Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winnipeg Folk Festival born out of political idealism

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Aerial view of the Winnipeg Folk Festival grounds on July 11, 1977. (WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

A bearded, chain-smoking radical and an ascot-wearing British architect walk into Winnipeg city hall.

It sounds like the setup for a joke, and in 1974 the idea of an urban Prairie oasis, located 800 kilometres from any other major city and with only a few outdoor concerts under its belt, becoming home to one of the most successful folk festivals in North America probably did seem pretty laughable.

It was Winnipeg's centennial year, so Mitch Podolak and Colin Gorrie weren't the only ones pitching wild ideas for the city to celebrate its 100th birthday.

But Podolak, who'd been producing documentaries for CBC radio at the time, was the only dreamer to approach the centennial committee with cash in hand. He'd gotten $16,000 in startup funds from Paul Mills (a.k.a. Curly Boy Stubbs), an award-winning producer of Touch the Earth, CBC's seminal folk and roots radio show.

"I came in and put the money on the table. They gave me a whack of cash (about $100,000) and we were off," Podolak, 65, recalls of how he and Gorrie, a former soldier with a theatre background, talked the powers that be into supporting the Winnipeg Centennial Folksong Festival.

Still, it was a hard sell, this idea to mount a music festival in a provincial park. Winnipeg's folk music scene in the early '70s consisted of just a few small coffee houses, and for politicians of the day, "folk" was synonymous with "rock."

The pair would need something big to bring everyone on board. Something big like Podolak's personality.

"Ruthless and idealistic, abrasive and charismatic, Podolak created the Winnipeg Folk Festival almost as a singular act of bravado. He continues to keep it alive with the same determination," Steve Johnson and Sheldon Oberman wrote of the festival's co-founder in The Folk Festival Book (Turnstone Press, 1984).

In the book, a Winnipeg Free Press reporter also describes him as "the premier entrepreneur of folk music... a transcontinental telephone screamer and cajoler, ego masseur, bully-boy, fiscal conjurer, seat-of-the-pants strategist, romantic and catalyst for an event that has become a North American institution."

As the authors relate in the book, Podolak came by his twin passions of music and social justice honestly.

The son of immigrant garment workers and classical musicians, his parents were also Communists and the Toronto native grew up with Lenin's books scattered around the family home.

Expelled from school in Grade 9, he soon became a fixture at Toronto's Bohemian Embassy Coffee House where he was introduced to folk singers from across the continent -- and the protest movement.

But the life-changing experience came when his older sister took him to see American folk icon Pete Seeger at Massey Hall. "He blew me out of the room," Podolak recalls. "I discovered what I loved at that moment. I'd been playing classical music because I was forced to, but the next day I went out and traded my clarinet for a banjo."

By the time he arrived in Winnipeg in 1968, Podolak was an experienced union organizer and had toured the country speaking out against the war in Vietnam. He came here because the Young Socialists, part of the Trotskyist youth movement, sent him to start a Winnipeg chapter.

All Communist parties in the world used music to recruit people, Podolak says, including the American Communist Party, which he credits for the North American folk music revival, led by Seeger and Woody Guthrie.

"The Winnipeg Folk Festival is entirely, 100 per cent a product of that," says Podolak, who is still (surprise, surprise) outspoken about his political views.

That one-time free weekend of music he and Gorrie convinced Winnipeg to gift its citizen in 1974 was a "seat-of-the pants operation" that drew a reported 22,000 fans over three days. There were just over a dozen volunteers, mostly recruited from among the duo's friends. The budget was overspent.

But as the event drew to a close on Sunday night, according to The Folk Festival Book, co-host and CBC radio personality Peter Gzowski announced to the crowd the festival was too good to be a one-time thing and he was donating his paycheque to keep it alive. "Suddenly people were standing up waving money. The organizers grabbed baskets to collect it all and the issue was settled," the authors write.

As the 40th annual Winnipeg Folk Festival gets underway (it runs to July 14 at Birds Hill Park; see www.winnipegfolkfestival for info), Podolak reflects on "the real power of the organization."

