Throwback Thursday: Calgary Folk Music Festival, July, 1999

Posted by Johanna Schwartz on 24 July 2014

throwback collage

As the Calgary Folk Music Festival gears up for its 35th anniversary this weekend, it’s an opportune time to reflect back on this summertime staple, with a personal throwback to the first year I really got involved, during the festival of 1999.


Folk Fest at that time was much closer to ‘traditional folk’ than it is now, and with a significantly smaller roster. At 44 artists, the size was effectively half of what it is today (the ’14 line up boasts 79 performers, including comedians and spoken word artists). While I knew of the festival, (and if memory serves had been to see Spirit of the West about ten years earlier, in 1988), nothing really spoke to me, a bit of a riot girl in her mid-20s, who had recently moved back from a stint in Austin, Texas, soaking up the new alt-country sounds.

gil scott heron 99 thumb

Suddenly, the lineup in 1999 had a few gems that I just HAD to see: Violent Femmes, Gil Scott Heron (pictured), and Exene Cervenka of X (originally booked alongside John Doe, who couldn’t make it). I could still give a toss about Joan Baez, Dick Gaughan, or Fred Eaglesmith (I know, I know, old folkies, I have since been schooled).

But I was flat broke. So I volunteered. The festival’s current volunteer army counts well over a thousand, but fifteen years ago, it was a smaller affair. One quick phone call and I was a main field security volunteer! They even gave me a radio, which I was terrified of using, scared that I would somehow get on the wrong channel and jam air traffic control signals at the airport (I had a really limited understanding of radios).

I was given a bright yellow shirt to wear for the four days, which I promptly spilled cherry slurpee all over on day 1. I spent my shifts wandering the perimeter of the site, keeping my eyes peeled for bad behaviour in the bushes, or rogue rafters (thankfully, I never had to leap into action, because my plan was to throw my radio at them and run).

Once my shift was over, I was able to check out all of the music I was dying to see. Ask an old folkie about that Violent Femmes show, and you will likely get an earful. This may have been one of the first, but not one of the last, moments of tension between old-school and new-school folk festers. The crowd who was there to see the Femmes were used to seeing shows at rock clubs and dive bars, and didn’t understand why yelling “One more song! One more song!” wasn’t getting any results.

The stage crew (always incredibly professional, even the volunteers, who obviously received much more training than my security crew), moved the show along, leaving the indie crowd no recourse but just to sit down, shut up, and get back into the folk fest vibe. Back to your tarps people! I was very glad I did not have to flex my security-muscle with my own peeps.

Gil Scott-Heron was a bit of a blur, and I remember watching Exene Cervenka, seemingly adrift without John Doe, performing the same song over and over as she moved from workshop to workshop. And if memory serves, the evening of the Femmes was beautiful, but it snowed during Joan Baez’s set.

And that was that. By the next year, I would be working for the festival, which I would go on to do for another twelve years, with an amazing team of staff and volunteers. And in that time, much changed.

The ubiquitous cow logo would be unleashed the next year, the permanent stage was built, facing west, so that the sun was no longer in the eyes of the performers as it set, the plate recycling program was launched (a groundbreaking part of the festival’s current, stellar approach to on-site environmental stewardship), and the volunteer army, the lineup of artists and the crowds who come would double in size.

I am sure each year new folkies are brought into the fold the way I was…intrigued by a programming choice or excited to volunteer (or too broke to afford even what is a really quite a reasonably-priced ticket). And once you are in, there’s really no going back. The idyll of Prince’s Island Park, the gathering of friends and family, the lure of a beer garden visit or two, those things have never changed.

The folk fest grows as the city grows, and provides a sterling example of how to get bigger, yet stay cool. Compared to the behemoth music festivals like X-Fest, etc, the folk festival still allows you to bring a picnic, come and go as you please, find a quiet shady place to chill. It’s music done right, with a heaping side dish of relaxation. Here’s to another thirty-five years!