Getting Summerfolked

Thousands of people, arm in arm, singing, swaying, and exuding an aura of peace. Every other person is wearing tie-dye, braids and Birkenstocks are high fashion. Musicians mingle with the audience in the beer tent, colourful people dance as though possessed by fairies. Old friends embrace; new ones greet each other with a warm smile.

Nope, I haven’t morphed back in time to Woodstock, I have simply been to Summerfolk. It’s hard to explain what the magic of this place is, but it’s fiercely addictive.  Summerfolk is a music and arts festival held at Kelso Beach in Owen Sound. It rains almost every year. The nights are freezing and for the first time in months you wonder where your mittens are. There is almost never any toilet paper. This is my happy place.

Peace, love, tie-dye.

I have been making this journey to my Mecca since 1986, a ten-year old running astray in the children’s area. As the years passed, the shenanigans only increased:  I’ve snuck off to watch the sun rise backstage with a dear friend, lied about my age, drank my first beer, hung out with the wrong boys.  I’ve come by it honestly though, those who were meant to be the responsible adults in my life were behaving a million miles worse.  My father has since been called by his name, rather than “Dad”, revoking his right to parent by presenting the most irresponsible (and super hilarious) antics possible. My dad hasn’t gone to Summerfolk in nearly a decade, and still my name is “Oh, you’re Carmen’s daughter, aren’t you?”  His shenanigans are the stuff of legend.

This isn’t your parents’ folk festival. Erm… actually it is.

A number of people will tell you, this is as much about the social interactions as it is about the music.  I have  a Summerfolk family. Before I even get through the gates, I have run into lifelong friends and am swallowed up in hugs. I feel like a celebrity, I don’t go five minutes without a friendly smile and wave. Even the strangers are kind – after dropping my wallet, crammed with the weekend’s pottery and booze budget, it was sent to lost and found within minutes. While I was relieved and grateful, the lost and found lady just shook her head at me. “Oh honey, it’s Summerfolk, what did you expect?”

And the music is stunning – This year, Fred Penner rocked the beer tent. Late night body surfing – yes, at a folk festival. Couples waltzed in a circus style tent. Tunes tumbled out of banjos, fiddles and double basses, escaping the festival grounds, sneaking into the campground across the street. Audiences were brought to tears of joy and sorrow all in one fell swoop.

Yes, that’s Fred Penner. In the beer tent, of course.

The campground has a life of its own. If you’re thinking of going, and don’t mind falling asleep to 4am campfire songs, I can’t recommend it enough. If the idea of dueling campfires appeals to you, this is your place – one softly plays kumbayah songs, while across the path others rock out some Neil Young, all of it funneling bliss directly to your ears. If you’re brave enough, join in – there will be 10 guitars and a choir to accompany you. Patio lanterns adorn crammed campsites, colourful mats and sofas make you feel at home, and the annual feast provided by Jamalaya Dave is worth showing up for. Just tell them Carmen’s daughter sent you.

Jambalaya Dave
I have known this man for decades, but only as Jambalaya Dave From the Campground.

The only thing difficult about Summerfolk is leaving it. The following week the challenge is to keep the glow. To go Sunday, singing arm and arm with thousands at the finale, to Monday morning at the office is far too harsh. I learned years ago that it’s simply the wrong thing to do; Monday must also be a holiday. There are some ways to get through it. Look closely, you will spot a wee braid in my hair. Yes, those are Birkenstocks beneath my desk. Acoustic guitar flows from my speakers. You may even spot a henna dragonfly on the back of my leg.  Sigh, until next year…


A special thanks to John Fearnall from Good Noise Photography for sharing some of his pics. Go check out his stuff, it’s marvelous.


One Response

  1. What a lovely account of the Summerfolk experience, Michelle. It rings with so much truth. My friends and I have come to call the downtime after any intense, transformative, communal folk experience to be a “[insert name of event here] hangover”. Monday is the day to experience and recover from one’s Summerfolk hangover, for sure.

    Also, I’m going to share your blog post through our Facebook and Twitter channels:

    @summerfolk @GeorgianBayFolk

    Come follow us! 🙂

    See you in in 29 days!

    Rachel B

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