Festival of Friends

Sunday 18 August 2013

Nearly thirty years ago, probably before I could talk and probably before I could walk, I got my first taste of Hamilton's music community. Each August, without fail, with coolers and folding chairs slung over our backs, my family spent an entire weekend at Festival of Friends, which for decades took place nestled under the escarpment at Gage Park. We found bits of shade at the festival's workshop stages, over the years seeing Jackie Washington, Brent Titcomb, Paul Langille, Ken Whitely, Willie P. Bennett, and dozens, maybe hundreds more. When day became night, we made our way to the main stage, spreading out the red plaid blanket I still keep in the backseat of our car. We ate ice cream and listened to bands, while I read books by flashlight and dreaded the beginning of the school year that was just around the corner.

As often happens when artists gather together for a weekend to share music and ideas, there was a feeling of community at Festival of Friends, and at times it was even politicised, as when Tom Wilson took to the main stage to protest the Red Hill Valley Parkway. Festival of Friends was full of familiar faces and a sameness that was somehow comforting. No matter how busy our summers were, we returned to the festival every year. But last year, after a string of bad experiences when the festival moved to the Ancaster Fairgrounds, making it inaccessible from the core, we decided not to return, which I thought might be a permanent decision.

This year, with the lure of an alumni stage and a festival museum, we reluctantly returned to see Brent and Liam Titcomb. But instead of feeling welcomed to the festival, I was asked to open my bag so security could look inside before allowing me to walk into the sea of fast-food vendors and retailers selling belt buckles and pleather purses — far different from the local artisans who were once part of the festival. We found the museum and alumni stage, both hidden indoors. I can't help but wonder how the artists who helped build the festival felt about being minimised to memorabilia at a festival that is so drastically different.

I don't think I'll go back, and I'm not under the impression that anyone who runs the festival will care. It's clear that those of us who spent one weekend every August in bits of shade, listening to Jackie Washington, Brent Titcomb, Paul Langille, Ken Whitely, and Willie P. Bennett are no longer the festival's target audience. The nostalgic sap in me is sad that something that was so important to my past no longer exists, but it's Hamilton, and with this city's sense of community, I'm sure it's just a matter of time before something else fills the gap.


  1. Seems like the Festival of Friends had been turned into a commercial festival where every one is a stranger event.

    Too bad. Sounds like it was a fine event in the past. So many things like that are being lost.

  2. Sadly....everything you say here is true.
    For me, it was Scott Merritt.
    I'm not going back either.

  3. Thanks so much for posting this. I'm still trying to figure out how the word "renaissance" connects with the current Festival of Friends.

    In the spirit of preserving a sense of Hamilton's music community, I'd love to share some of your photos from your visit to the Alumni Stage. Have you got some that you could share? I'll post them (or link to them) on hamiltonmusician.com which is dedicated to renewing and connecting all Hamilton area musicians, with each other, and with their past!

  4. Anyone remember "It's Your Bag"? This goes back to the 70's. Very similar to when FofF in the good old days. Lots of craftsmen, leather goods, hand made quality jewelry, TONS of ethnic food and all at realistic and fair prices. Of course there was music....LOTS of music.

    It was free, fun and easy to get to.

    I've not been to FofF since it moved out of Gage Park and will not in future. All accounts from family and friends are negative and almost everyone I know is done with it.

    What a shame...

  5. Agreed...Its not what it used to be.....Its all about the money grubbing clown running it now......Ill never go again.

  6. Thank you all for the comments! It's nice to see that I'm not the only one who feels this way.

    Glen, you're more than welcome to share some photos. I took quite a few. Shoot me an email at notmytypewriter@gmail.com and we can connect.



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