Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Queer as Folk Fest

About paying it forward and back

BRIDGING THE GENERATION GAP. 'We don't have any time left to not talk to each other,' says Ferron (seated) with Bitch. The two will perform together at the Vancouver Folk Festival, Jul 18-20. Credit: The Karpel Group - Roberto Portillo Photo

For music fans, the announcement of the Vancouver Folk Festival lineup is pretty much the equivalent of the moment at Christmas when they’re holding a CD-shaped package wrapped in reindeer-adorned paper; they know it’s music inside and they know they’re going to love it, they’re just not quite sure what it sounds like exactly.

So it is with this year’s Folk Fest.

There will be three nights and two full days of music Jul 18-20, there will be queers everywhere — as performers, volunteers and sunblock-wearing attendees, there will be dancing, laughter and community galore. But even the most seasoned music aficionado cannot possibly predict what their highlight will be going in, as the weekend is full of them. In fact, the best moments of the festival often come from musicians that you’ve never heard before, ones that will likely be in your CD library for years to come.

While there’ll be many a strong queer ally on the performance roster (including Michael Franti and Spearhead, who headline the Sunday night), this year’s list of known queer performers is small but mighty.

Dig if you will, a picture. Ferron — a queer hero to many — brave, solemn, gritty and gruff. With 56 years of living, loving and songwriting under her belt, Ferron has been called “the Johnny Cash of lesbian folk singing.” Now add to that mental image a woman named Bitch: multicoloured dreads, punk rock roots, a no-holds-barred musician whose favourite hobbies include shit disturbing and singing about shit disturbing.

When Ferron first saw Bitch at a music festival, she was — putting it politely — underimpressed. “All I could think was, ‘Oh, theatre theatre theatre!’ If anybody had told me that night ‘you are going to be touring with Bitch’ I’d have been amazed!”

From Bitch’s angle, the night she met Ferron, she hadn’t heard a note of her music.

“I was at a concert with Ani [DiFranco] and she said, ‘Uh, you’ve heard her music, haven’t you?’ and actually I hadn’t. Ani was horrified, so I had to get myself an education.”

Upon hearing Ferron’s frank description about their original meeting, Bitch is unfazed. “Ferron and I come from two different worlds,” she notes, “so when she says ‘theatre, theatre’ that is where I came from.

“I was also coming from under a cultural rock in the music scene and specifically in the women’s music scene,” she elaborates. “That is just the story of our society; what our elders are doing is not so easily accessible. That is why I set out to do what I did.”

What Bitch “did” — as the two recall with much fondness — was to “force” Ferron to re-record her music, while Bitch produced it. This re-do allowed some of the legend’s more famous fans a chance to perform with her on her new CD, Boulder. The disc includes re-worked Ferron classics, with an impressive list of contributing guest musicians including Ani DiFranco, the Indigo Girls, Jd Samson (Le Tigre) and many more.

When asked what caused her to re-record the songs in the first place, the endearingly curmudgeonly elder responded dryly, “B cornered me! I wanted to work in the garden, but she wouldn’t let me until I sang 12 songs for her. I sang them as fast as I could, got the hell out of there and never heard the CD until it was done,” Ferron recalls.

Bitch admits that the song choices consisted, quite simply, of all of her favourite Ferron tunes. When asked if there were certain cuts that Ferron didn’t want to re-do, the pair crack up with laughter. “Every single one of them,” Bitch complains. “I was ballsy enough that I wouldn’t take no for an answer!”

Pausing for a serious moment, Bitch admits that she felt compelled to put a year of her time and energy into the project — which is being released on Bitch’s own label Short Story Records label — because Ferron’s historical contributions needed to be passed on to the next generation of musicians in a manner that might make them take notice.

“I wanted to make a record of hers that felt like you were sitting at her feet listening to her sing, stripped-down and very emotionally raw, which is something I hadn’t heard on recordings before but always heard onstage.”

“Exploring and experiencing is the passing of information from generation to generation,” adds Ferron. “Unfortunately,” she notes, “blasé is the new passion and nothing happens in blasé land.

“People like myself who came from a passionate time made a safe place for you spoiled little buggers to come and not have to think about it. What I am earnest about right now is letting the younger and older people see that we are bridging a gap. We don’t have any time left to not talk to each other.”

Ferron and Bitch’s live sets at the Vancouver Folk Festival are absolutely not-to-be-missed. With more onstage sass and fighting than a Tegan and Sara concert, this pair of opposites spars either because they are so different, or because they are so alike.

“We definitely poke a lot of fun at each other,” Bitch acknowledges. “We don’t take each other too seriously and yet take each other in a devastatingly serious way. There’s a lot of conflict and joy there. I am so moved by Ferron’s work, I have dedicated myself to it.”

Asked what she’s enjoying these days, Ferron’s dry comedy comes out in full force.

“I don’t enjoy anything anymore. I’m hardly enjoying this moment,” she sneers, before the two burst into laughter. “We’re sitting backstage by some garbage cans hovering over a cell phone, talking about our ‘exceptional careers.'”

Like Ferron, Faith Nolan has been making a difference in people’s lives for as long as she has been making music. Her commitment to writing songs comes from a place of political consciousness.

In the first few years of recording and performing — now two decades ago — she penned people-empowering tunes including “Divide and Rule” and the queer classic “Freedom To Love.” According to Nolan, singing her messages in the beginning was integral to getting the words heard.

“I learned very early as a young, black, Mi’kmaq, mixed-race kid, people wouldn’t listen to me, but if I sang, all of a sudden, people could hear me,” Nolan explains. “Artistry gives us expression to be seen, heard and validated.”

When Nolan comes to town to play the Vancouver Folk Festival (including a solo set on Sunday afternoon) she’ll also be bringing her messages of community and empowerment to people outside of the fest, including performing a concert for women at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Shelter and participating with a First Nations drumming group at the Fraser Valley Institution for Women.

Nolan admits that her donated work typically exceeds her work-for-pay, but for her, the balance has been an incredibly rewarding one. “Typically, 60 percent of my work is unpaid in the sense of capital, but certainly paid spiritually and ideologically. I do wish I could make more dollars so that I could produce more music of others who have so much to say.”