Jeremy Klaszus, Swerve Magazine: The Folkie Land Grab

Posted by Johanna on 26 July 2011

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It was a telling moment. Folkie singer-songwriter Connie Kaldor was emceeing the mainstage at the 2007 Calgary Folk Music Festival. Caught up in the good vibes, Kaldor urged those near the stage to make room for strangers.

“This is  Calgary, a friendly place,” she said to the thousands assembled at Prince’s Island Park. “If you have room on your tarp, let someone squeeze on. Who has room on their tarp?” Most did, but only one or two hands went up near the stage. “Come on,” continued Kaldor. “You never know, you might meet someone interesting.” The audience remained unconvinced. No more hands went up. The relaxed festival atmosphere had suddenly turned tense.

Finally Kaldor confessed: “I don’t know the protocol of tarpdom.”

A hundred people were ready to stand up and say, “You’re damn right you don’t know the protocol of tarpdom! We fought to get here. We slept outside to get here. We broke rules to get here. We trampled small children to get here. And we didn’t do it so a bunch of dirty hippies could enjoy the benefits.”

If you want tarp space in front of the stage, you have to put in the time. No freeloading allowed. This is Alberta, after all. We don’t take our property rights lightly.

Tarpies don’t mess around. I became a tarpy on a whim in 2006 after leaving the Friday night mainstage. My tarp-mates were discussing morning plans, which involved one of us getting up at some ungodly hour the next morning (think 4 or 5 a.m.) to get in line so we could get a good patch of real estate in front of the stage. Nobody wanted to do it, obviously, and as we hummed and hawed about who would go, I pointed at a group of people who were already lined up outside the gate.
“Oh, those are tarpies,” said somebody in our group. “They’re nuts. They sleep out here all night.”

I’m in, I thought. I biked home, got my sleeping bag and Therm-A-Rest, and returned to the island. It just made sense. Why go home and crawl into bed at 1 a.m. just to get up four hours later to try and get a half-decent spot in line? Better to stay on site, sleep in a bit and ultimately get better tarp placement. Besides, when else do you get to sleep under the open sky in an urban park? It’s July, the weather is usually warm, and the authorities leave you alone (at least in my experience). Becoming a tarpy seemed like a natural extension of the folk festival experience, a bit of love and peace spilling out of the gate and setting up camp for the night.

There’s some truth to that. It’s common to see tarpies along the fence strumming guitars and singing Dylan, or quietly chatting with each other. But there’s a hidden, darker side to tarpy culture. If daytime at the folk fest is like a Weakerthans song, cheery and hopeful, nighttime outside the gate can be a Nick Cave ballad, brooding and sinister. Compromising and challenging.

It starts nicely enough. You find the end of the line (to get a decent spot, this means leaving during the last song of the last mainstage act), throw down your gear, and say hello to your neighbours. You unroll your sleeping bag. As festival-goers file out of the gate, they regard you with disbelief and sometimes disdain. “It’s just a folk festival.” “Now that’s dedication.” “See you at 11!” You unfold a festival chair, maybe do a bit of reading. And then you sleep, or try to. But already some tarpies are tense, fretting about who belongs where and whether or not such placement in the line is deserved.

A couple years back, a guy in line ahead of me was all worked up because somebody had set three or four chairs against the fence behind me, as if to save a spot in line, and then disappeared. The line had kept forming behind the empty chairs. We all assumed the chairs’ owners would return soon. But an hour passed, and they hadn’t come back. The tarpy ahead of me was getting impatient. “Who put those chairs there?”

His frustration grew. At 12:15 a.m.: “You can’t leave your stuff and expect to stay in line. It’s not right.” I nodded in full agreement.
At 12:30: “You can’t do that. You just can’t. You can’t.” Again I nodded. It’s bad tarpy etiquette. You can have one person stay behind to guard the stuff. That’s common. But to leave altogether? Bad form. Totally unacceptable.

