By James Keelaghan
The other day, I was doing research into Canadian folk festivals. Every now and again, I like to go old school on the fact finding. I went to my Canadian Encyclopedia. In the entry for folk festivals, 6 festivals are mentioned-Winnipeg, Vancouver, Edmonton, Mariposa, Miramichi and…Summerfolk in Owen Sound. We’re even a little more prominent in the online version.
When the first Summerfolk debuted in 1976, I was 15 years old. I had never been to a folk festival. There wasn’t one in Calgary. We had a folk scene that was just beginning to take hold. There were house concerts at Lynn and Barry Luft’s place as well as Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy recording a television series at the local TV station, CFAC. There were plenty of clubs with acoustic music, but I was too young to frequent them because they served the demon alcohol.
Over here in Owen Sound, two brothers, Tim and John Harrison decided it was time for a festival. Out of thin air, with the help of friends and volunteers, they launched Summerfolk. It would take Calgary and Edmonton another 6 years to start festivals of their own.
I came to Summerfolk for the first time when I was 25. That was just shy of the 10th anniversary. I was the guitar player for a Scottish folk singer named Margaret Christl. It was the first time I had gigged east of Regina.
At the time, the festival at the time housed performers in a downtown hotel on 2nd Ave E. I have quizzed people about this, but there doesn’t seem to be agreement on what the hotel actually was. I distinctly remember there being a sign on the front that said St James, because a friend and I kept referring to the place as the St James Infirmary. There was a respectable motel attached to the back, but the hotel itself seemed like it might have been used as a squat. All the rooms were funkily decorated. There was an elevator that required an operator and a swimming pool that had been drained. I played a late night game of imaginary water polo in that pool with Odetta, Ron Casat and several others.
The hotel sessions at Summerfolk have always been legendary. I availed myself. I jammed hard on the Friday night with a group of people up in my 2nd floor room.
The next morning, when I arrived on site a woman, who I now know was Sandy Hogg pulled me aside and told me “her crew” had been singing my praises. She wanted to know who I was, precisely and she wanted to hear me sing.
I played the festival another eight times. I came to love it because it marked, in the sweetest way, the end of the summer touring. If you were lucky you started at Bumbershoot or Seattle Folklife in May, and ended up in August, right here beside Georgian Bay. I’ve always loved the fact that Summerfolk made it easy for musicians to play together. Since I took over as Artistic Director, I’ve made it my priority to keep that feel. There is, after all, a four-decade long tradition to uphold.
Since Summerfolk is turning 40, we are going to celebrate with a Birthday Bash!
The first Summerfolk opened on August 20, so the decision was made to crank up the site for Thursday August 20th this year. We are going to celebrate in style! There is a new tent for the Down By the Bay Stage. We’re going to raise the roof with 3 hours of outstanding music from Ottawa’s MonkeyJunk and New Brunswick’s Matt Andersen.
When Matt played the festival 4 years ago, he sold the most recordings of any solo artist in our history. Matt is real. He sings with his entire being. Since then, he has recorded a fantastic new album produced by Steve Berlin ( Los Lobos, Tragically Hip). He’s been keeping up a gruelling tour schedule, but wanted to be with us to celebrate our birthday!
He has over 2 million views on YouTube, platinum-sized independent cd sales, a 2013 European Blues Award, and won Best Solo Performer at the Memphis Blues Challenge. The entire world is now discovering what we at Summerfolk always knew-Matt Andersen is a powerhouse performer with a giant soul-filled voice and commanding stage presence. He has built a formidable following the old fashioned way–touring worldwide letting his reputation spread through word of mouth.
Also on the bill is MonkeyJunk. They are a powerhouse swamp rock R&B band with a fistful of awards and nominations. I’ve been trying to get these guys to the festival for a few years. It’s extra special that they will be making it for our 40th birthday.
You can buy your ticket to the Thursday Birthday Bash as a single night ticket or add it to your weekend pass. All the information you need is at summerfolk.org or on our facebook page facebook.com/Summerfolk
The Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival happens at Kelso beach in Owen Sound August 20, 21, 22 and 23, 2015.
*This article first appeared in the Owen Sound Sun Times on June 5th, 2015