The music is splendid and the setting is spectacular -- with a picturesque harbor and charming Victorian houses built with signature "bump" porches, Lunenberg, Nova Scotia, is a charming vacation destination any time of year. But the attractions of the UNESCO World Heritage fishing port proliferate every August when the village hosts the Lunenberg Folk Harbour Festival. Throughout four days in early August, outstanding musicians from across Canada and the U.S. bring fiddles and pipes, banjos and guitars, voices and dancing feet for hoe down sessions held in picture book sites.
All day long, all over town, strollers hear the strains of Blues, Bluegrass, folk tunes -- Acadian, Celtic, Cajun, Quebecquois -- passed down through generations and mingled with new melodies. In historic sites such as the newly restored Lunenberg Opera House and dramatic wood and stained glass nave of St. John's Anglican Church participants attend lectures, dance and instrumental workshops and 30-90 minute sampler concerts. In the open air, ensembles rotate performances in the replica 1889 gingerbread bandstand and on a riser set up on the wharf with ships sailing past. Each day culminates with an evening main stage concert held in a big white tent near the Blockhouse fortress up on a hill overlooking the sea.
While the daytime concerts overlap, most musicians appear at multiple venues so audiences have more than one chance to follow their favorites. Many of the acts have won Juno Awards, Canada's "Grammys," and several have established reputations: 2012 opening night headliner Ashley MacIsaac performed in the Vancouver 2010 Olympics opening ceremonies, Raymond McLain is a Grand Ole Opry banjo veteran and Lynn Miles was Canadian Folk Music's 2011 English Songwriter of the Year.
This year's audiences gave roaring ovations to harmonica virtuoso Mike Stevens who can manipulate the standard 20 notes on the mouth organ into a range that spans one-third of an entire piano keyboard -- named Canadian bluegrass's "Entertainer of the Year" five straight times in a row he had to be retired from the category. Mollie O'Brian's powerful husky voice added weight and wit to songs from the Beatles and Rogers and Hart and stalwart Jeff Davis introduced each mountain tune with a line or two about its legacy. Traditional groups Finnan Haddie and the Yarmouth Shantymen sang songs of sail and the soil and the three women of Iskwew wearing leather fringed costumes recreated cultural songs of their First Nations ancestors.
After a quarter of a century, the festival deliberately retains its limited size in order to remain a true community project with volunteers taking tickets and families billeting the performers in their homes. The informal comraderie encourages performers to share their talents with each other in spur of the moment jams and welcomes the audience to join in harmonizing on familiar refrains. Plans for next year's festival, the 28th annual, are already set. The theme is "Folk Steps," and the dates are August 8-13, 2013, for visitors who want to plan ahead to look and listen.