Archive for the ‘vancouverfolkfestival’ Category

Railroading on the Great Divide,
Nothing around me but the Rockies and sky,
It’s there you’ll find me as years go by,
Railroading on the Great Divide.

– Traditional

Reading The Globe and Mail a couple of days ago, I learned that folk-singer Bruce “Utah” Phillips had died on May 23. He had been ill since last summer, so the news wasn’t exactly a surprise. And with his unkempt gray beard, he had always looked a decade or two older than he was, so I had been expecting to hear of his death for some years. But I suppose that one of the consequences of growing older is that you have to watch your heroes die off one by one. And Utah Phillips was certainly once of mine.

As we come marching, marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it’s bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too.

I first heard Utah at one of the early Vancouver Folk Festivals. In fact, except for a concert or two, most of the places I heard him play or talked to him (casually, and so little I would have been surprised to hear that he remembered me) were at one Vancouver Folk Festival or another. He was never the greatest guitar play – no one came to hear him on the guitar, Kate Wolf is supposed to have said when she coaxed him out of retirement when his fingers were stiff – and his voice was never more than adequate. But he was one of those people who know how to put a song across. There was a sincerity and passion in his voice that was infectious. Just hearing it could inspire you.

We have fed you all for a thousand years,
And we hail you still unfed,
Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth,
But marks the workers’ dead.

Another part of his appeal was his material. Few people today know or perform the old Wobbly songs – the material used by the Industrial Workers of the World in their agitation. But, to the extent that anybody does know or perform them, they do so because of Utah Phillips. Often reworkings of popular hymns (“so they made more sense,” as Utah liked to put it), and inevitably attributed (often dubiously) to Joe Hill, they were a glimpse of the past outside the one provided by official history, and often wickedly humorous. “The Popular Wobbly,” “Where the Fraser River Flows,” “We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years” — there was a time when those were the songs I played several times a week, whose words I memorized and whose tunes I went around humming.

I spent my whole life making somebody rich,
I busted my back for that son of a bitch,
And he left me to die like a dog in a ditch,
And he told me I’m all used up.

Occasionally, these forgotten songs would be joined by Utah’s own compositions, such “Enola Gay” “All Used Up” and “The Goodnight Loving Trail.” No doubt influenced by the material he was keeping alive, they were examples for me as a young man of the attitudes I needed to survive and think well of myself. For better or worse, I am who I am today in some part because of Utah Phillips’ songs.

What will I say when my children ask me,
Where was I flying up on that day?
With trembling voice I gave the order
To the bombardier of Enola Gay.

Then there were the stories that he came to tell with increasing frequency as he grew older. Some were tall tales with a hilarious, sometimes political point to them, but the best were stories about his life on the road. Early on, I inferred that Utah was not a natural anarchist or pacificist, but that he had done his best to reshape himself into something like the man he wanted to be. Not being naturally those things myself, I was fascinated to hear the bits and pieces of his life story that he had worked into stage material.

I have lead a good life, careful and artistic,
I will have an old age, coarse and anarchistic.

I remember, too, the outrage at one folk festival, when Utah’s children concert involved stories about how to get meals for free at a restaurant. Somehow, I’m sure that he delighted in shocking the trendy leftist parents as much as he enjoyed talking to the kids.

Hallejuah, I’m a bum, hallejuah, bum again
Hallejuah give us a handout to revive us again.

For about a decade now, whenever we tired of the second and third rate poets and dub artists that the Vancouver Folk Festival seems determined to inflict on us in the name of attracting a younger audience, we could always count on one of Utah’s sessions to provide both solid entertainment and inspiration.

Are you poor, forlorn and hungry,
Are there lots of things you lack?
Is your life made up misery?
Then dump the bosses off your back.

That’s gone now, but that’s not why we’re not going to the festival this year. The reason we’re not going (or one of them) is that we can’t stand the thought of the mythologization of Utah that will undoubtedly be going on. In the process of remembering him, the festival officials are likely to try to turn him into a kindly old eccentric, and, while I can’t say I knew him well (or even at all, really), I know that he was more than that. He was an original, and someone who tried to live what he believed, and he deserves to be remembered with all his human imperfection. I’d like to remember him as he was, so I’ll leave others to the creation of comforting lies about him and remember him by putting on one of his old LPs instead.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me,
Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead,”
“I never died,” says he.

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After several years of online journalism, I thought I was inured to comments about my work. When you’re praised as an unsung genius and as pond scum for the same article a few times, you start to get cynical. But I admit that I was a little overwhelmed when my use of a quote by Ray Wylie Hubbard in my entry entitled “Sweat and grace” brought a friendly comment from Hubbard himself.

Somehow, when I quote somebody, I never consider the possibility that they might reply. The fact that the comment popped up in my inbox while I was listening to Hubbard’s “The Way of the Fallen” made the event all the synchronicitiously spooky.

