Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Northwestern Energy and the Montana Folk Festival

There’s been another oil spill in the world. This time in Alberta’s oil patch[i]. It’s a new kind of spill, not like the old kinds that have limited point sources such as leaky pipelines, busted drill rigs or train wrecks. This one is from an underground bitumen reservoir that has been super-pressurized with thousands of gallons of steam through a process known as “high pressure cyclic steam stimulation”. The heat liquefied the bitumen, the pressure broke up the geology that contained it, and now the liquefied bitumen is spurting uncontrollably into a forest, a lake, a muskeg. There’s no known way to shut it off. In fact there’s no consensus among experts as to exactly what the oil company—Canadian Natural Resources Ltd—has wrought. There’s certainly no way to verify claims by CNR that everything’s going fine with their “clean-up” because no one’s allowed near the spill site to verify or discredit their messaging claims. All we know is what the oil industry in general wants us to know, that by 2020, 40% of all tar sands oil will be extracted using this mysterious, high-risk, high-profit method so get used to it. Starting to sound like the same old song?

Speaking of folk music, I didn’t go to the Montana Folk Festival in Butte again this year. It’s free admission, they have awesome acts and I'm a folk musician. What’s the matter with me?

Well, the matter with me involves the reason I have always wholeheartedly loved and participated in the folk arts at all. As so often happens when a culture that has lost its way and starts missing itself, rather than deal with the issues that fester and alienize, the organizers of the Butte Folk Festival are looking at their bellybutton. 

“We present artists” their performer guidelines instruct “who are firmly rooted in the community from which their music derives rather than ‘interpreters’ of tradition, such as contemporary singer-songwriters or ‘revivalists’ performance groups…” Thus it bills itself as “the story of America”.

In a cultural vacuum, that’s O.K. as far as things like that go, and this is certainly not a critique of the acts at this year’s festival, the volunteers who give of their time or the people who went to it. The performers are always top-notch, and the People have a good time, which is all how it should be. God knows it’s hard enough in this fractured culture to find a paying gig these days. Maybe any days. The problem is not the performers or the people. The problem is that the folk festival is funded, in large part, by Northwestern Energy, and that “folksinger-songwriters” and “interpreters of tradition” need not apply. The organizers--some of them volunteers--are adamant on this point.

The problem is that Northwestern Energy is no vacuum. It’s a high-pressure system[ii]. Consider: In Montana, where Northwestern ever-seeks positive P.R. such as funding “our” folk festival, we seem to actively court--and then ignore--fossil energy disasters. The Yellowstone River spill (the Yellowstone River!!!)[iii] , the Crow Reservation spill[iv] , and recent un-discussions about endless coal trains rolling through oxygen-breathing human communities where childhood asthma is at unprecedented levels. Coal trains that actively and profitably abet the global warming crisis we ignore even in the midst of Western Montana’s unprecedented string of 100-degree-plus heatwaves. Add to these tragedies the spill disasters in Arkansas, Quebec, the Gulf of Mexico, Alberta (ad naseum[v]) within the incredibly short memory span of your average American T.V. viewer and ask yourself whether any of this child-killing, suicidal behavior will get any “folk time” at a folk festival sponsored by an energy giant, especially if “interpreters of tradition” need not apply. Think, please. Was anybody singing about Global Warming a hundred years ago?  

When we consider who defines “culture” and “art” within the context of such an all-encompassing culturally-cultivated disaster as Global Warming, the singular question that we absolutely must pass down to our kids and grandkids has to be no more nor less than this paradox we so willfully avoid. How far, in other words, do we allow ourselves to fall before we become mere caricatures of ourselves? When does perserverence of folk traditions morph into pretension (think cowboy wannabees)? How do we, as individuals and as a culture, creatively question and challenge some of the less-savory values and standards passed from generation to generation before we “as a community” fry our friggin’ selves with our own inherited bigotry. These are “folk” questions that, in our world-devouring corporate culture, need immediate answers.

The Yellowstone River, the Crow Reservation, the coal trains speak to us from generations past, but do we listen? As a contemporary singer-songwriter who not only feels firmly rooted in the culture from which American music derives but who also feels it’s imperative to use one’s rooted “art” to ask just such questions, all I can say about Northwestern Energy’s definition of folk music is “how interesting”.

Global Warming should be the main, if not the only, base and focus for any serious constructive cultural creativity well into the foreseeable and the unforeseeable future. Sure, fun's fun, and I approve of fun. But as a general thing “Art”, as we like to term it, is nothing if not our individual and collective attempts at maintaining a cultural continuum to the point that we create a better, or at least a more understood, world for ourselves and our offspring.

I hesitate to post this, because I can’t seem to write this down without it coming off as merely sour grapes. Maybe so and so be it if so. But as a lifetime folk musician I feel it’s a responsibility as well as a right I took on and then earned when I agreed to give my heart and soul to a thousand and one free gigs for "good causes". Look at it this way. To me, a folk festival tainted by a folk-anti-Christ like Northwestern Energy is like watching a family member on drugs. It hurts.

Today’s Folk Question
Q. What do you call a solar energy spill?
A. A nice day.