The Re-Definition of Folk

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by Rick MacDonnell

As Paul Dalhousie touched on briefly in another article, the Edmonton Folk Music Festival has become an institution. It is one of the longest running festivals in what is Alberta's "Festival City", attended by thousands of the same people year after year after year. For them, the Edmonton Folk Fest isn't just an experience, it's a tradition.

In keeping with that tradition, festival organizers have faithfully branded the event as the "Folk Fest" since its inception. But as the years roll on, and new and innovative acts make their mark on Edmonton, the definition of "folk" is getting wider all the time.

Folk Fest ... or Folk Music Fest?

"The name 'Folk Fest' is a bit of a misnomer," said Edmonton's John Fentan, who has been coming to the Festival for the last 22 years. " It offers every musical style under the sun. Which is great, because each year I discover new entertainers and styles of music that I never would have otherwise."

The 2011 lineup included everything from country (The Flatlanders) to blues (Matt Andersen) to alt-rock (K.D. Lang) to celtic (The McDades) to African tradition (Mighty Popo). Throw in some samplings of pop, R&B, and jazz and you're just starting to understand how versatile this "Folk" festival truly is.

So is the Folk Fest becoming something else entirely, or is the genre itself growing?

"It's just music, man," said Matt Andersen, whose brand of bluesy folk stole the show at both the Edmonton and Calgary folk fests in 2011. "But it's not just Folk, though. Blues is getting bigger and bigger, pop is changing all the time. It's a music festival, really. Every festival I go to—whether it's a folk festival or a blues festival or a jazz festival—in the end they're all music festivals because these genres are all blending together. For so long there has been a separation of these genres, but now it's all coming together, which is cool."

The stories they tell

But it's in watching Andersen and co. perform that one gets a sense of what folk really is. It's more about what the music says than how it's said.

Andersen tells a story of how he's not the type of guy to say the right thing at the right time. "It only happened once so I wrote a song about it."

He recently moved east to Cape Breton with his girlfriend to accommodate a new job of hers, and one day she asked him if he regretted it. "It doesn't matter where I am," he said, "as long as I'm with you." So every now and then he plays her that song to remind her that, yes, he did in fact say that.

"I think that 'folk' is defined more by where the songs come from. They're story songs. Folk seems to be a little more personal sometimes."

This combination of wit and romanticism permeates almost everything you hear at a folk festival. Whether it's Edmonton, or Calgary, or Canmore, it's all folk and it's all the same ... except it's all different.

As Andersen says, it's just music, man. Whether you're a fan of folk or not, don't let the name define what this event is: one of Western Canada's greatest musical celebrations.

To check out how varied the lineup is at the Edmonton Folk Music Fest, check out the videos page.