6 min

Literary passion

Festival offers queer & political line-up

SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS LYRICS. The Vancouver Folk Music Festival is this city's unofficial annual lesbian picnic. This year's line-up includes two special events organized and hosted by queers Ivan E Coyote and Meegan Maultsaid. Credit: David Ellingsen

We, the queers, hold this truth to be self-evident: for as long as folk music has existed, there have been lesbians fawning over queer females who sing, strum and shake their thang.

From Ma Rainey in the 1920s singing “Don’t like no men” (Prove it on Me Blues) to Ferron and Cris Williamson breaking ground with their unabashed out-ness in the ’70s, to names like the Indigo Girls, kd, Ani and yet others grabbing acoustic guitars and singing their girl-lovin’ guts out, folk festivals have been-and will continue to be-a safe place for left-leaning people from all walks of life to enjoy a common love of melody and socially conscious lyrics.

The passage of time brings with it new traditions. Always, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival remains true to form with plenty of roots music. In recent years, however, the medium of musical storytelling has evolved into new sounds, and the folk fest-now in it’s 27th year-has evolved right along with it. From slam poetry to hip-hop, the way stories are told are more varied–and vibrant-than ever. Enter our local heroes. In one corner, Meegan Maultsaid: unabashed activist, musician and all-around conscious contributor. (In the interests of full disclosure, let me be very clear that you won’t find unbiased opinions here. In nine years of working alongside Maultsaid on Rock for Choice, she consistently has inspired me with her unwavering conviction and commitment to her community.)

In another corner, metaphorically leaning against the post with a cowboy swagger, disarming charm and an incredible ability to see beauty in everyday occurrences, you’ll find Ivan E Coyote.

Coyote also believes in community; his spoken word and storytelling pieces immediately transport you deep within his world. (FYI, having referred to the Ivan as ‘he’ for a few years now, it occurred to me when writing this piece that I should ask Ivan directly what pronoun he would prefer to be used in this piece. “Just use whatever you want,” he says, with a sly smile. “Hell, change ’em up if that’s what you want to do.”)

For this year’s folk fest, each of these two wordsmiths have been asked to program a stage at the local festival. Coyote is taking that challenge and running with it by packing the stage with an afternoon dubbed New Word Order.

“It is a celebration of the power of one human voice, and the capacity for communication and understanding and change inherent in it,” says Coyote. “It symbolizes, for me, artists standing in the way of globalization, multinationals and the commodification of human beings. Plus, it sounds cool,” he laughs. Coyote has put together an incredible collection of talent, from local slam-poets Shane Koyczan and Barbara Adler to Seattle-based truthtellers Tara Hardy and Soulchilde (see report below.)

Maultsaid’s War, Empire and Resistance! workshop is not just an extension of her Under The Volcano event, it is a mantra central to her very being.

“I am all about the idea of taking diverse artists, and creating a political umbrella for them to work under. It usually makes for some pretty intense performances.”

For this year’s Resistance Stage, her choice of artists is reflective of that intensity. “I’m flying in this MC from Toronto named Belladonna, who’s hella political and who, I think, is gonna blow people away. Kinnie Starr and War Party are also part of it, so we’re leaning towards the political hip-hop tip again.”

Frances Wasserlein, executive director of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, admits to an incredible fondness for the pair. “Their names bring a smile to my face,” she explains, warmly. “I like them both very much. I see Meegan’s work in Vancouver and the consequences of it and I have huge respect for her. Her workshops at the folk music festivals are very popular and important, our audiences are interested in and engaged by her stage each year.

“I know Ivan slightly better; I think she is an incredible storyteller and I have as long as I’ve heard her.”

When asked about the impact that she sees both artists making, Wasserlein is unflinching and clear. “I think that what they do is make it possible for some communities of people to plan and present cultural expressions that are extremely valuable in a culture whose dominant economic force would like to homogenize their goals. Ivan and Meegan are people who are the antithesis of what it would be possible to homogenize.”

Wasserlein-an out and proud dyke-has been executive director of the folk fest for seven years. She started out as an audience member and had her mind blown from day one.

