On not suffering from Folk Festival guilt


hurch attendance patterns provide an interesting window into what makes a particular congregation “tick.” For most congregations, attendance is at its lowest ebb on summer long-weekends, when many people have cleared out of the city to head for the cottage or camp-ground. At saint benedict’s table, our lowest attendance of the entire year consistently falls on the second weekend of July – the weekend of the Winnipeg Folk Festival. As I write this, the festival has just gotten underway, and I know that a fair percentage of our community will already be out at the festival campground, eagerly anticipating the next few days. By Sunday night they’ll be tired (maybe a bit sun-burned?), happy, and a bit wistful that it has all ended for another year.

But I won’t be going to the festival this year; in fact, I haven’t gone since 1995. My adult daughters have been attending since they were quite young, and my step-daughter came under the spell of the folk festival a few years back and wouldn’t miss it for anything. For the first time in her life, my wife Catherine is attending this year, having been convinced by a friend that she needed to give the event an honest try… she’s even camping out for two nights… in the so-called “quiet campground,” mind you.

I’ll be at home, enjoying a quiet few days out on our back porch reading, writing and listening to music. The big break in that routine will be going to a café with some friends to watch the World Cup finals on Sunday afternoon. Otherwise, it will be a very quiet, very solitary few days. And I like it that way.

There was a day when I found it all very unsettling, this sense that I might be missing some great cultural event. During my university days many of my friends were serious folk festival aficionados, and being that I was (and am) a big music guy, it always felt that I should be going with them, but I never did. After returning from theological college in 1987, I made several honest attempts at getting into the whole thing, and in fact even attended four times over the next eight years. Twice those days were brutally hot, one was all about rain and mud, and one was a picture-perfect July day.

But it didn’t matter. I really liked the music, but I just could not connect with the event.

It was sometime around 1995 that the columnist Lindor Reynolds wrote a piece for the Winnipeg Free Press, declaring herself officially free of “Folk Festival guilt.” Like me, she had tried to engage the festival several times over the years, and like me it had just really never resonated for her. She’d given it all an honest try, but had finally hit this place where she could wish her friends and colleagues all the best as they headed up to Bird’s Hill Park for the festival… and then settle in and enjoy the weekend, doing whatever she needed or wanted to do. Reading Lindor’s column, I had something of an epiphany. I was free.

Now, I’ve been thinking about this again, partly because Catherine is doing her first-ever festival weekend this year, but mostly because I recently came across some really interesting material on the function and appeal of big music festivals in our present day cultural context. In The Blackwell Guide to Theology and Popular Culture, Kelton Cobb offers some fascinating reflections, worth reproducing here at some length:

Like its predecessor (the revival camp meeting), the music festival provides an occasion to shed one’s routines, normal obligations and comforts in order to enter a liminal world designed to optimize the possibility for self-transcendence and to practice a different mode of community. It has clear Edenic and utopian overtones. Festivals of the mid-1990s were nomadic global villages, and would feature midways of kiosks that promoted NGOs and political causes, vegetarian cuisine, smart drink bars, mask vendors and body piercing/tattoo artists.

The great mix of sounds, images, emotions, and to some degree, statuslessness, that swirl around one at a music festival can be disorienting in a productive, rejuvenating way. Just as in traditional rites of passage, then, these modern festivals can thrust those who are present into the self-dissolving experience of communitas, planting within them a vision that is antithetical to the bureaucratic structures in which they spend their lives.

It is fascinating, then, to consider the sort of things that people often say about the appeal of the festival: they love the scale of the gathering, and the fact that people seem able to just “let down.” They like running into old friends and meeting new ones. There is deep appeal in being in a public space and finding oneself able to  “dance like no one’s watching” (even if it is on a field filled with 10,000 others), to dress like a folkie/hippie, to not have to worry about being a bit muddy. The people who push all of this right to the edge are treasured as characters, whereas in the course of “normal” life they are more apt to be dismissed as eccentrics. Or worse. Everyone is equal, everyone shares the common experience.

And like kids at Christmas, festival devotees often wonder why every day can’t be like this. If only our society functioned like the Winnipeg Folk Festival, it would make for a better world.

It is not accidental that for many years the tag line on posters for the Winnipeg Folk Festival was “People and Music.” Every year I hear about people who spent about 90% of the weekend in the main festival campground, hardly bothering to venture into the festival itself. It is the experience – the event – and not the line-up of music, that appears to provide the sense of communitas. “People and Music,” in that order.

So why is it that this event – as event – has so little draw for me? It probably has something to do with a very basic distinction between introvert and extrovert. As opposed to the extrovert – one who is energized by being with people – I am a classic Jungian introvert; my batteries are recharged by having time and space on my own. It also probably has at least something to do with my being a bit skeptical of the implied claim that the event is about statuslessness and egalitarianism. After all, thanks to corporate sponsorship, a couple of years back Volkswagen drivers were granted preferred parking spaces.

More significantly, though, is that my own experience of communitas comes through this wonderfully odd and diverse thing called the Body of Christ. Not, mind you, the institutional church as such, which can be as frustratingly bureaucratic and soul-numbing as any other social or governmental structure. But the Body of Christ? That is a different thing. It ties me to great friends and mentors here in Winnipeg and well beyond, and the ties have nothing to do with all of us being members of the same institution called the Anglican Church of Canada. It is what connects me to Father Kilian McDonnell in St John’s Abbey in Minnesota; to Robert Capon in his home on Shelter Island in New York; to Cal Seerveld in Toronto; to Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove at Rutba House in North Carolina. A Benedictine monk, an Episcopal priest, a Christian Reformed philosopher and a Baptist radical, and somehow we’re all part of the same adventure.

But maybe that begins to sound a little smug and dismissive of the Folk Festival, and I don’t mean to do that. If you are heading out there for the weekend, do have a wonderful time. Enjoy what it has to offer, and savour those things for which you find yourself thirsting at other times of the year. Connect with those old friends, talk with someone new, and enjoy the great music. And if you learn something new about yourself or about life together? Find a way to bring that back home with you, so that it isn’t just left sitting out on the edge of the field at Bird’s Hill Park.

And for the sake of Catherine and her first foray into the festival, I do hope the weather is good. Really good.

Jamie Howison

3 Responses to On not suffering from Folk Festival guilt

  1. I was there for that unlikey iconic trio.
    One year I hosted the Gospel morning …can you believe that?

  2. Ever thought about having a Sunday morning service out there Jamie? Oops, I missed your point. I do hope Catherine will be knocked out and want to attend every year. It creates an opportunity for you to gift her something she will always love to receive, and as a perk for yourself,the three or four days of solitude.
    I found I loved the fest when I was performing, not so much when I was an attendee. Performers do get some exquisite treatment back stage and it is a blast to be among the performers and volunteers. Did it for six years, lucky dog that I was.

    • Jamie says:

      Well Byron, the closest thing to being a part of a Sunday morning service out at the Festival was the year (maybe 1992?) that Unlikely Icon played at the Sunday morning gospel event. For those who don’t recognize that name, it was the trio of Steve Bell, Gord Johnson and Larry Campbell. It was fun, but I have to say that I’d still rather hear them in a small venue, be that indoors or outdoors. But that is just me!

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