Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Folk festival founder unsung hero no more

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It's hard to imagine where folk music would be in Canada without Mitch Podolak.

After 50 years promoting artists and establishing festivals from coast to coast -- including founding the Winnipeg Folk Festival and co-founding the Winnipeg International Children's Festival -- the industry couldn't imagine its existence without him, either.

For his lifetime of work, the Canadian Folk Music Awards has announced Podolak will receive its Unsung Hero award, which will be presented during its awards weekend Nov. 8-10 in Calgary.

"I'm pretty ecstatic. It's a real peer award," Podolak said Wednesday morning.

He figures the honour is also a bit of a lifetime achievement award from the folk music industry, even though he remains an industry player through Winnipeg-based Home Routes, a non-profit home-concerts organization, of which he is executive producer.

"Probably after Estelle died, I'm the old man of the scene," Podolak said, referring to Estelle Klein, the founder of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Ontario. "I sure know a lot of people."

Among those people are folk-music icons, including the late Stan Rogers. Podolak first saw Rogers perform at the first Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1974 and couldn't believe he didn't have a record deal yet.

Podolak believed in the young Maritime singer-songwriter's talent so much he made a financial gamble that eventually paid off for them both.

"Stan was a young songwriter I believed in. I took my last $5,000 out of the bank and borrowed another $5,000," Podolak said in relating the story of how he founded Barnswallow Records, which launched Rogers' career and introduced the public to folk standards such as The Mary Ellen Carter, Northwest Passage and Make & Break Harbour.

"A lot of those songs are still as relevant as hell."

Podolak's connections are still relevant, too. Besides helping establish folk festivals in cities like Winnipeg, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, he's involved as a consultant for a new folk festival project in Kingsville, Ont., and another in Western Canada he was tight-lipped about.

"I've been making sure there's employment for artists -- that's been my task in life," Podolak said.

"Without even thinking about it I've been finding jobs for artists. Now, 50 years later I'm doing it consciously."

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 31, 2013 C17

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