They said later it was a mini-tornado. If you’re huddled under a tarp in the middle of an open field when it happens, I can tell you that you’re curiously disinclined to argue semantics when the sky goes black and the air panics toward freezing. You’re busy picking out sentimental favorites as your life flashes before your eyes, thankful that the Sunday morning gospel got you right with God and left you less time than usual to undo that burgeoning righteousness with whatever everyday tribulation usually shucks it off between sermons.
If it was my time, I think I’d have been cool with that. In retrospect, I mean. At the time, with the hail big as quarters dropping like missiles on my knuckles as I held the tarp aloft, all I could muster was a maniacal laugh that probably unnerved my tarpmate, who to that point in our long relationship might still have been persuaded that I was good in a crisis. But thinking back on the long weekend of music, I can see its symphony of people and sun, guitars and dancing, rain and late-night bonfires as a fitting end.
It may surprise you to know that I, abhorer of crowds and the noise they make, would voluntarily join thousands of overfriendly strangers in an endeavor like a music festival. But I grew up in the back yard of one, and once I’d learned their magic, I could never stay away. I have called that one, Merlefest, a pilgrimage, but that’s not quite fair to say — I never had to travel far for it. We were far, far from home, on a farm in upstate New York, when we called down a tornado at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival.
By the Sunday of a normal four-day music festival, I am blitzed. That many hours of nonstop music and conversation — from late morning to around midnight — builds to a pleasant incoherence. At Falcon Ridge, there’s also camping, which means that after the stages go quiet, the tents tune up, fueled toward dawn by liquor, lyrics, and melody. At one point I was lured from a song swap and a few dozen new best friends back to my tent because one of the day’s headliners was visiting with our neighbors, playing favorites and telling stories. There’s a reason none of the stages started up again too early each morning.
That particular Sunday, I rose early to meet up with some people who were planning to participate in a memorial song circle for Dave Carter. Folkies are my people, and I’ve never been quite sure why, but I was never more sure of it, sitting in a circle with a dozen or so men, women, and children, all willing to get up early enough to sing the songs of a dead man to each other, because it’s imperative that those songs continue ringing through the air.
An article of my personal faith: it may be heresy to know the words and not sing them.
I’ve been to enough outdoor music festivals to know what to expect: big crowds, lots of mud, and at least one day of rain. If I am an old hand at festival-going, I imagine the performers are even harder to rattle. So, on that soggy Sunday in July 2008, it was disconcerting to see the face of one such unflappable performer fill with dread, to watch her unplug her guitar and dash toward shelter, to hear her toss an urgent “Run!” over her shoulder toward the huddled masses in the field where a small tornado now threatened to roost.
As I said, I was laughing inappropriately, rocking back and forth, and listening to people scream around me. Our line of sight was severely impaired, so other than a few people rooted beneath a tree (and sometimes gesturing frantically), I couldn’t tell whether or not the field had been vacated. Once the wind hurled itself into a gale, the only other sound was the hail, which I was certain would tear our poor tarp to shreds any minute.
The wind went slack as suddenly as it had arisen. The clouds fast-forwarded through the sky, chased by ill-looking omens behind them. We took advantage of the break to run toward the car. I had long since passed my breaking point and wasn’t entirely convinced that I was still alive. At least, not until I saw the six year olds splashing in the largest mud puddle I’ve ever seen. Apocalypse or no, their glee at getting knee-deep in mud that was surely laced with manure from the farm was life-affirming. They may or may not have been singing.
Please note I am unaffiliated with the loons who shot the footage above.
Every two weeks some friends and I create new posts on the same topic. This week’s synchroblog posts about music are listed below. Please read them, and if you’d like to participate, let me know.