Michael McDonagh was at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival
For the first time in 54 years this year the Cambridge Folk Festival teamed up with the Newport Festival.
Such was the blistering heat on the festival site this year that the only difference with Newport was the absence of yachts and the ocean. In fact, the really talented Darlingside, from Massachusetts, had actually also just flown in from playing Newport.
This year’s festival ran from Thursday to Sunday night with two stages and a club tent with other activities on site, so it would be impossible for one person to take it all in.
Rosanne Cash, Patti Smith, First Aid Kit, Peggy Seeger and Irish Mythen had all delighted the audiences by the time I arrived. This year’s really great line up was down not just to the tie-up with Newport but the guest curator, Rhiannon Giddens, who ensured a distinctly American presence on all the stages.
Rhiannon is known as the lead singer, violinist, banjo player and founding member of the Grammy-winning country, blues and old-time music band Carolina Chocolate Drops and appeared in the fifth and sixth seasons of the TV series, Nashville as Hannah Lee “Hallie” Jordan, a social worker with the voice of an angel.
She is married to Irish musician Michael Laffan and the couple have a daughter, Aoife, and a son, Caoimhín, with another on the way, and the family lives in Limerick from where they also divide their time in North Carolina and Nashville, Tennessee.
Rhiannon was ubiquitous as she popped up all over the site giving her own wonderful performance on the main stage but also guesting and joining in various workshops.
Rhiannon is a hugely talented, classically trained, banjo player with a huge knowledge of music rooted in the folk tradition and an excellent choice for the role, she communicated with great charm and demonstrable affection for this very special festival. She is also the perfect embodiment of marrying traditional Irish and European music with the American tradition.
She said: “Recently I’ve been learning an old ballad called Pretty Sara. It is told from the point of view of someone emigrating from Ireland to America and having to leave behind the girl he loved, and his family, and the world that he knows. And that is exactly the experience of immigrants today.”
Daoiri Farrell anchored his Irish folk roots at Cambridge to the main stage with his distinctive traditional music.
He was followed by the warm endearing tones of ‘Barnsley Nightingale’ Kate Rusby, accompanied by the talented Michael Mc Goldrick. Beth Nielsen Chapman, who first came to our attention when the late Terry Wogan championed her remarkable song Sand And Water, written after her husband died of cancer, was magical on the second stage.
Grammy Award-winning singer song writer John Prine impressed but the real star of the whole weekend, for me, had to be Janis Ian, of At Seventeen fame.
This diminutive grey haired feisty American poet and songwriter had last appeared at Cambridge twenty-seven years ago, but what a set. She started off by saying she represented the ‘depressing’ side of folk music and then gave a master class in quality musicianship and artistic talent that started 50 years ago in the folk cellars of Greenwich Village.
She accompanies her poetic gems with guitar playing that would put Eric Clapton in the ha’penny place.
She broke the rules of all festival artists by singing a new, unknown, song as her last song on stage rather than one of her hits…but she had just given a timeless performance of ‘At Seventeen’.
For her last song she hit us all between the eyes with a composition about the centuries of injustices women have suffered, She Is, She Is (Resist). The audience love it as men and women rose to give her a standing ovation.
You may also be interested in: