Why Edmonton Folk Music Festival volunteers keep coming back
By Justin Bell | August 3, 2013
In the shadow of the Muttart Conservatory, a mass of exhausted music fans wait inside a makeshift pen, hoping to get the best place in the tarp lottery. Some anxiously grip their tickets – coloured slips of paper with featured band’s names printed on them – while others attempt to swap with their neighbours or try to buy as many as possible, in order to improve the chances of snagging top picks. But most are milling about, clinging to their travel mugs while holding tarps, chairs, bags, hats, water bottles and everything else they’ll need to survive through to the last day of the 2012 Edmonton Folk Music Festival.
Judy Ham stands guard. The coordinator of the “Greetings crew” – volunteers who organize the tarp run lottery – grips a microphone in one hand and a list in the other with surprising energy for 7:30 on a Thursday morning. If not for her bright green T-shirt, Ham could be mistaken for a preacher at an outdoor revival church the way she commands the crowd. They stand in rapt attention, waiting for Ham to call names.
The first few names she calls out receive cheers from those who’ll get the optimal spot to watch Emmanuel Jal and Bonnie Raitt that night, and boos from those who will have to settle for something else. But even as Ham reaches the end of her list, no one is really upset. Everyone will get a good spot.
“The same people come every year and they give me the gears,” jokes Ham, who has volunteered with the Greetings crew since 1999, when a lottery system was put in place to eliminate the campouts that festival attendees used to rely on in order to get the best spots on the hill. Older folkies still remember the “tarp run,” when the campout was followed by a mad dashes for good spots when the gates opened. Now attendees are broken up into small groups and asked to walk to their desired spots. But even in this more civilized version, it still requires two sets of 10 volunteers each to run the lottery without any problems.
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As an account executive for Executrade, a recruiting company, Ham isn’t being forced to donate a little more than four days of her time, don a shirt the colour of Kermit the Frog and become known as the “Lottery Lady.” Yet she does it for two simple reasons: “I just really like music and [volunteers] get treated really well,” she says. “I could afford to buy a ticket, but this way I’m invested in it and feel like I’m contributing something back.”
The chance to volunteer at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival is almost as big a draw as a spot on Gallagher Hill. Before the 2012 tickets went on sale, 75 per cent of volunteer spots were filled. As Vicki Fannon, the manager of volunteers since 1989, puts it: “We could not function without our volunteers.”
The Folk Fest operates with three full-time and two part-time staff members, plus some seasonal hands working over the summer. But even at its peak, that only amounts to 20 employees. Compare that to the 2,200 volunteers and it’s clear that Fannon’s not exaggerating.
Volunteers do everything from securing the perimeter fence to pouring drinks in the beer gardens they divide. The site crew in charge of assembling and tearing down stages and tents alone requires 160 people. Even the food is prepared by a small volunteer army feeding a larger one of 2,500. Since 2009, head chef Stephan Levesque, who runs kitchens at two B.C. lodges as well as on tree-planting sites, is hired to come up with recipes that are nutritious, delicious and, more importantly, easy to prepare so the volunteers can take over without a hitch.
This tent is where the community converges and where people catch up from the year or night before. “The food has always been excellent, and can be quite exotic,” says Herb Gale, a retired project manager and volunteerveteran who has seen everything from turkey dinners to wasabi bean salad and bulgogi.
“There are parties every night that I don’t attend because I’m too old – but they’re awesome. And when you’re not working, you can have free admittance to the grounds.” He adds, “the perks are unbelievable.”
Gale spends his weekends there in a bright orange hat selling raffle tickets for various prizes, including the “golden” and “silver” tarp lottery which award two lucky folkies with first and second dibs on the hill next year. As he trudges through the crowds, he frequently stops to chat when someone familiar flags him down. After all, he’s been doing this for 18 years and usually together with his wife, Cathie. His adult son and daughter used to volunteer, too, but even without them, Herb and Cathie find themselves returning for a kinship of sorts.
“It’s a family. It really and truly is,” says Cathie from the shade of the first aid tent, where she, an ICU nurse, volunteers. “You catch up with people on the hill that you haven’t seen in a whole year.” Together the Gales have watched small children grow up and become adults on Gallagher Hill, and that sense of family is another reason why 80 per cent of volunteers return in those roles.
It’s something Greetings crew member Jennifer Windsor is just beginning to find out. Though she has been attending the festival for 25 years, only the last three have been with a lanyard instead of ticket. “It feels like I’m more invested in the festival as a volunteer,” says Windsor, who cut her Euro vacation short for a chance to volunteer again. “I’m there right from the moment the gates open, before the gates open each day. I never was before I started volunteering.”
Like everyone else, the graphic designer working toward her masters in humanities computing is expected to put in 20 hours of work during the festival, but she also puts in time with the site crews before it begins. And, like many, Windsor was drawn to the festival by friends, though she was hesitant at first. After all, she had never experienced any trouble getting passes for the last quarter century, and eating on your own time is a nice freedom. But now she takes pleasure in the communal means and chance to do something outside of her desk job. “Getting out there with the work gloves on, it’s out of my normal range of experience,” she says. “It’s such a great atmosphere. There’s a real community feeling. That’s the biggest draw.” She adds, “I’ve volunteered for a lot of places, but it’s nothing like this.”
For a few days every August, that small community comes together to put on one of Edmonton’s biggest events. Maybe it’s the chance to see the big-ticket artists, or to reconnect with friends, or perhaps the extra Vitamin D grows their hearts two sizes. Any which way, the 2,200 people who so freely give up their time have become some of the city’s best ambassadors to the music world.
“Performing artists often say that Edmonton Folk Fest is one of the most well-run machines,” says Ham. “They don’t tolerate bad ambassadors to the Edmonton Folk Fest and you have to earn the right.”
The Edmonton Folk Music Festival will run August 8 to 13 at Gallagher Park. This year includes a diverse array of performers, including Bruce Cockburn, Cold Specks, Feist, the John Butler Trio and Steep Canyon Rangers, to just name a few.