The Best Medicine: Cambridge Folk Festival 2015

Festivals have always been a time for celebration and enjoyment, but to some of us, they are also a great source of inspiration. I, for one, am forever on the look-out for songwriters and songs that really move me and it always puts a smile on my face when I come across something special, like at the recent Cambridge Folk Festival (30 July – 2 August 2015) – 51 years and still going strong.

Sometimes it is the circumstances of how a band came to be in the first place, which are rather extraordinary, such as with The Lone Bellow from Brooklyn, who really blew me away with their positive energy and thoughtful lyrics, for instance “Green eyes and a heart of gold, All our money’s gone and the house is cold, And it’s alright, it’s alright.” It is often life-changing events that make us take stock of what, deep down, is important to us. The song is also a great reminder that money cannot buy health nor happiness and that every day is a gift (which may be an overused phrase, but I really believe it is).

Peggy Seeger performed at the very first Cambridge Folk Festival and returned after 50 years sharing her wisdom gained during a lifetime filled with music. I was lucky to be at both her set on stage 2 as well as her talk on the Club stage. The interview-style event was a rare opportunity to learn about a past I had only read about in books before. And yet, it was a small remark she made early on during her talk, which struck a real chord with me: “Every child is a singer until someone stops them.” This is so very true about music as well as many of the other (hidden) talents all of us have. I used to love drawing until I came across a very critical art teacher (failed artist?) in my early teens. Recovering these early passions can be a life-long but rather enjoyable process as it is never too late to be creative. Peggy said that, despite health setbacks, she still practises playing about 2 hours each day and her 80th birthday wish was to go on tour with her two sons, which she did. How inspiring is that?

Peggy & Joan

Having never seen Joan Baez live before, I had really been looking forward to her performance at CFF. It was a wonderful experience to be at the very front near the stage with thousands of other folkies singing along behind us to all the folk classics. I surprised myself with remembering pretty much all the lyrics of “House of the Rising Sun”, having sung it many times in Catholic (!) school as a young girl. Of course, none of us had any idea at the time, what the song was really all about. It seemed like Joan and many of the other performers were quite impressed with how passionate the audience was about music and singing; a memorable hour for all of us spent in the very best company.

This was also the case for the Passenger set. Mike Rosenberg, aka Passenger, had started out “busking” at the CFF Guinness tent in 2011 and was back this year, this time as one of the headliners on the main stage (plus a “secret gig” at the Guinness tent for old times’ sake). I enjoyed his humorous on-stage banter and how genuinely appreciative he was about playing such a prestigious event. One line that stayed with me afterwards was “You see, all I need’s a whisper in a world that only shouts” (from “Whispers”). And he couldn’t have put this any better, of course: “I hate ignorant folks, who pay money to see gigs, And talk through every f****** song” (from “I Hate”). To prove this point – or rather the opposite – he sang “The Sound of Silence” and thanked the audience for being so attentive; you could have heard a pin drop even though there were thousands of us gathered there while everyone happily joined in on his hit song “Let Her Go”. Paying attention to details and sharing silence(s) can be a beautiful thing indeed.

CFF 1

Sadly, there is not enough space to list all the songwriting gems I came across throughout the weekend. But let me share one last one, which the title of this blog post is based on and which has been the tune I was still humming on my way back from CFF. The Stray Birds from Pennsylvania are one of those bands who seamlessly manage to merge folk tradition with modern sensibilities. Their song “Best Medicine” (inspired by this awesome US record shop) sums up how I feel about music in general: “If the body is a temple, the soul is a bell and that’s why music is the best medicine I sell.” Just repeat this line aloud a few times and you will see why it is so powerful.

I am forever grateful for the never-ending stream of excellent music coming my way day in and day out. If you dig a little deeper and get below the commercial fare blaring from loudspeakers up and down the country, it will open up a whole new world of music to discover. And once you have tumbled down the rabbit hole of my favourite genre, “good music”, there really is no need to go back.

If there was any common thread with all the artists at Cambridge Folk Festival 2015, it was the passion with which they performed their songs and practised their craft. One highlight after another on three main stages (including the above mentioned as well as John Butler Trio, Rhiannon Giddens, Nick Mulvey, Gretchen Peters, The Willows, and new discoveries Fara, Rura and Lynched) plus a fabulous “fringe” programme at the Den (e.g. The Boundless Brothers, Callaghan & Ciaran Lavery) and even a stage on the campsite (!) made it come pretty close to the dream line-up any of us could have wished for if money and conflicting touring schedules were no object.

CFF 2

The one thing I was most impressed by, however, was the folk fest audience. Every day I would have conversations with fellow music lovers of all ages – the littlest festival attendee I met being only a mere month old – over a meal or a pint. Everyone seemed to have a constant smile plastered across their face, and rightly so. Who needs drugs when you can enjoy such amazing music for four days in a row? One particular festival moment, which is permanently etched in my memory, are the short but hilarious bus trips from the festival site to the campground every evening. The nightly singalong on the upper deck of the bus and the local bus drivers becoming folkie accomplices as we went around a single roundabout again and again and again, was the icing on the cake of an already superlative event. Well done, Cambridge Folk Fest, I hope this (for all the right reasons) successful festival will continue for many, many years to come!

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