By 12:45, he vowed to give them only 15 minutes to show themselves. Or else. “Uh…” I said.

By 1 a.m., it was over. “Screw it,” he said, picking up the absentees’ chairs and tossing them into the bushes beside the River Cafe.

So much for love and peace.

Looking very chuffed, my tarpy friend dusted off his hands, crawled into his sleeping bag and nestled in for a night of sleep. Having witnessed this reckless act of folkie vigilante justice, I thought it wise to do the same lest I become associated with the crime. I put away my book, stuck my glasses into my shoe and got into my sleeping bag. Please don’t come back until I’m asleep, I thought.

Within minutes, I heard voices. Sure enough, they had returned.

“Where’s our stuff?”
“It was right here.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t further back?”
“No, it was right here under the CKUA banner.”
“Then where is it?”

A better man might have crawled out of his sleeping bag and offered an answer. But I wasn’t about to rat out my new pal. Instead, I feigned sleep, slowly pulling my sleeping bag a little higher over my head as the latecomers kept up their search. Eventually they discovered their chairs, retrieving them from the greenery and cursing the unknown culprit. I could feel their eyes on those of us in line, and I held completely still. They calmed down, I slept for real and in the morning we all introduced ourselves, shaking each other’s hands as if nothing had happened.

Morning is a time of reward for tarpies. Because sleeping over is perceived as a great and honourable sacrifice (even though it isn’t, and gets you off the hook for standing in line other days), it’s common for tarpies to get breakfast from their tarp-mates. Friends would bring me more stuff than I could eat: bagels, oatmeal, sandwiches, doughnuts. “You need to eat well to perform during the running of the tarpies,” they would say. I didn’t argue.

The running of the tarpies is a tense event. At about 8:50, people start pitching their gear over the fence into the festival site so they can run unencumbered. Backpacks, sleeping bags and pillows all get tossed in anticipation of not just the tarp run, but the unrolling of the tarps. A first-rate tarpy can speedwalk toward the stage (running is prohibited) and claim her plot with a flick of the wrist. But there are rules. “People need to know that they can’t take up an inordinate amount of space,” says festival artistic director Kerry Clarke. “It is kind of like old-school homesteading.” To effectively throw down a regulation-size tarp, folding and rolling it in line beforehand is key.

Shortly after everybody tosses their stuff over the fence, we are herded into pens in front of the gate, and then we are let in beside the beer gardens where we are once again barricaded. This is the last stop before the tarp run, and there is talk of stabbing out eyes and scalding competitors with hot coffee. Bits of strategy are overheard: “I imagine bears chasing me.” Mind games are played. One year, I wore flip-flops and was mocked for it. “Flip-flops? Unless you grew up in Trinidad wearing them your whole life, I’m not sure it’s a good idea.”

Suddenly the trash talk ends. People are set loose in waves, folk fest volunteers yell “NO RUNNING!” but still some speedwalks turn into all-out sprints. Tarps are unfurled as planned. And then it’s over. The field is covered in blue and orange rectangles. Everybody is more or less happy with their placement. The festival can begin.

“Tarpdom,” as Kaldor called it, is often incomprehensible to outsiders. Clarke says there’s a bit of a culture clash. “I think for some of the artists, it’s a little weird to look out and see people sitting,” she says. “They kind of assume that people aren’t enjoying themselves.” The misunderstanding can breed curious disappointment, as it did with Kaldor. Or it can create outright hostility, as it did last year with Glen Hansard of the Swell Season. Looking out and seeing people lounging around on tarps, he snapped at the audience and delivered an angry lecture on how to make magic happen at a concert. After his diatribe, he invited fans to crash the front of the stage, disregarding tarps that lay in the way. It was ugly.

Look: We’re listening. We claimed these plots of grass for a reason. We want to be here. We care. Just don’t mess with our tarps, or else.

Originally published in Swerve Magazine on July.08.11.