These days, when it can seem as though a new festival pops up every five minutes on any spare field going, it can be easy to forget that summer wasn’t always this way.
Once upon a time, there was no Glastonbury to entertain the hippies between one flower-power infused summer of love and the next. Before Glasto, in fact before Reading or Leeds and even before mobile phones even existed – let alone decided to hijack live music and turn it into a corporate parody of what it once was – there was already the Cambridge Folk Festival.
The Cambridge Folk Festival has a longer history than Woodstock and the Isle of Wight, let alone Glastonbury. It dates all the way back to 1964.
The Newport Jazz Festival which inspired it goes back even further but Cambridge’s long history has built it a musical reputation so strong that this year the Nick Drake fan club had to apologise to its members for arranging their annual gathering on the same weekend.
As always, 2009’s line-up pushes the definition of ‘folk’ to the limit, with world music, jazz, bluegrass, Indian and Middle Eastern influences sitting alongside the usual plethora of pale skinned English lasses with Pre-Raphaelite tresses and acoustic guitars. Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights’ headliners are The Zutons, Los Lobos and Lucinda Williams respectively, with The Saw Doctors, Booker T, Cara Dillon and Eddi Reader amongst the other notable names on the bill.
Due to a big influx of funding from the Scottish Arts Council, there’s also a distinctly Celtic feel this year, with traditional and modern Scottish folkies popping up all over, and a host of related events including fiddle workshops (oo-er missus!), youth fiddle workshops (call the police! Oh.. they mean cheap violins…) and performances by people with many more letters in their names than the pronunciation warrants (yes, Ruaridh MacMillan, we are looking at you).
Like all real festivals, of course, Cambridge knows that the weekend should be about more than just the music. The 10,000 folkies who descend on Cherry Hinton Hall this year can also enjoy willow sculpture, street theatre and Tai Chi in Coldham’s Common (the local equivalent of Glasto’s Green Fields) in a genuinely environmentally friendly location. The website will even tell you exactly how much cardboard and plastic was recycled last year and, if you really, really care about such things, the festival won a 2008 Greener Festival Award.
To top it off, and to prove that mobile phone global conglomerates don’t have all the fun, this year’s proceedings (and 2010’s) are sponsored by the Co-Op – once a naff supermarket beloved of trade unionists, now reinvented as a bringer of fairtrade coffee to social class C2.
For the younger folkie, the festival also boasts a wealth of wholesome children’s entertainment, including instrument making, face-painting, storytelling and an end-of-festival procession. Unlike Glasto, it even has a creche – hoorah! – where you can dump the brats from midday until 6.00pm each day.
Nothing’s perfect, of course, but the downsides here are relatively bearable: health and safety nonsense about leaving big gaps between tents with no interconnecting gazebos/awnings, combined with a large whiff of sandal-wearing, organic coffee-drinking eco-fascism, but with all festivals now teetering between this and the worse hell of mobile phone sponsorship, it’s the lesser of two evils (just).
There’s something desperately wrong about a hippiefest that dictates the size of your tent (4.5m x 3.5m including guy ropes, or you’re paying double, matey) and the exact kind of camping chair you may and may not bring (see website for photos) but it does have grocery stores and newsagents on site, so it’s swings and roundabouts. Grab a fiddle, catch the free bus from Cambridge train station and enjoy a weekend of music, folk arts and dance. At least its not full of metalheads throwing lager down your back.