courtesy thecalgarycollection.ca

Folk music not just for cowboys

Local folk music scene is a testament to community and solidarity

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One does not often find a room full of young and old people singing along to the same sappy tune. But Saturday, Mar. 29 saw exactly that during the screening of the Calgary Collection. The collection is a collaborative documentary that was originally released last fall as a web series, which features interviews with several of Calgary’s folk musicians. The film was showcased as part of an integrated performance involving live music and a Q&A with the film’s director.

The web series is now an edited documentary melded into a series of interweaving conversations with local artists Robbie Bankes, Barry Luft, Spencer Jo, Nathan Godfrey, John Leeder, Matt Masters, Tim Rogers and Mike Tod. The film discusses the origins and meanings of folk music and is set to background tunes provided by the artists. The full documentary will be released online in the future, although the individual interviews are on the website for viewing.

Folk music is uncool in the global sense. The melodies are monotonously paced, the characters and settings are unrelatable to a city dweller and the lyrics often roll with a cheesy sentimentality.

Folk music is a primarily white genre of music, having evolved out of European Christian hymns. All of the interviewed artists were white men, as this is the main demographic that produces and enjoys folk.

To many Canadians, folk and country music is a reminder of a bygone legend, an exciting epoch when cowboys were pushing frontiers and laying the groundwork for our cities. But others like myself are reminded of a time when life was considerably worse for ethnic minorities, women and pretty much everyone else — a reminder of stories my father used to tell me of dodging drive-by buckshot in our family’s Saskatchewan restaurant because we were “chinks.” I’ve never found much use for music that glorifies the past.

However, the Calgary Collection is a reminder that music transcends its origins. To many city dwellers, folk music might seem irrelevant, but the interviews with the artists suggest that many genres have more in common than our immediate tastes would have us acknowledge. Many of the featured musicians discuss how rock and pop have affected their own work. Artistic megastars like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen have hybridized folk and opened the door for the next generation of folk singers to incorporate all sorts of auditory eclectic influences.

Whether you view the blending of musical genres as a distasteful bastardization or the happiest logical step, folk’s sound and lyrical content will undoubtedly evolve. Its method of appeal, however, need not.

During the documentary, several of the artists commented that traditional folk music has lost its popularity due to a lack of exposure. Folk music is rooted as entertainment of the most local variety — played in the house, by family, for family. The genre often explores insular settings, like life in a small mining town or local fauna, topics that seem forgotten to an outsider.

While the genre’s traditional format suffers from an inability to entertain a mass audience, the Calgary Collection reminds viewers that this trait is also a strength. In a city that is often derided for its lack of culture, last Saturday saw a sold-out performance involving eight artists who are surviving and developing their craft thanks to their talent, yes, but also because of the personal networks they have built. Never underestimate the power of proximity and community.

The film suggests that to folk artists, the music is as much about people and the times as it is about the sound. There is no reason that the next generation of folk singers will be unable to produce a product that pays homage to its musical foundation while addressing a modern audience. After all, even though the genre might seem to belong in an era of horse-drawn carriages and water in buckets, the best folk often hides timeless commentary on generosity, loss and gumption in the face of adversity beneath old layers of paint.

The local folk music scene will mirror Calgary’s growth. Our biggest festival, the annual Folk Fest held late July in Prince’s Island Park, has already abandoned its namesake in the strictest sense by incorporating artists from a wide variety of genres. While many of these artists have folk influences, this trend reinforces what the Calgary Collection’s screening suggested: the essence of folk music lies in locality and the spectacle of live performance.

With intelligent marketing and hard work, these new artists will continue to produce music that speaks to both the young and old, as folk is one of few genres capable of reaching across the generational gap. I hope that these musicians can find some way to create music for modern tastes without compromising their values, but I doubt this will be a problem. Most folk musicians and those involved in the scene seem to understand why they are there. As Gillian McKercher, the film’s director says, “I care about folk because the stories speak to the heart. Folk music is for anyone and its power is for anyone to recognize their story in the lyrics of a song.”