Last weekend’s Lyle Lovett concert really got me thinking about the tradition of folk music.
Of course, the lanky Texan isn’t generally classified as a folk musician, at least not in the conventional sense of the term. But there’s a point to be made here, so bear with me.
During the course of his concert at the Mount Baker Theatre, Lovett introduced and played songs by songwriters other than himself. Indeed, nearly half his set was devoted to songs by other people. Over the course of his long career, Lovett has become known for paying homage to somewhat obscure musicians, and the songs he covers are often those written by people who made an impact on his life and career during his musical development.
As I watched Lovett do this, it struck me that what I was watching was not merely a performance of carefully chosen cover songs, but I was also witnessing folk in action. Or, rather, folk as a verb, rather than as noun or adjective.
No, I have not taken leave of my grammatical senses. I realize “to folk” is not a term you’ll find defined in any dictionary. My point is more that as I sat in that audience, I realized that the basic tenets of folk music—that of it being a traditional storytelling form that is passed down from generation to generation and, these days, across cultures and geographic barriers—make it a living, breathing, active thing. And when Lovett plays the music of other songwriters, he’s participating in a tradition as old as music itself. And by sitting in the audience as a listener, I was participating in that tradition as well.
In short, by playing other people’s songs, Lovett is doing more than just folking around.
Which brings us to the Mission Folk Music Festival.
For the past 25 years, the Mission Folk Music Festival has been the embodiment of folk in all its forms—whether it be as a verb, noun, adjective or some other part of speech. And folk takes many forms indeed, as this year’s festival will see performers from six continents converge upon the tiny town of Mission, B.C. from July 19-22.
As always, the Mission Folk Festival is broken into several different, loosely coalesced “programs”—the best way, organizers have found, to corral the massive influx of folk from around the world into a form that is manageable for festival attendees.
Musicians from Cameroon to Canada, Argentina to India, Brazil to Asia Minor can be found grouped under the heading of “World Encounters.” Among them you’ll find an “accordion virtuoso with the attitude of a flamenco dancer” (Brazil’s Renato Borghetti and Artur Bonilla), the stunning harmonies of an ensemble that got its start as a group of friends growing up in Chad (H’Sao), the “King of Greenland” and that country’s most popular artist (Rasmus Lyberth), and more.
As part of the “Words & Song” program (a title both broad and explanatory), you can watch performances by (among other people) the first man to ever release a song commercially that features the didgeridoo (Australia’s Shane Howard), a woman who uses her social conscience and strong musical sensibility to craft music in the activist folk tradition (Eliza Gilkyson), one of Canada’s most beloved and well-known troubadours (the award-winning David Francey), as well as Oscar winner, tireless advocate and force of nature, Buffy Sainte-Marie.
The Mission Folk Music Festival also has a long history of featuring Celtic music as part of its varied and eclectic lineup, and this year is no different. “A Congress of Celts” features the Teetotalers, a trio comprised of hugely influential Irish musician John Doyle, as well as Martin Hayes and Kevin Crawford; the highly entertaining Shooglenifty, whose breakneck style of play has been described as “hypno-folkedelic ambient trance” and “acid croft;” and others.
Another program, “Across the Kategatt,” will visit the folk traditions of Scandinavia via the genre-bending music of Denmark’s lively nine-member ensemble Habadekuk, world travelers whose band shares a name—Himmerland—with the region in Denmark that birthed them, and the traditional sounds and unforgettable vocals of Lyy, as well as others from the frosty shores of Scandinavia.
Only two people are involved in the “Aboriginal Voices” program—but those two are powerhouse performers indeed. Sainte-Marie will take the Mission Folk Music Festival stage again, this time to sing the songs of the Native people she’s spent four decades fighting to create awareness of and protect. Joining her in the program (if not onstage) will be Lyberth, the aforementioned “King of Greenland,” who will introduce people to the folk traditions of that little-known country.
The last of Mission’s programs is dedicated to “Hot Licks & Fast Feats,” and here’s where you’ll find a grouping of homegrown folk. Former teen prodigy and member of Ricky Skaags’ Kentucky Thunder Andy Leftwich will bring his traditional bluegrass roots to the stage at Fraser River Heritage Park, as will renowned Canadian fiddler and step-dancer April Verch. Practitioners of what they’ve dubbed “rad trad,” the Fretless, will also take the stage, and the gypsy jazz of Van Django will have no problems getting the assembled masses on their feet and dancing.
Although it’s an undeniably sizey endeavor, all the folk music doesn’t begin and end in Mission, B.C. In fact, some of it is going to stop in Bellingham prior to making an appearance in Mission. Talavya, formerly known as Tabla Ecstasy, is a world-renowned ensemble of hand drummers that lends classical tabla music a contemporary feel. And, as part of a partnership with the Mission Folk Festival to bring more world music to our neck of the woods, the Pickford Film Center will play host to a pre-festival show of the globetrotting group at 8pm Thurs., July 19 at the theater’s Bay Street locale.
Whether you find your folk onstage at the Mission Folk Music Festival or via a performance at what is normally a movie theater or by some other means, as I did, there’s no doubt it is nearly everywhere the eyes can see and the ears can hear. Further, merely by undertaking the act of listening, you become part of a tradition as old as music itself. And that’s no folkin’ around.
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