Depending on your musical taste, that may not mean too much to you. But there are exactly three musical acts I’ve fallen for after hearing less than a single song. The first two were Stan Rogers and OysterBand. Ever since I first heard Hubbard at the Vancouver Folk Festival a few years ago, Hubbard has been the third. His CDs get a lot of play time around our house.

You want to know how much I like Hubbard’s music? Completely inappropriately, Hubbard’s music is filed under Country and Western in most stores. Around Vancouver, C&W still carries overtones of ignorant rednecks. Yet I have been known to search the C&W racks, without even a paperbag on my head to hide my shame, on the off chance of finding another Hubbard album.

That’s how much I like his music.

Hubbard is best known for “Up Against the Wall, You Redneck Mothers,” a humorous work he wrote in the early 1970s. It’s a song that he has since had the occasional regret about, although, as he says on a live album, when he wanders down to the mail box and gets a cheque for it, he feels pretty good about being responsible for the piece. And he has since written songs in much the same vein, such as “Screw You, We’re from Texas.”

But such songs represent only a small part of his range. Even his humor tends to be wryer and dryer these days, as in “Preacher,” when a sinner dumbfounds a minister who has called seeking his repentance points out his woman hanging clothes in the yard and tells him, “I ain’t missing nothing / When she stoop down low,” or in “Mississippi Flush,” a song named for the ultimate hand in poker: “A small revolver and any five cards.”

In a more serious vein, Hubbard is a storyteller, telling gritty stories of the American south with a strong strain of legend and the lore of the blues throughout. It’s no wonder that at least one of his songs, “This River Runs Red,” was partly inspired by a Flannery O’Connor story – there’s more than a little of the Southern Gothic in his work. In “Younger Son,” the narrator is a man with an unwelcome supernatural power; and, in more than one song, he refers to the crossroads where bluesmen like Robert Johnson struck a deal with the devil. And, even when the story is more mundane, there’s often a hint of desperation and long-endured pain in Hubbard’s songs.

If this atmosphere and collection of metaphors was all there was to Hubbard’s work, he would still be one of the great original song writers. But, within these confines, Hubbard manages to slip in a surprising amount of intellectual content and spirituality. In many other songwriters, these elements would seem self-conscious or trite, but Hubbard talks about the Aztec deities in “The Wild Gods of Mexico” or reincarnation in “Stolen Horses,” or the role of the writer in “Knives of Spain” and “The Ballad of the Crimson Kings,” or Rilke in “The Pilgrim” with such naturalness that it’s only afterwards that you do a double-take. Did Hubbard really write about those things in the genre of a popular song? But look at the liner notes, and you’ll see that he did. What’s more, he does so with such casualness that you know that they’ve become part of his thinking.

There’s also a note of what I can only call maturity in his work of the last ten years or so, which is all that is available from his career. I know nothing of Hubbard’s life, and I would hesitate to take references to cocaine and Alcoholics’ Anonymous as based on his personal experience without more details – after all, just because Hubbard writes about such things doesn’t mean they form a major part of his biography.

But unless all powers of observation fail me, I suspect that, somewhere along the line, Hubbard has been through some traumatic times. I also suspect that he has lived through them and developed an existential or stoic philosophy. Listening to Hubbard’s recent songs, you soon realize that they aren’t a young man’s songs – and how rare such perspectives are in popular music, and how much is lost when such voices are banished from one of our culture’s most popular art forms.

So far, I haven’t said much about Hubbard’s music. That’s partly because I’m a writer and tend to respond to words first, and partly because Hubbard is such a strong lyricist.

But I’d be only telling half the story if I didn’t at least mention that Hubbard’s music is as versatile as his words. It’s a little bit country, although far less than you might expect. What’s even more obvious are the strong shots of rock and roll and blues in his work. Some of the blues might be the influence of Gurf Morlix, Hubbard’s producer and sometimes collaborator, but, having listen to both of them working apart, I suspect that their alliance is more a meeting of like minds than a question of influence. And, wherever it comes from, Hubbard’s music is a carefully crafted fusion that is both consistent with its roots and something different than the sum of its parts.

In a just world, a singer-songwriter like Hubbard would have the reputation of a Woodie Guthrie or a Bob Dylan. But perhaps it’s a small consolation for those of us who dislike such unfairness that a corollary of the fact that Hubbard is currently only comfortably successful is that we can still hear him in relatively small settings, where we can properly appreciate his music.

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So here I am at home, propped up in a pool of my own indolence, my skin alive with the ultra-violet of a day outside and blissed out from ten hours of hearing some of my favorite music live. This weekend marked the 30th anniversary of the Vancouver Folk Festival, one of the few times in the year that I genuinely relax as opposed to running errands or fulfilling social obligations in my spare time. The folk festival is the nearest thing to religion we have,” a friend once said, and, over the years, I’ve found that true. And, after this weekend, how I’m going to reconcile myself to another week of heavy keyboard pounding is a bit of a puzzlement to me just now.

