It’s the birthplace of folk music icons Joni Mitchell, Ian Tyson and K.D. Lang. Indeed, Alberta’s folk music roots go deep. Folk music clubs flourish in communities big and small across the province. And each year, a circuit of hugely popular folk festivals present fresh talent alongside a long list of established local and international artists. If folk, world, blues, rhythm, bluegrass, Celtic, indie and roots music from around the globe gets your toes tapping, then an Alberta folk musical festival should make it onto your musical must-do list. Begin with these.
Calgary Folk Music Festival
Preparing for my home town Calgary Folk Festival is a much-anticipated July tradition: the contents of my backpack include an extra layer of clothes, water bottle, sunscreen, hat, and the current festival program. My camp chair and tarp are slung over the back. Thursday afternoon, I hop on my bike and ride the Bow River Pathway to Prince’s Island Park. It’s here in the heart of the city where thousands of fans like me begin to celebrate four days of folk music.
The festival’s art director invests a full year scoping out emerging artists from Canada and around the world while also securing slots for familiar names. The workshops and side stages are where the magic happens – artists jam with other each other, experimenting with new sounds and creative combinations. What results is an energy and experience reserved exclusively for festivalgoers.
I like to combine my music with delicious food and there are always a wide variety of mouth-watering temptations from the many vendors and food trucks. By evening, everyone unites at the main stage for the grand finale performances (and some dancing and cheering). The highlight of the festival for me is the twilight lantern parade. At dusk, a procession of children carrying handmade lanterns makes its way through the crowd while the last act of the night plays. It’s an enchanting way to wrap up each day.
Edmonton International Folk Festival
Similar to Calgary, Edmonton’s folk festival runs over four days, except it’s in August and the lineup of artists is almost entirely different. Set in the capital city’s river valley, this festival is also largely supported by volunteers and therefore quite affordable. In fact, both cities’ festivals are so popular that enthusiasts are known to camp out overnight to secure prime seating (attendees are allowed to bring tarps, which they can place in front of the main stage area once the gates open each day).
Mountain Folk Festivals
Canmore founded the province’s first folk festival in 1978 and it’s been going strong each August Heritage Day long weekend since. This alcohol-free affair is a family favourite with a free children’s concert, crafts, puppets, and activities that keep little ones entertained along with three days of engaging music set against the spectacular backdrop of the Canadian Rockies. Further north in Jasper National Park and one month later, the alpine town of Jasper hosts a folk music festival of its own. This one’s all about homegrown Albertan and Canadian musicians. The atmosphere is decidedly laidback with yoga in the park, hula-hoop dancing, local artisans and homemade treats.
Small Town Winter Folk
Alberta’s best-kept folk music festival secret takes place in the depths of winter in southern Alberta. Medicine Hat’s weeklong Tongue on the Post Festival features more than 20 concerts, culminating in a memorable gala evening at Medalta, a ceramics factory, working studio and industrial museum, which also happens to be a national and provincial historic site. No matter the season, make sure you add an Alberta folk music festival to your itinerary.