Mill Race Folk Society
Welcome to the WRX Property Group blog! We’ve been looking at some of the fantastic community and cultural opportunities available here in the Tri-Cities (and beyond), and today we’ll be headed to downtown Galt in Cambridge. The specific location, Mill Race Park, has already popped up in our recent ‘Top 5 Parks in Cambridge’ list (check it out here), and in its description we mentioned a special event that takes place there every summer: the Mill Race Festival of Traditional Folk Music. Well today, the time has come to forage further into this fascinating topic, and find out more about the fine folk festival and the Mill Race Folk Society that runs it (and other events) every year.
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Mill Race Folk Society
The Mill Race Folk Society (MFRS for short) was formed officially in 2000. The MFRS is a founding member of the Grand River Folk Community, and a member of Folk Music Ontario. It organizes and runs folk-related events throughout the year, including Pub Sessions at the Argyle Arms (more on that later), a concert series at Thirteen, and of course, the The Mill Race Festival of Traditional Folk Music. The main Festival actually predates the Society: in 1993, artistic director and founder Brad McEwen decided it would be great for Cambridge to have a folk festival like those he had seen during his travels in the United Kingdom. He took inspiration from the folk festivals he’d seen there, and the Mill Race Festival of Traditional Folk Music was born.
The Mill Race Festival of Traditional Folk Music
The annual Mill Race Festival of Traditional Folk Music is the folk event in Cambridge, and it’s truly one of the best events in the Tri-Cities overall. It’s free, it’s accessible, and it has a unique mixture of folk performers every year. Before we get into the details, though, let’s take a look at just what the MRFS means by ‘Folk.’ The idea of ‘Folk’ as a genre has undergone semantic shifts over the decades, and now two distinct ideas tend to come to mind: either an old-fashioned style of lyrically-driven music originating in the British Isles, or a singer-songwriter phenomena originating in the hippest cafés of today and featuring melancholic, lovelorn themes. While Folk certainly can be those things, MRFS has a different definition in mind, both broader and more specific, particularly for the Mill Race Festival of Traditional Folk Music: Folk is music with history, heritage and culture encoded in its very DNA. Folk music connects the present to the past, as songs, styles and forms pass down from generation to generation; it connects the past to the present as modern performers adapt these songs, styles and forms to the modern day. Perhaps most importantly, Folk music is universal, and the Mill Race Festival of Traditional Folk Music is very much about exploring and celebrating the wide range of traditions and cultures manifested and preserved in song, from around the world.
Indeed, the variety of Folk music is part of what makes the Mill Race Festival of Traditional Folk Music so great. Every year, the Society makes an effort to feature performers from multiple cultures and areas, and musicians who draw upon distinct musical heritages. There are many guitars and similarly stringed instruments here, yes, but there is also a range of traditional instruments, some perhaps unfamiliar to audience members. Listening to these unique sounds, and the ways in which they interact with more familiar instrumentation, is a highlight of the festival (but more on that in a bit). The Festival itself started on the Civic Holiday in August, 1993, and it’s run annually ever since. The main performances start in the early evening, and the main stage is in Downtown Galt, at Mill Race Park (a beautiful area with waterfront views and the ruins of an old textile mill, lending it a look reminiscent of the amphitheatres of Antiquity). There are several other locations in Downtown Galt (and indoor venues in case of inclement weather), including the Craft Village Stage, which runs children’s events starting earlier in the day. The Mill Race Festival of Traditional Folk Music is free of charge, it’s quite close to public transit connections (Ainslie Street Transit Terminal, the primary Cambridge transportation hub and one of the GRT’s two central terminals, is a few blocks south), and it’s accessible. All are welcome to join the festivities, which include arts, crafts, food, refreshments, and more. The 2018 Mill Race Festival of Traditional Folk Music commences Friday, August 3rd at 8:00pm, and runs through August 4th (1:00pm – 11:00 pm) to Sunday, August 5th (1:00pm – 10:00 pm). Find out more here; check out the performers here.
The Mill Race Festival is the biggest event, but it’s certainly not the only event: the MRFS hosts a range of smaller-scale performances year-round. One of the best ways to enjoy the MRFS’s brand of folk is through their monthly shows, which take place in the Argyle Arms in Preston (northwest Cambridge). The British Isles Traditional English Music Sessions are on the second and fourth Sundays of each month, from 2-4pm. The intimate setting, the somewhat informal nature (a changing rotation of performers use a variety of instruments, playing a wide range of songs), and the fine food and drink available at the Argyle Arms make it an excellent way to spend an afternoon. And because Folk music is inherently communal, things like improvisation, crowd collaboration, and spontaneity are all celebrated – even encouraged.
Another of the MRFS’s smaller events is the Spring Preview Concert, which is a sneak peek at what’s in store at the larger, summer festival. Unlike the August event, which takes place outdoors at Mill Race Park, the Spring Preview Concert is in the Arts Theatre on Water Street South (a few blocks south of the park). As such, there are limited seats available, and tickets are $20 in advance or $25 the day of. Spring Preview Concerts will vary every year, based on who’s coming to the Mill Race Festival. This year’s Spring Preview features the Vaudevillian, a trio that performs Ragtime classics; Juneyt and El Turko, which consists of Juneyt, a self-taught, Nuevo-Flamenco guitarist from Istanbul, Turkey who will be playing Turkish-themed music with his band El Turko; the North Atlantic Drift, Toronto musicians performing Celtic tunes (among their instruments are Uilleann Pipes, which are essentially Irish Bagpipes); and Northland Rail Service, a bluegrass three-piece hailing from the Tri-Cities, in Kitchener). An impressive variety, and a great way to get acquainted with some of the performers before the three-day Mill Race Festival itself. Find out more here.
Just as the historic section of Downtown Galt in which Mill Race Park stands bears a distinctly European style, so too does the Mill Race Folk Society draw on folk traditions from old Europe, particularly in events like the Argyle Arms musical afternoons. But it’s important to remember that the music at the Mill Race Festival of Traditional Folk Music comes from not just the British Isles, but also far beyond: Mill Race Folk Society incorporates folk music and traditions from a wide variety of cultures, places, and periods. And that’s part of what makes it so much fun, and such an enriching experience. Indeed, Brad McEwen recalls one evening after a Folk Festival that stands out as particularly special in his mind. The show was over, but there was still some time left before everyone had to clear out, and a fairly large group of people was still milling (pun intended) about. Amongst this group of people were a number of musicians, many of whom came from completely different backgrounds and musical traditions, and wielding a wide variety of traditional instruments. The ingredients were all in place for a veritable cornucopia of music, and the varied group of musicians rose admirably to the occasion. Like the first time George Harrison bashfully revealed his sitar to his band mates, a fusion of styles and sounds washed over McEwen and the awed crowd as the musicians improvised in an impromptu performance unlike anything else that had been heard that day. And if that’s not special, I don’t know what is.
Written by Will Kummer