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Natalie MacMaster and Bruce Cockburn

Natalie MacMaster and Bruce Cockburn at Summerfolk

By James Keelaghan

You have to understand that there was a full-tilt party going on. The performers’ bar was like a who’s who of Folk Music — Paul Brady, Mary Black, Maura O’Connell, Aly Bain and Garrison Keillor. The volume was indescribable. People were packed in shoulder to shoulder amidst the fug of cigarette smoke and the cracking of plastic pint glasses. Tables were placed in rough concentric circles around the bar.

She was sitting at a table in the outer-most ring, her eyes hidden beneath the peak of a ball cap. In front of her were some textbooks and notebooks. The seats across from her were empty. A guitar player in Lennie Gallant’s band, Chris Corrigan and I sat down opposite her.
“ What are you doing, Natalie ?” I asked.
“ Studying for my exams,” she replied.
“ What? Here?” I asked incredulously.
“ They’re not going to take themselves.”

I ran into Natalie MacMaster a lot that summer. She was riding high. She was getting main stage slots all across the country and in Europe as well. She was clearly on the edge of breaking big, of becoming the new Canadian fiddling icon, yet she was focused enough to keep up with her studies.

The summer after that, in 1996, she made her only appearance at Summerfolk. She’s been away too long and, after 20 years she’ll be returning to Summerfolk41. A lot has changed since that smoky bar in Denmark 21 years ago, but she has never lost her focus. She knows what she wants and is willing to do the hard work necessary to get it.

Natalie MacMaster Photo 1

Natalie MacMaster will play Sunday, August 21.

All that makes her sound rather serious, but she’s not. She has a great sense of humour and is as much fun as you would imagine someone who was raised in the kitchen party atmosphere of Cape Breton should be–as long as you catch her when she isn’t studying.

Consider this: Her uncle was the legendary Buddy MacMaster, her mother and father are both musicians, her cousin is Ashley MacIsaac and another cousin is renowned fiddler, Andrea Beaton. She comes by the music honestly — it’s an integral part of her. When you watch Natalie, you are not watching one person — you are watching generations of players who have all contributed to what she is now. She’s aware of that history, but she wears it easily.

The best thing about of Natalie MacMaster is that she measures success not by ticket sales or CD downloads. Success is time spent with her family, in hard work completed, and the power of music. Natalie is busy, amongst everything else, raising a family of five.

I grew up in a family a little larger than that. Not being blessed with infinite amounts of space, the way the kids were distributed about the house was a complex algorithm of age and gender. As boys, my brother and I were assigned bedrooms in the basement early on. Strange music would waft down from the bedrooms above and some of the tunes would stick. Going to the Country became the soundtrack of my twelfth summer — a tune I sang quietly while watching the prairies roll away through the back window of the Custom Suburban station wagon. So began my relationship with Bruce Cockburn. It’s been ongoing for over 40 years.

Bruce is the embodiment of the Canadian acoustic music scene for the past four decades. He’s never been content to plough one crop and, by turns in his life, he has been a solo acoustic player, an electric player, a bandleader and a social justice advocate. That is the secret to his longevity as a figure on the Canadian cultural scene — the ability to explore new sounds and new approaches to writing.

Bruce Cockburn will play on Saturday, August 20.

Bruce Cockburn will play on Saturday, August 20.

As a songwriter, there is no mistaking his style, sometimes as regular as any Tin Pan Alley pro, sometimes spilling out lyrics in an unrestrained flow where the words tug and push at the margins. As a guitar player, he has inspired a couple of generations of players. Learning to play Foxglove is a rite of passage for most young Canadian guitarists.

He’s not afraid of politics. We’re living in an era where there is pressure on live artists to leave politics out of the performance. Bruce retains a devotion to a folk singer’s responsibility to sing about issues. He has always done so. From songs like Gavin’s Woodpile or Going Down Slow– another station wagon favourite — to the debate-inducing If I Had a Rocket Launcher, he’s never been afraid to put his ethical heart on his sleeve.

Nor, has he left out the spirit. There is often a note of searching in his songs, a longing for the calm at the centre of the human experience.

Despite the fact that he has been part of my life for so long, to me he is still enigmatic. My memories of him backstage at festivals are from a distance, a solitary figure walking and deep in thought. He is soft-spoken and considered. In another age, he might have been a cloistered poet like Gerard Manley Hopkins.

We are especially happy to welcome Bruce Cockburn and Natalie MacMaster back to Summerfolk after too long an absence. Come on out and enjoy them, but don’t bug them if they are studying.

Bruce plays on Saturday, August 20 and Natalie on Sunday, August 21. You can get information and see schedules at summerfolk.org

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