What makes the folk festival so special in my year? Partly, it’s the timelessness of the event. We live far enough away from Jericho Park, the beach-side venue for the festival, that we usually only get there on the weekend of the festival. The few times we have, the park has seemed ghostly and deserted. We’re used to seeing it full of thousands of people: the straights, the activists, the lesbians, the families, the hippies-for-the-weekend, and all the rest, all dancing and staggering from stage to stage while the ducks collect in the remotest corner of the marsh, quacking nervously at the invasion and the crows and gulls gather, seemingly delirious at the unexpected smorgasbords.

In my mind, Jericho Park is always that way, so that I can barely distinguish one year from another. If I look closely, I notice that the average of attendees is rising (but not mine, naturally). And, if I strain, I can remember a few days when we huddled under umbrellas and wore toques, grimly determined to get our money’s worth even if we froze or caught colds.

Mostly, though, the festival leaves the impression of one continuous long day of sunshine and salt-ridden air and plants. Sometimes, like this year, the sky is full of the billowing clouds that I sometimes think only exist on the ceilings of Renaissance palaces. Other times, the sky is an unbroken stretch of blue glimpsed through the branches of the trees as I lie back in the grass a short distance from a stage, or an oven that seems to flash-bake the grass as we make weary dashes between the too-few scraps of shade, feeling like survivors of a trek across Death Valley.

At times, we’ve frankly chosen a workshop to attend on the basis of whether it was in the shade — and that, too, adds to the feeling of timelessness. Several times each year, I gaze up a stage, half-unsure what year it is. And with the people around me looking the same, and sometimes the same performers on stage, that’s hardly surprising.

Another thing I appreciate about the festival: It’s not Top 40, and you won’t find most of the performers on iTunes, either. You may hear a sarcastic reference to Led Zeppelin in a group’s between-song patter, or hear someone like Billy Bragg explain that he plays the festival “because even hippies deserve to hear good music,” but that’s about as close as you get to mainstream mediocrity at the festival.

Rather, one of the most enduring aspects of the festival is the discovery of new performers. It was at the folk festival that we first saw Stan Rogers, with his brother Garnet playing the fiddle and dancing as the sunset turned the sky red. It was the folk festival where we first heard the sardonic lyrics of Leon Rosselson and learned to appreciate the lyrics of Eric Bogle. We first saw OysterBand inject a bit of hard rock and showmanship at the festival, and heard Ray Wylie Hubbard’s bluesy mix. Some years are better than others, but every year leads to one or two minor discoveries. And if there’s ever an hour when the workshops seem less than intriguing, we can always choose at random to broaden our minds.

From the traddest of the trad to hard driving punk-folk, the entire spectrum of alternative music is available. You might suffer from musical overload, but boredom isn’t a problem.

And, if this is not enough, the festival is one of the few places where you can hear alternate political views taken for granted. Folk music, as the name implies, is about people and their problems. You don’t hear anyone singing about the joys of capitalism or the pleasure of wielding a CEO’s arbitrary tyranny, because these subjects would only seem suitable to those with a lack of empathy or imagination — and such people don’t become artists of any sort. And should you think that sounds humorless, just drop by one of the sessions where Utah Phillips, the emeritus of the festival, is holding forth about riding the rails or talking about old union figures like Joe Hill or British Columbia’s own Ginger Goodwin. If he doesn’t leave you simultaneously rolling on the grass with laughter, angry at what the history books and newspapers leave out and matter-of-factly convinced of the simple righteousness of his opinions — well, give your address so I can send flowers to your funeral. You can only be dead and too busy to have noticed.

None of this is to suggest that the festival is flawless. I could do without running the gauntlet of ticky-tacky hucksters to get to the gate (although they’re no fault of the festival, to be fair). Inside, the food is over-priced, and, at times, the festival staff picks acts more for their activist credentials than for artistry (I prefer to have both, or neither). And, this year, the outdoor atmosphere was marred by the addition of a giant screen to one side of center stage, which was used to run commercials (excuse me, I mean “public service announcements”) between sets at the evening concerts.

Yet, although I grouse about such things, all of them are too petty to actually spoil the festival. Despite such things, the Vancouver Folk Festival rises effortlessly above all misgivings, as much through luck as any planning by the organizers. Perhaps it’s simply big enough that I can avoid most of what I dislike, even, when, like this year, it’s crippled by debt and on a reduced budget.

But, one way or the other, the festival remains a bubble of timelessness that I return to again and again. It does me good — and, perhaps, makes me good, too.

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