The Cambridge Folk Festival reviewed by our roving reporter.
It doesn't take much to convince me to pay a visit to Cambridge. Having spent three years studying at the university, the town feels like something of a second home. Within hours of my return, I succumb to its charm and find myself reluctant to leave. I feel like there is still so much to discover, and the Folk Festival is just one of the treasures I have recently unearthed.
Established in 1964, Cambridge Folk Festival is one of the most celebrated and enduring festivals in the world. From its humble origins -- the first festival sold only one thousand four hundred tickets and didn't quite break even. It has grown into an international event that attracts ten thousand people each year and involves more than two hundred event staff.
It takes place just within the city boundaries, in the beautiful grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall. Over the weekend, the gardens are transformed into a charming canvas village: temporary homes occupy the space between mature oak trees, and colorful silk banners and flags line the pathways between equally kaleidoscopic food and craft stalls, offering a wide selection of unusual wares from around the world.
The color and diversity of what you see is reflected in the music that you hear. The festival organizers adhere to a very broad definition of what might be considered 'folk' and, in recent years, the festival has included a selection of country, blues, roots, bluegrass, gospel, cajun, zydeco, jazz, world and klezmer music, as well as the odd pop-star thrown in for good measure.
At the first festival, a late addition to the bill was a young Paul Simon, who had just released I Am a Rock and since then, the caliber of musician eager to play the festival has remained consistently high. Among the artists performing this year were James Taylor, Sean & Delores Keane, Norma Waterson & Martin Carthy, Altan, Kate Rusby, The Oyster Band, Loudon Wainwright, Barachois, Eric Bibb, Tim Van Eyken, Christine Collister, The John Tams Band, Suzy Boguss, Stacey Earle, Nick Cave, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Danu, and The Saw Doctors, to name but a few.
I was also pleased to see a good representation of Scottish Bands including Old Blind Dogs, Salsa Celtica, Shooglenifty, Peatbog Faeries and the Battlefield Band, all of whom proved that the Scots really do know how to party!
The current fashion is to accuse England of having lost its sense of cultural identity and direction. At a time when Scottish, Welsh and Irish identity are being strengthened by political change, many critics claim that the English lack impetus to redefine themselves. Cambridge Folk Festival refutes such criticism and demonstrates that there are aspects of English culture which continue to thrive and develop. East Anglia has always nurtured a strong folk tradition, and this was represented through the five local folk clubs that hosted the club tent, as well as through the values that the festival celebrates.
Cambridge is a city small enough to get to know people quickly, and the way of life allows time to spend developing friendships. This milieu is enhanced and encouraged by the surfeit of public houses, cafés and open spaces, which lend themselves to long hours spent in conversation. The folk festival affirms this state of being, which I have come to associate with the personality of Cambridge. It is small enough to appear intimate and to allow you to make new friends, but there is enough going on that you could never be bored.
It is a credit to the festival that most of the artists are booked to perform several times during the weekend, enabling you to see everything that you want, and encouraging an atmosphere in which artists and punters feel part of a shared experience. There is little sense of hierarchy and on many occasions, artists and punters can be seen making music together, enjoying a drink or just talking.
My abiding memories of the festival are of this friendly atmosphere. Altan's Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh told me how much she looks forward to coming back to Cambridge every year, and how she is always greeted by the same site staff who welcome her with a hug and make her feel so at home. Like her, I'm very happy for Cambridge to remain my second home, and for the festival to become a regular feature in my year. In the meantime, I'm hoping that all subsequent field trips and assignments are as enjoyable as this one.
For current information on The Cambridge Folk Festival, go to www.cam-folkfest.co.uk.