of a few branches only to be discouraged. By this time most heads and hands were pointing skyward. In a last-ditch effort the squirrel made a run for it and leaped into the air. He landed like only a squirrel can, grasping the branch on the receiving end with his little hands. The audience erupted into cheers and applause, so impressed with the little guy’s tenacity and success.

To this day I have no idea if the musicians on the stage had any idea what was going on, why the audience was looking up and why the workshop got a huge cheer in the middle of the song. It was one of those moments when community came alive at the festival, a moment we all shared in that was totally unexpected and incredibly triumphant.


At last year’s festival I decided to party for all it was worth, and I ended up at the after-party until roughly 3 a.m. By this time I was rather tired and was stumbling back out into the night when I was distracted by the faint sounds of drumming.

I made my way across the lobby to where several festival artists were jamming away in a drum circle. Among the drum-core was members of Nomadic Massive, Saida Baba Talibah, and my future-wife Rachel Sermanni. This alone would have been enough to propel the experience into my festival Top 5, but the real gem of the evening was Rachel thrusting her mandolin into my hands and asking me to lead a song.

I did, albeit poorly, and retired from the night elated, and with an undeserved compliment on my skills by the Scottish folkster herself as well as an earnest “sweet dreams.” She has yet to respond to my Facebook friend request.


It was 13 years ago, there was a traditional band from Africa playing. It was an incredible sight. I think there were about 15 of them. 15 tiny, sinewy African men wearing long stretches of fabric wrapped around their waists, marching through the audience playing long, carved traditional horns. They were called Ongo Trogode.

Quite honestly, it was a bit of a struggle hosting them because there were such huge cultural differences between us. They weren’t used to our food and couldn’t eat a thing without getting sick. They weren’t prepared for the weather and had no jackets to wear at night. The poor guys were running around half-naked, freezing most of the time. We couldn’t communicate with each other at all and actually had to draw pictures to figure things out.

It came to light that the village they came from was extremely poor. They didn’t have school supplies for their local school and their kids couldn’t go to school in the neighbouring villages because they didn’t have any way to get there. Bikes were a precious commodity.

Early the next morning I was standing in the media tent across from the mainstage and a woman came up to me with a bike. Then a family came over with a knapsack filled with colouring books and crayons. More and more bikes started to show up along with more and more bags of paper, pencils, notebooks and crayons. I spent the entire day receiving gifts for the band’s village. Little Canadian kids were giving me their bikes to give to the African kids who didn’t have any. With little handwritten notes and cards and pictures. It was completely overwhelming. I knew then that the festival was doing something amazing — bringing people together, sharing experiences and sharing life. It was something that I will never forget.

Calgary Folk Music Festival

Runs Thursday through Sunday at Prince’s Island Park. For tickets and information go to calgaryfolkfest.com