“In 1980, I went to my first Vancouver Folk Festival; it was, I think, the third festival. This could be my own mythology, but I believe I was sitting in a garbage bag in the rain, listening to Kate Clinton, surrounded by lesbians, thinking ‘holy fuck, this is really something! I would like to be part of this!’ I signed up and have been a part of every show since then.”

Coyote admits to being bitten by the same festival bug many times as well; his favorite memory, however, is from a performer’s side of things. “Walking on to the night stage in front of I don’t even know how many thousand people, and asking into the microphone, ‘Can you hear me in the back?’ This row of arms goes up, way, way, way at the other end of the field, and I realized ‘holy fuck, they really can hear me in the back!’ I realized then just how many people I was going to be talking to. It freaked the living shit out of me, it was such a rush!”

If you’re getting a sense that Maultsaid and Coyote are artists who are known for much more than their art, well, you’d be right. Sure, Maultsaid fronts hardcore band Che Chapter 127 and Coyote is both a regularly published writer (One Man’s Trash, Close to Spider Man, a monthly column in Xtra West) and recording artist (his new CD You’re A Nation).

But both are also known for their deep commitment to the communities that surround them. Maultsaid has fundraised for dozens of causes over the years, while Coyote is always at the ready to contribute his art to a benefit or person in need. Whether as promoters or performers, the pair’s love and respect for their fellow wo/man is obvious. So where do they go to find their closest allies?

“I would have to say the first community I feel when I feel around in the dark is my community of artists,” explains Coyote. “Other folks who take risks in order to see their creations-whatever they might be-become a reality. I find solace and inspiration in their bravery and belief in their work.”

Maultsaid also doesn’t first point to the queer community when asked where she feels most centered. “For me, I think of the people in the left activist scene, whether they’re straight or queer. Just ’cause someone’s a homo doesn’t make them my ally. I mean, c’mon, some homos vote Liberal. Anyone who votes for cutting funding to queer youth centres, or passing bills that criminalize people living in poverty, I mean that’s a fucking travesty.”

These two strong-minded people speak passionately about their allies. And they both admit to strong feelings when it comes to certain queer-centric concerns.

“There seems to be a lot of attention paid to vanity and materialism,” says Maultsaid. “Being good-looking seems to be, by far, the most important attribute to possess. Then again, I suppose that just reflects society’s values and ideals around consumption and conformity. You have your contingent of people whose lives revolve around going to bars and drinking and partying. If there’s a gay parade they’re out in full force, but if there’s a rally against the occupation of Iraq, they’re nowhere to be found. But I don’t want to sound pious. I mean, I know lots of queers who do political work in their daily lives, really important work, but you wouldn’t necessarily identify them because they’re activists who happen to be queer, as opposed to being queer activists.”

Coyote, too has a relationship of love/frustration with his fellow queers. Lately, he is especially disconcerted by what he describes as “the whole transwomen-not-being-allowed-in-some-women’s-spaces thing.” It upsets him “because it has become so polarized and divisive. There is so much to be learned by both sides on that debate, and I see us not making the best use of this opportunity to understand each other better. I feel really caught in the middle of this issue, due to my own ambiguous-at-best gender status.

“Instead of using the debate to better understand how we are all affected by the enforced gender binary, we fight. There are some powerful questions and answers that can’t be heard over all the screaming. That concerns me, and the fact that I don’t see any solutions some days really makes me sad.”

On the flip side, Coyote is enthusiastic when it comes to the positive aspects of queer evolution. “I feel like we collectively are raising the bar for queer artists, and that makes me feel good. People now can afford to be a little more discerning: queer art can’t just be queer anymore to receive support from the community, it also has to be good. We won’t settle for anything with a homo in it, or written or photographed by a queer (at least I won’t). We expect better things from ourselves and we are getting them.”

More than anything, though, Coyote is inspired by inspiration in others; that’s one thing that he-and all ticket buyers-will undoubtedly see time and time again at the Vancouver Folk Fest.

“When I feel like I’ve already written everything good that’s ever gonna come out of me, I get up and go out for a coffee sometimes and I see them everywhere: the slam poets and bass players and glass blowers and silversmiths and dancers and novelists and we bitch and talk and laugh and then I go home and start all over again.”


Hosted by Meegan Maultsaid.

Sun, Jul 18 at 3 pm, stage 5.