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Ideas: the difference between a folk festival and a music festival

A needle-felting workshop at PFF 2011.
A needle-felting workshop at PFF 2011. difference between a music festival and a folk festival, and the difference isn’t the kind of music they book.

The difference between a music festival and a folk festival isn’t the kind of music they book.

I can’t tell you what is and is not folk music; like most genres, the definition is shifty and slippery and very personal, and I’m not too interested in what it really is.  And I don’t pay much mind to people who complain that Folk festivals don’t book folk music any more, partially because I think the argument is bullshit, partially because I think that a lot of musical traditions have picked up some of the torches that folk has dropped, but mostly because I don’t think a Folk Festival is defined by the genre of music being performed.

I’ve often said that the music is just how we pull people in; it’s the door that people walk through.  It’s important, don’t get me wrong – my approach to booking is that every aspect of the music, from the songs being performed to the attitude of the artists and their interactions with audience, staff, and volunteers, is vital to the atmosphere of the festival.  But if the music was the reason for the festival, it would just be a music festival, and have about as much impact on the community as a music festival does. ((Which, aside from the financial impact, is not much, in my opinion.))

The Willie P. Bennett mural at PFF 2008 - artwork by Arthur II and the Ottawa/Peterborough communities
The Willie P. Bennett mural at PFF 2008 – artwork by Arthur II and the Ottawa/Peterborough communities

A folk festival, however, does other things.  Ideally, it’s a space to bring together demographics, a multi-generational space where people interact with people in their community whom they might not otherwise see.  It’s a space to remind citizens that their slice of their community’s social life really is small – you know a lot of people in your income bracket, who do similar work to yours and have a similar kind of family.  A folk festival should ideally be a meeting point, where you sit next to people you’d never see normally, and share an experience that takes you outside of your usual milieu.

To that end, I’m a huge fan of non-music programming at festivals; I’m the curious type, who always wants to get their hands on something and try it out.  It’s always been really important to me to include dance workshops, craft workshops, and demonstrations by the local Society for Creative Anachronism or Makers or artisans.  I want to watch as an audience member tries hula-hooping for the first time since they were a kid, or gets an excited light in their eyes when they complete their first row of knitting.

A hand-drumming workshop at PFF 2008, lead by Greg Roy - photo by Tracy van de Kletersteeg
A hand-drumming workshop at PFF 2008, lead by Greg Roy – photo by Tracy van de Kletersteeg

These are moments that stay with the people who experience them; they may never knit another stitch, but there’s a magic in doing something, in learning from another person, of sitting down with a group of strangers in a park on a sunny day and wrapping your brain around a new skill.  It takes people beyond their routine, and hopefully beyond the limitations that they impose on themselves.  And it’s vital that a festival be a safe space to do such a thing.

I feel very strongly that this is something that the music can influence as well; a folk festival provides a safe space to hear music you’d never take a chance on in normal life.  Folk festivals are the one place in Canada that you can see World music outside of major cities; there would be very few opportunities to see a Taiko drumming ensemble or a Bhangra band in most towns.  But the new sounds, approaches, and ideas that these artists can bring to smaller communities are vital – they can ignite a cultural movement, inspiring individuals and groups to see the world and their place in it in a different way.  The cultural cross-pollination isn’t limited to music of different countries, but also within Canada: an artist from the Yukon has a different approach than an artist from Nova Scotia.

A vocal workshop at PFF 2011, led by Curtis Dreidger
A vocal workshop at PFF 2011, led by Curtis Dreidger

A music festival doesn’t accomplish this – generally speaking, the purpose of a music festival is to coerce as much cash out of your pockets and into the hands of the promoters as possible.  The music is whatever music is popular; the prices are high, whether it be admission, merch, food, or a bottle of water. ((And unlike a lot of folk festivals, who are concerned about being environmentally friendly, music festivals always sell bottled water.)) People are there to see their favourite bands, and there’s no attempt to build community.  Usually these festivals appeal to one narrow-but-populous demographic.

There’s a place for that, and a market, and it’s not my cup of tea but I’m not knocking it.  The purpose of those festivals is to be bigger all the time, and they often achieve it admirably.

But a folk festival, when it’s at it’s best, is a mindfully-curated space where connection between people is privileged over dollars or numbers.  We don’t always get there – running any kind of festival is astonishingly difficult, even when it looks simple and easy.  But even in failure, there’s something to be said for the attempt.  And sometimes the parts that you screw up the worst end up being a magical moment for someone – and sometimes, it’s not the stuff you program, but the things that happen in the spaces between the programming, that are most exciting.  It allows for a spontaneous jam in a parking lot that grows to include dozens of musicians, or a power outage that prompts an artist to come down off the stage and play acoustic in the light of a hundred flashlight beams from the audience. ((The latter happened memorably at Shelter Valley Folk Festival a few years ago, and it was an unforgettable moment.))

What a folk festival does is provide a space – safe and sweet and earnest in the least-cool way – for people to connect, for magic to happen.  And that’s why I love them so much.

Does this sound like your festival experience? Please leave a comment below to tell us about it (you’ve got to scroll down below the footnotes!).

The photos in this article were all taken over various years at the Peterborough Folk Festival, which I just happen to have a lot of photos of, but PFF isn’t the only fine example of awesome, hands-on, non-music programming.

This article was inspired by a panel I was invited to speak on at the 2013 Folk Music Ontario conference about Non-Musical Programming – I actually wrote it at the conference, prior to the panel.


  • Brendi Walls

    As a 34 year volunteer at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival I can definitely agree that its the created community that sets folk festivals apart from all other music festivals. People from all walks of life, all ages, all socio-economic realities, all there for one purpose: to partake of the special magic that is a folk festival. It must be experienced to be believed but once experienced its never forgotten. No matter how much we give, as performers, as volunteers, as ticket buyers, the festival always gives so much more. That trio is like a 3-legged stool, all the legs equally important and the best festivals recognize this, creating special moments for everyone in attendance.
    The dawning awareness among the musicians and audience at a workshop stage where Cajun and Canadian East Coast musicians realize that they share the same musical roots is truly wonderous as they start jamming on a song they are creating as they play. Then add some East Texas Swing to the mix and it is phenomenal what happens, with the dancing on the grass beside the stage adding a beautiful visual element.
    There is no food like folk festival food, all yummy, very diverse, exciting. No bottled water here but lots of water stations for people to fill their bottles and cups. Elephant ears, Italian gelato, green onion cakes, dark chocolate dipped frozen cheesecake are the treats I allow myself at the festival. I walk all those calories off every day.
    The crafts are for me an highlight every year as I am a craftsperson. I am awed and inspired by the creativity I see, going home with visions swirling in my head that keep me going until well into the next year, when I am excited at the new offerings at the next festival.
    It is the music that is the one thing that ties it all together but it is not just the music for me and for many others who plan their summers around their favourite folk festivals. It is meeting the people who I only see at the folk festival but count as some of my dearest friends, making new friends, saying farewell to the ones we have lost in the past year. Bittersweet memories that are a part of the magic.

  • David Cavan Fraser

    I think the “vibe” you’re describing is really not specifically “folk” but rather a community vibe instead of a CORPORATE vibe. I love the feeling of community I HATE being milked like a cow.

    I went to Virgin music fest in Toronto a while back, SUCKED. First we had essentially a strip search for ANY food items we tried to bring in (I think they even confiscated water bottles too). Then, there were screens where kids where you could text whatever super-imposed onto the camera shots of the bands, it felt like a terrible cell phone commercial the whole day.

    P.S I’m 29, so when I say kids I mean anyone younger than me.

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