This workshop was special. First of all, it was stacked with giants: Billy Bragg and Sarah Harmer, along with the new generation, Lisa LeBlanc and Leonard Sumner. But secondly, it went on for twice as long (or twice as many songs) as most workshops, with Bragg hustling the group into doing four songs each instead of the usual two cycles.
There are two main meanings of the word "workshop" at folk festivals, and this was the second one — a classic song swap in which one person at a time plays and everyone else listens versus an anything-goes jam that brings together disparate sounds and influences. This kind of workshop is perhaps even harder to pull off, because it relies on a cumulative, collaborative build up of meaning.
Bragg kicked it off provocatively with "Sexuality" — yeah, sex is political — before Harmer kicked it up a notch by pulling out a brand new song she'd written about the Line 9 pipeline that already somehow sounded worn-in on its first play. If Harmer gets you with gentleness, Anishinaabe singer Leonard Sumner, who came next, gets you by going full throttle at the issues — murdered and missing Indigenous women, for instance. His songs are a heartfelt explosion of folk and hip-hop hybrids, framed by spoken word. LeBlanc, the fourth singer in the round, perched at the edge of the stage with her banjo, was sheepish every time the mic was passed to her. "Here's a song about a gold digger," she said, before launching into "Gold Diggin' Hoedown" off her EP Highways, Heartaches and Time Well Wasted. Her contributions, which stuck out, also functioned as momentary reprieves from the intensity of the workshop, especially after Sumner; she was a light-hearted foil for the rest.
For the second round, Bragg played a new song, "King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood," which he introduced by talking about how in Florida they are planning to raise the roads, but not houses, by a meter: "Looks like global warming is a class issue as well, kids," he said. Harmer countered with a song about the people and friendships and solidarity and community that emerge from being involved in protest movements ("The Ring"), and Sumner played a song remembering Winnipeg's 'Homeless Hero,' Faron Hall, who drowned in the Red River — the same river in which he had risked his life previously saving two other people. LeBlanc, in a typically incongruous manner, played her lonesome version of traditional folk song "Katie Cruel."
But that gave Bragg a segue: "I'll tell you what's cruel," he said. "Brexit. It's robbed us of our superiority over Americans." He then launched into Anaïs Mitchell's classic-sounding (yet seven-year-old) "Why We Build the Wall," apropos today given the Syrian refugee crisis and the wall a certain fool wants to build between the U.S. and the Mexican border. Harmer played "Resist War," by Chris Brown, and then Sumner stole the show.
"I wrote this song when I was an angry young man… a few weeks ago," he joked, and received a standing ovation for his flowing "The One." LeBlanc was forced to follow up with "I Love You, I Don't Love You, I Don't Know" off her Polaris shortlisted LP, Why You Wanna Leave, Runaway Queen?
Bragg saved his fantastic update of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" ("The Times They Are A-Changin' Back"), written in response to Trump's inaugural speech, for the bonus round, proving what a resilient structure that song has; it was a powerful moment. Harmer Sang her "Escarpment Blues" and Sumner played "I Know You're Sorry," which ended in traditional chanting. LeBlanc, ever light-hearted, closed the workshop off with "You Look Like Trouble (But I Guess I Do Too)." It was like someone hadn't given her the political song memo, or if they had, she didn't have any to deliver; and yet, there's a tenuous connection between how ungrounded our personal lives are and these uncertain, disconnected times.