Sean and I had only been dating for about four months when we decided to take the bus all the way from Toronto and across the provincial border to Manitoba for the Winnipeg Folk Festival. By the time we were out of Thunder Bay, I don't think either of us could have fathomed that we were to stick it out together for another three and a half years. It is trying to be on a bus for twenty-four hours, especially when all there is to look at is the endless expanse of trees. Northern Ontario is the most boring place on earth. I much prefer the hopeful, straight-forward horizon of the prairies, or the unexpected turns on slim mountain roads, to the succession of evergreens - the imposing forest through which you can never see the trees or the wildlife or any further evidence of the people who presumably utilise the ever-present power lines. Plus we were exhausted, and trying to combat this with the worst bus station coffee. I still maintain that the best cup of coffee I ever had was at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. I may have just uncovered a reason for this.
Whenever we got upset with one another, Sean would refuse to communicate. I think he reasons that he doesn't want to say anything regrettable when he's angry, but THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT I WANT TO DO! I don't mean that I want to say all kinds of horrible things, but that I want to address things immediately, and immediately also means emotionally, and of course I am either crying or yelling. The wall he would put up would just make me more incensed. And then we'd both get all defensive in the very same way and it would be just horrible. It was like that in Thunder Bay. I can't for the life of me remember what we said we were fighting about; I only remember how I felt, and that sensation of being so far from home with all of that time stretched out ahead of us.
But such were the recuperating powers of a grassy field, a lightning storm, and a beer tent, that we were making jokes about how we almost broke up there when our bus pulled into the Thunder Bay bus terminal on our trip home.
There wasn't anyone either of us were dying to see at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, though I was pretty excited about seeing Dan Bern and Dar Williams. Mostly, I wanted to go because I'd heard great things about the event, and because I wanted to sleep outside in a tent and stay up all night listening to or be woken up by music from within my temporary canvas home. I also wanted to hang out in Winnipeg and have a beer at the Royal Albert, because Rheostatics - my very favourite band - have such a connection to the city and that venue in particular. It was a bit of Canada I hadn't explored as a willing and alert participant and I wanted to see what is was like there. (When I was two, I stopped there with my parents on a cross-country train trip, and I used to maintain that my earliest memory was of zooming my batman hotwheels car across the floor at the train station in Winnipeg, but that seems way too specific to be an actual memory of an experience belonging to a two-year-old.)
A series of frustrations ensued after exiting the Greyhound bus. It took us ages to locate the spot where the shuttle bus would meet us to take us to the field the festival was being held at. Then it took us ages to assemble our borrowed tent. And finally, once we were inside our tent, a downpour that would wreak havoc on the grounds began. A lightning storm on the prairies is a terrifying and mesmerising thing. Watching lightning hit the earth like that - and so close by! - is truly one of the most awesome things I have ever seen. I don't know what Sean was thinking, telling me that story about the time he was camping with his family, as a kid, and lightning hit the metal pole supporting their tent. It was another sleepless night.
The sun was out in the morning. The best cups of coffee EVER in hands, Sean and I went to see some workshops. All of our clothes were soaked, and every step we took was into the slimy, unavoidable mud that the ground had become overnight. But we really didn't seem bothered by that.
Knowing we'd have other opportunities to see Dan Bern, we seriously debated checking out Hawksley Workman instead. We didn't know his music, but had been hearing good things. The eventual deterrent was the press photograph that we thought made him look like an asshole, and thank goodness for that photograph.
In a small tent along with maybe fifty other audience members, Sean and I got to be a part of what remains one of the most moving live music experiences of my life. Expecting "Tiger Woods" or even "Wasteland," Dan Bern blew my mind with his take on the Columbine shootings. There's nothing I can say about what he says in this song. It's explicit. It's perfect. Read the lyrics provided here, if you will. After the storm and the bus ride from hell and the sunny reprieve, the song just stunned me with its immediacy and honesty.
The rest of the week-end was great. We ran into an old friend of mine from Halifax. We got to hear Dar Williams. We were impressed by Martin Sexton. We got drunk but not too drunk. We took pictures of our mud-caked feet and legs. We laughed at our discomfort. We slept in a tent.
But the best part of the whole week-end was hearing Kids' Prayer - this thoughtful and extraordinarily moving song inspired by this very big and terrible thing that happened to a bunch of ordinary kids at an ordinary high school. It made everyone think and feel be glad they got to be there for that performance. It's kind of what I was hoping a folk festival would be like.
Kids' Prayer - Dan Bern
So sad, so sad, the news come our way this morning
Like a bad dream, a dream you never even talk about
In a school, a school, where they send our precious children
The one place of innocence the world might ever let them know
And barely aware of the odds against existence in the first place
Of love and fertility, of risk of a baby being born
And of food and clothes and fear and maybe relocation
Of sickness, recovery, of music lessons, painting the garage
And lingering over eggs and thoughts and sleepy conversations
And plans for the weekend, and one last pause to pet the dog
And a glance at the clock and the grabbing of the sandwich and the notebook
Confident of nothing but the unbroken days that they've been granted
But comes a child, a child so full of anger and hatred
Barely aware of the genesis coursing through his veins
With a gun, a gun, deaf and blind deliverer of madness
Skilled in its efficiency beyond his own unformulated brain
And with his hand in a fist, and his soul in a knot and his heart racing
And his mind sick with images, his slim shoulders finally feeling tall
And his fellow creatures, school kids in their crushes and their daydreams
Struggling to unwrap the ancient secrets of geometry
And he pulls from his coat the instrument to shatter all forevers
In a random blaze of insides and blood and endless now
And boom and flash and more and not even when it's over
Can any of them so much as summon up the sanity to scream
And on the floor his classmates blown down, and choking
As he lays his weapon on his desk, partly sure he isn't dreaming
And all the world descends, and offers up their condolence
And offers up their theories what went wrong and who and why and when and how
It's all the killing day and night on television
It's all the movies where violence is as natural as breathing
It's guns and bullets as easily obtainable as candy
It's video games where you kill and begin to think it's real
It's people not having God in their lives anymore
Or it's all of it, or none of it, or some of it, in various combinations
Now all these theories, sound pretty logical I guess
Though I ain't no scientist, I ain't no dissector of statistics
I ain't no theologist, I ain’t no psychologist or biologist
All I can do is offer up a prayer of my own
Talk to your kids, play with your kids
Tell them your dreams, and your disappointments
Listen with your kids, and listen to your kids
Watch your kids, let your kids watch you
Tell your kids the truth, best as you can tell it
No use telling lies, your kids can always smell it
Cook for your kids, let your kids cook for you
Sing with your kids, teach your kids the blues
Learn their games, teach them yours
Touch your kids, find out what they know
Be sad with your kids, be stupid with your kids
Embarrass your kids, let them embarrass you
Be strong with your kids, be tough with your kids
Be firm with your kids, say no to your kids,
Say yes to your kids, take it easy on your kids
You were a kid not so long ago
There’s things you know, your kids will never know
There’s places they live where you will never go
So dance with your kids, paint with your kids
Walk with your kids, tell stories to your kids
One day your kids, won’t be kids
And maybe they'll have kids of their own
Let's hope they talk to their kids,
play with their kids
Tell them their dreams, and their disappointments….