He refers to the 2,500 or so volunteers who transform Birds Hill Park into a temporary city -- in 2011 the event posted a record paid attendance of 59,324 visitors -- every year, handling every festival task from ticket sales to toilet paper.

"If you take the time to educate a volunteer, by the time two years have gone by, that volunteer is worth 5.1 weekend passes," says Podolak who, seizing another opportunity to slip a little politics into the conversation, mentions that he modelled the volunteer system on the Bolshevik Party of 1917.

"It was the only model I knew," he laughs.

The early years were tough. After three money-losing years in a row, the festival was seriously in debt when Jon Singleton, an accounting student, signed on as treasurer in 1978.

"Sometimes suppliers had to wait a year to get paid. The one thing Mitch insisted on was that performers got paid," says Singleton, who retired as Manitoba's provincial auditor in 2006.

"We probably got rained out more often than not in the first five years. At the time, we were really dependent on walk-up sales."

Singleton recalls one rainy festival where Pete Seeger, seeing the desperation of the situation, told organizers they could keep his performance fee.

While the festival tickets were initially sold through an outside "for profit" company, Singleton and his wife, Barbara Hiebert (volunteer manager for 16 years), set up a volunteer-run box office on site so the fest could reap more of the revenue. They even bought sheriff's badges for crew supervisors and dubbed the front-line staff "bandits," as their job was to put wristbands on attendees. They ran the box office for several years.

Now the couple, who have never missed a folk fest, run "base camp" in an RV behind the main stage, caring for their grandchildren while their daughter and son-in-law work as production manager and site manager, respectively.

Jon and Barbara, along with her sister Lorna and their children, Arwen and Bram (and Arwen's husband Taavo Sults), are the recipients of the 2013 Glass Banjo Award, the Winnipeg Folk Festival's highest honour. The award recognizes volunteers, supporters, partners and organizations that have made extraordinary contributions. The Fairmont Winnipeg is also receiving the award this year. It will be presented at 7 p.m. Saturday on the mainstage.

Lorna Hiebert was one of the key organizers of the first festival. She set up the arts and crafts village, was on staff as office manager until 1979 and then volunteered for the next 25 years, including a stint as stage manager.

Hiebert, 61, can recall the days before "tweener" sets -- solo or two-piece acts that play between mainstage performances -- when crews had to build and strike sets in three minutes, often during live CBC broadcasts. And there was no green room, lounge or much of a backstage area at all, really.

"We always had one person who had to go hunt down the artists because we didn't have a place to keep them back there," she says. "We didn't have a toilet nearby. So we had a pail and some blankets."

Podolak hasn't been directly involved with the Winnipeg Folk Festival since 1986, although he still attends.

"After the 12th festival I decided I needed to go and learn a whole bunch more about music. I was doing the same kind of program over and over and I needed it to change. I had used up what I knew."

So he took a year off and started the West End Cultural Centre. In 2007, he and his wife, Ava Kobrinsky, launched Home Routes, a non-profit arts organization that arranges house concert tours for artists, urban folk clubs and travelling folk shows. It even has two new folk festivals in the works: one in Charlottetown, P.E.I, and one in Kingsville, Ont.

Leonard Podolak, 37, who was born three weeks after the second Winnipeg Folk Festival, says the festival has been a "life-defining" event -- particularly the part where he grew up with folk music legends sleeping on the couch and playing fiddle in the family living room.

"It's where we heard stuff you wouldn't hear on mainstream radio -- or any radio," says the banjo player, who will miss this year's festival because he'll be playing the inaugural Red Wing Roots festival in Mount Salon, Va., with his Juno-winning, Grammy-nominated band, the Duhks.

Like his father, he eschews the "star system." (In the early years, Mitch decreed every performer, no matter how well known, would be paid the same fee.

"The real headliner is the festival itself, and the community," Leonard says. "If you talk to your average 22-year-old attendee, there may be an act on the bill they're excited about seeing, but they're probably way more excited about the good times they're going to have with their friends and the music they'll discover."


Local Winnipeg group Oh My Darling starts the Wednesday night performances.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 11, 2013 C1


Updated on Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 6:38 AM CDT: Replaces photo, changes headline, adds slideshow

9:17 AM: adds slideshow

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