By Joergen Ostensen
The sound of the Campbell Brothers sacred steel guitars filled the air with a hauntingly reverent sound from the Railroad Stage at this year’s American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront. Standing there, you could hear and feel what these marvelous musicians wanted you to experience.
A couple of weeks before the festival, I interviewed Matt Murphy and Joel Mann about WERU’s annual broadcast of the festivals. They kept saying over and over how the festival and the broadcasts created a space for the celebration of diversity and inclusion, something our world sorely lacks.
Getting to be there, right by the stage, really drove the point home for me.
I am writing this column at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, during my fall semester. I am no longer experiencing the beauty we take for granted in Maine: the drives on roads lined with leafy trees, the mountain hikes that overlook the ocean, the sunsets over blueberry fields or the nights where the milky way is so bright it can light your way.
Here in the city, I find myself closer to the pain, sadness, and injustice that plague our world. At this moment it can be overwhelming, as the President is spending billions on a wall to keep refugees and migrants out of this nation; and a man named Ramsey Orta, who filmed the killing of Eric Garner is fearing for his life in a tiny prison cell.
But when I think about the American Folk Festival and the crowd of people dancing to the steel guitars of the Campbell Brothers, I think of it as an expression of hope. That Saturday, August 24, a crowd of mostly white people celebrated as a black band shared their talents and a bald eagle soared over the river in the background. To compound that, a larger number of people had the opportunity to hear the concert on WERU, on the airwaves and Internet.
In my mind it now makes sense to me how WERU offers such a wonderful service by plugging into the stage sound and allowing the musicians to do their thing.
It was not just the Campbell Brothers. While I was there I got to experience the dancing fiddle, piano and bass of Maine’s own Don Roy Trio and the remarkable tap dancing of The Fitzgeralds, who endeavored to take us on a journey to a place under the stars in the Ottawa Valley, Canada. In the car on the way home, thanks to WERU, I kept on listening, this time to the rhythmic beat of the Garifuna Collective.
After the band was finished I was fascinated by the interview one of their members did on the air. He explained the history of the Garifuna culture, how they were taken from West Africa and built a community with the indigenous people on the island of St. Vincent, only to later be banished from there to what is now Belise by the French and English colonial power in the late 19th century.
I found it truly wonderful that WERU provided this artist the opportunity to explain his history to an audience that probably had no idea about the culture. He was clearly an ambassador of his tradition.
“We understand people like you guys,” the Belisian man said about WERU. “And the importance of getting out the right information.”
In conclusion I am tremendously grateful that I had the chance to come to the festival this year, it is an experience I hope I can keep in my consciousness throughout the upcoming year. Despite the problems we are all dealing with, there is always solace to be found in the universal language of music.
While they were on stage, one of the Campbell Brothers, said, “One of the hallmarks of the sacred steel guitar is the ability for these instruments to voice a song in such a way that you would think someone was actually singing the song itself.”
The song that was then played Derek Cambell on the lap steel, Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” truly identifies what the folk festival left my imagination with. That steel guitar did sing those words on the banks of the Penobscot and I believe in my heart that they are the truth.
It’s been a long time, a long time coming… But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.